Review of Woke Church by Eric Mason

Last year, as part of our church’s efforts to promote racial reconciliation, the congregation was encouraged to read the book Divided By Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. In my review of that book, one of my complaints was that the authors were not up front about their own theological leanings.

This year, one of the books our church has recommended is Woke Church by Eric Mason. Right off the bat, I found myself more favorably disposed toward Woke Church than toward Divided By Faith, because Mason makes no bones about where he is coming from. In the very first chapter, he states his commitment to evangelicalism, and further clarifies the meaning of evangelical by quoting from the website of the National Association of Evangelicals, which lists four primary characteristics: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Although Mason touches on all four characteristics, it is activism that is his main focus in this book. He explains the title of the book as follows.

My desire in this book is to encourage the church to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issue of race and injustice in this country. Pan-Africanists and Black Nationalists use the term “woke” to refer to no longer being naïve nor in mental slavery. We have borrowed the term and redeemed it to be used in the context of being awakened from sin’s effects and Satan’s deception (Eph. 5:14). Thus, the believer is able to be aware of sin and challenge it wherever it is.

Woke is a word commonly used by those in the black community as a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact. This social awareness doesn’t come from just watching the news or reading history through a traditional lens. Being woke has to do with seeing all of the issues and being able to connect cultural, socio-economic, philosophical, historical, and ethical dots. A similar term is conscious.

Later on in the book, he talks about how he finds himself with “one foot in conservative Christianity and one foot in liberal Christianity.”

I found myself exegetically at home with my conservative family on the doctrines of grace, but ethically at home with my liberal family on issues of race and justice. I wasn’t comfortable with conservatives’ silence on ethical issues during virtually every major wave of injustice in America affecting blacks. But I also balked at liberals and the unclear place of conversion in their teachings.

Throughout the book, Mason is careful to begin by laying a biblical foundation for the case he is arguing, focusing on Jesus Christ and the gospel. But he does not stop there, and proceeds directly to the practical implications of the theoretical truths he has just expounded.

So Mason is thoroughly evangelical. He is also—as you may have already gathered—black. If you are a white evangelical, you may wonder whether Mason advocates “color-blindness.” He does not. The first chart in the book is a Venn diagram with three circles: For Mason, the intersection of all three circles is the ideal location, and among other things, it is characterized by the statements, “I am not color blind,” “I am unapologetically black and unashamedly Christian,” “I am willing to work on reconciling with whites,” and “I fight for unity in the church.”

It is clear from the book that Mason is a dynamic preacher, and I believe that I would enjoy hearing him preach. Indeed, much of the book reads like a series of sermons, with vivid illustrations and easy-to-remember lists of bullet points. His personal stories are particularly poignant. He tells of how his eight-year-old son Nehemiah literally cried when he was first exposed to the reality of human trafficking in Libya. He tells of how the church where he first pastored did not reprimand him for what he now recognizes as youthful arrogance, but instead loved him as family. He tells a story from his father’s childhood which, while shocking to many whites, is sadly not at all unusual.

One of the first of his many jobs was as a worker in a dry cleaner where he learned tailoring and dry-cleaning during this time. On one occasion, eight suits came up missing. The owners of the business blamed my dad.

That night, the police came to my grandfather’s home and snatched my father out of bed. They told my grandmother that if she got in the way they would kill her. Her pleas went unanswered as they whisked him away and put him in jail. They beat him to force a confession, but to no avail. My grandmother ran to the home of her white boss. He went to the police station with her, and she almost collapsed when she saw the condition my father was in. He was so brutally beaten that she had trouble recognizing him.

Her boss asked the sheriff what was going on. They explained that they believed my father had stolen eight suits. The gentleman took one look at my father, noticing his age and size, and asked, “How can someone this boy’s weight and size carry eight suits?” The policemen stood dumbfounded. The boss then exclaimed, “What would he do with them?” After hearing the reasoning of my mother’s boss, they let him go with no apology or explanation. Some of these men were likely seen as upstanding men in the community, keepers of the law, even leaders in their churches.

But Mason is not primarily concerned with reciting a litany of injustices perpetrated by whites on blacks. True to his evangelical commitment, after his introductory chapter, he launches right into a discussion of the gospel. After quoting Paul’s capsule summaries of the gospel in I Cor. 15:3–6 and Col. 1:21–23, he goes on to say:

This is the gospel mandate. And we dare not truncate it or reduce it to one of its parts. The danger of reductionism is that it attempts to focus on a single aspect to the neglect of others. That is not the goal of this book. The goal of this book is to shine a spotlight on one of the aspects of the gospel that has been neglected and dismissed as inappropriate for discourse.

That neglected aspect, says Mason, is justice. Mason emphasizes the etymological connection between justice and justification, explaining that justification is not just a position, but a practice—a practice of making right what is wrong in the world. He traces the theme of justice through the whole Bible, showing how justice is part of the character of God and should therefore be part of the character of the church.

In Chapter 3, Mason moves on to the theme of family. Again, he grounds his discussion in the Bible, and he chooses an interesting text to make his point: the book of Philemon.

We can’t miss what Paul is doing. Paul is calling on Philemon—in front of everybody—to exalt Onesimus, his former slave, as a spiritual sibling and co-laborer in the gospel! You know that word would have traveled. What would that do to the other slaves that were under Philemon’s care? Do you think they would be content? They would all be getting saved!

And what would that have done to Philemon’s friends? There would be a lot of conversation over wine, tea, and coffee, where he’s sitting down and hearing, “You let him do what? Who does that? Who has slaves that run away and come back and you reward him? Where does that come from?” Philemon could say, “I’m glad you asked. God has been dealing with my heart about slavery.” “Dealing with your heart? What about your pockets?” “No, man, if I lose, I lose, but God is able to reward even when you give stuff away. Not only did I send him away; he had to get there. He was broke, so I had to give him some resources so he could get there. We took up a church offering for him.” And his friends would have to be thinking, This is weird. I need to meditate on this. Now, that’s how you change a system. You change a system by converting the poor and the elite at the same time.

Martin Luther King had a dream, and Mason does too. He dreams of “the day when we will wake up and realize that we really are family, and we have the best soul food on the planet. We are believers in Jesus Christ, and we have all eaten and drunk from Him. Now we need to sit at the table together and remember that we are family. … Let’s begin by talking about our family history.” In Part Two of the book, which Mason titles, “Be Willing to Acknowledge,“ he recounts some of the tragic history of race relations in the United States. One issue that he singles out is that the white evangelical church was, at minimum, complicit in segregation, if not actively opposing the civil rights movement. Christian colleges such as Bob Jones University went so far as to refuse admission to black students in order to prevent interracial dating and marriage.

White evangelicalism’s lack of involvement in the [civil rights] movement as a whole hurt our long-term relationships with one another. Even to this day, the black church has never forgotten the brash disconnect of Christian conservatism’s silence or verbal support of segregation.

The white church’s eagerness to “move on” without taking time to acknowledge and grieve the past remains a sticking point in relations with the black church. This attitude drives many blacks to turn towards black power movements. Mason says, “Many African Americans have experienced more affirmation of our dignity from black power movements than we have from the church of Jesus Christ.” For this reason, Mason devotes an entire chapter to “Things for the Church to Lament.” Here is his list:
  1. The Fact that the Black Church Had to Be Created
  2. Evangelicals’ Dismissal of the Black Church
  3. Tokenism
  4. Racial Insensitivity in the Academy
  5. Evangelical Perception of Black Preachers
  6. That Justice is Not Seen as a Primary Doctrine
  7. That the Church Didn’t Create and Lead the Black Lives Matter Movement
  8. Diminished Presence on Justice Issues
  9. Not Effectively Equipping the Church to Know How to Engage Black Ideologies
  10. Giving Up on White Christians Who Want to Grow in Their Racial IQ and Contribute to Healing, Resolution, and Restitution
In Part 3, “Be Accountable,” Mason finally turns his attention to the question of what actions we should take to address the problems that he has described. He begins by saying that his dissatisfaction with both conservative and liberal Christianity would be allayed “if conservatives found a unified prophetic voice.” Prophetic preaching, according to Mason, has the following salient characteristics: In a chapter entitled, “A Vision for Change,” Mason lays out a tripartite framework for justice: intervening justice, preventative justice, and systemic justice. To borrow a familiar saying, I would say that intervening justice is about giving a man a fish, preventative justice is about teaching a man to fish, and systemic justice is about reforming the practices of the fishing industry. As always, Mason cites many biblical texts to explain his ideas.

In John 6, the people were hungry, and Jesus fed them because He didn’t want to send them home hungry. That was the part of His message—He wanted to communicate His care for them and then present Himself as the Bread of Life. It’s always connected to the gospel! This is a crucial reminder for intervening justice. We must meet needs and share the gospel. Without the gospel we are no more than social service agencies.

In the category of prevention, Mason talks about providing biblical manhood and womanhood training.

We will need to have biblically based sex education and biblical discipleship of these young women so that we’re not just telling them “Don’t have sex” or “Here’s a condom.” We don’t do that. That doesn’t work, because a condom can’t shield you from the wrath of God, even though it can shield you from STDs. We will need to teach them that they are created in the image of God and have worth and dignity and so much more.

On the topic of systemic justice, one of Mason’s top concerns is education, and breaking what he calls the “school-to-prison pipeline” that ensnares so many blacks, especially black boys.

I’d love our church to be a place where trained, paid professionals educate kids who fall through the cracks, and then reintroduce them back into the school system. That would require the judge to commit them here to stay and submit to our policies. This is a huge gap that the Woke Church can begin to fill.

For predominantly white churches, Mason’s recommendation is to develop partnerships with black churches. As an example, he cites his own church’s partnership with Village Church and its pastor Matt Chandler. A wealthy businessman from Village Church learned of a need for a playground in the neighborhood of Mason’s church (Epiphany Fellowship), and donated tens of thousands of dollars to make it happen. “Kids play a lot out there, and neighbors view it as their playground, not just Epiphany Fellowship’s. We named it Diamond Street Community Park to reinforce the idea that it belongs to the community, not just the church.”

Mason concludes his book not with a checklist of action items, but with a glorious passage from Revelation, giving us a vision of what eternity with God will look like. “This, my friends, is the Woke Church!”

Mason’s enthusiasm is contagious. In just 160 concise pages he has packed an enormous amount of food for thought and ideas for action. His constant references to Scripture are appealing to the evangelical mind, and should reassure any skeptics who might worry that the Woke Church is just a repackaged version of the so-called “social gospel.” I found myself largely agreeing with Mason on almost every page.

There is just one major question that I was left with at the end of the book. Namely, does Mason recognize the implications of fighting for justice in the context of a society that defines the word “justice” in a way that only partially agrees with Mason’s definition? Recall that among Mason’s “Things for the Church to Lament” is that the church did not create and lead Black Lives Matter. I think I understand Mason’s sentiment, but I wonder if he recognizes that tying oneself to a hashtag that can take a life of its own is a double-edged sword. Black Lives Matter, for example, is known for some confrontational tactics that are controversial even among black civil rights leaders. Had Black Lives Matter been a church-founded hashtag, it might have been difficult for the church to distance itself from such tactics and prevent the gospel from being confused with the activities of a particular social movement.

However, there is an even better example of potential conflict between the church’s definition of justice and the wider society’s definition of justice. In my opinion, the social issue today that most strongly defines the relationship between the church and the rest of Western society is not race, or abortion, but the LGBTQ movement. While Mason is primarily concerned with racial justice, it is an empirical fact that if the church starts talking about justice in a public setting today, pretty soon the question will arise as to what the church’s views on gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues are. There is no way to dodge that question, and if the church takes a traditional stance on such matters, then it is going to face enormous resistance from the larger society.

In Chapter 7, Mason talks about the attitude that the Woke Church should have toward the government.

Government officials, based on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:14–17, are appointed by God as ministers, whether they’re saved or not. This means that God appointed them sovereignly, no matter what happened in the voting booth. Ultimately God appoints leaders for a particular reason. Whether they’re good or bad, they’ll be held accountable for their actions. But the people of God are supposed to be active and engaging in the midst of all of this.

The vision for change calls the church to pray mightily for the government of our country. Pray for each leader that God has sovereignly put in place. And then speak truth boldly to those leaders without compromise or watering down the message. Believers in the Bible prayed for leaders they disliked. They prayed for them, but then they challenged them about what was right. I like the way John the Baptist did it. John got in front of Herod and blasted him. And Herod said he liked to listen to him (Mark 6:20). He had everybody go out of the room and said, “John’s about to talk to me.” That’s the disposition of a great prophet who’s willing to speak into and challenge what’s wrong in the culture.

I have no objection to what Mason says here, but I do believe it is easier to talk like this when society and the government are mostly sympathetic to the church’s agenda, at least in principle if not in practice. Despite the many racial problems in the United States today, and the free use of the term “systemic racism” by many activists, Western society basically agrees in principle that all races are equal, and that systematic biases against blacks constitute a grave injustice. In other words, when Mason calls for racial justice, he is basically swimming in the same direction as the larger society. On the other hand, churches that take a traditional view of sexuality and marriage are decidedly swimming against the current. If such churches take Mason’s message seriously, speaking boldly without compromise like John the Baptist, then they may very well end up as John did—with their head on a platter.

I do not know where Mason stands on LGBTQ issues. He is, after all, primarily concerned with racial injustice. But it is naïve to think that the church can become a prophetic voice for justice in society at large just by focusing on racial justice, without also taking a stance on justice as the LGBTQ movement defines it. (I am reminded of Lisa Sharon Harper, who also struck me as curiously naïve about the LGBTQ movement.) If Mason wishes to have a comprehensive theology of justice, and if that theology runs counter to the prevailing view of justice in our society, then he needs to be woke not only to the injustices being perpetrated in society, but woke to the very real possibility of persecution.
Posted July 2019

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