Social Justice and the People of God
Much discussion, proclamation, and statements are made on the ideas of social justice, decolonization, rejection of Christian Nationalism*, and other attempts of reconciling the past and present with the Kindom of God. These discussions are often acrimonious and devolve into name calling. It is especially disheartening how many use phrases and terms as pejoratives; often showing ignorance of the ideas behind those terms. What I often hear from fellow pastors is that social justice and seeking to understand how systems harm or how we take part in those systems is "woke nonsense" or even anti-Gospel. This attitude seems its own capitulation to political ideology, which gets wrapped into spiritual import. Unfortunately, many get seduced by syncretism of the left and the right and forget the middle way of Christ. Forty-two years ago, the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene decolonized our missional approach. This was a recognition that other geographic and cultural locations are not inferior or weak, but equal partners. It was a repudiation of colonial thought and practice.
From the Church of the Nazarene statement on history in the Manual:
"The 1980 General Assembly embraced 'international theological uniformity' around the Articles of Faith, affirmed the importance of theological training for all ministers, and called for adequate support of institutions of theological education in each world area. It summoned Nazarenes toward maturity as an international holiness communion within a single connectional framework in which the colonial mentality that evaluated peoples and nations in terms of 'strong and weak, donor and recipient' gave way to 'one that assumes an entirely new way of looking at the world: one recognizing the strengths and equality of all partners.'" I fear there would be an outcry that we were being too "woke" if that idea came before a GA in today's world. This is because of how many approach these same ideas today. If we speak about working to change systems which devalue, oppress, and harm human beings, we are told that we must focus on individual hearts and sin. Yes, individual sin is incredibly important, but there are those who suffer from the effects of systemic and structural sin who need more than individual relief. Jesus was speaking into all areas of the human experience in the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about the transforming life of discipleship. It is not simply about personal interactions.
Some factions within the church argue that we must focus on individual hearts and that will transform our world. That is true to an extent, but as our statement on discrimination mentions; "there is no reconciliation apart from human struggle to stand against and to overcome all personal, institutional and structural prejudice responsible for racial and ethnic humiliation and oppression." (Paragraph 915) The statement calls us to repentance of complicity in those systems. That's not a cultural or syncretic call, but a prophetic call to holiness and God's reconciling justice. Holiness demands that we work to take down those systems which harm regardless of prevailing culture. This means the culture outside and inside the church herself. The Church has always existed within "Babylon." Willimon and Heaurwas speak of this in their book, Resident Aliens. This is not a phenomenon of the last fifty years, but an ontological truth for centuries. Seeking to live in Babylon but not be of Babylon, I am fine being called woke, socialist, or many other things as I work to change those systems and structures which hurt other human beings. The way of holiness is more important than the labels others apply to the work of holiness.
I ahve been wondering why so many oppose teh ideas of social justice and the work to remove systems of oppression and I have had a realizatioon. This is primarily driven by fear. Fear is something which blinds us to truth and to eth work of the Spirit in our world. We can fear many things, but the fear of social justice is rooted within a fear of change or even loss of power. Neither should be a fear of Christians, much less Holiness Christians. We believe that love pushes fear out, because as 1 John says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." The way of holiness and the via media is truly hard. There are those in the American church who wish to hold onto something which never existed; an almost utopian remembrance of a moral past. To cleave to this idea causes dissonance between the words of the Gospel and the practice and words of those who wish to restore a false vision. May we lean into the truth of the Gospel and the hope of a Kindom Come.
Here is the entire statement on discrimination from the COTN:
"Discrimination. The Church of the Nazarene reiterates its historic position of Christian compassion for people of all races. We believe that God is the Creator of all people, and that of one blood are all people created. We believe that each individual, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed, should have equality before law, including the right to vote, equal access to educational opportunities, to all public facilities, and to the equal opportunity, according to one’s ability, to earn a living free from any job or economic discrimination.
We urge our churches everywhere to continue and strengthen programs of education to promote racial understanding and harmony. We also feel that the scriptural admonition of Hebrews 12:14 should guide the actions of our people. We urge that each member of the Church of the Nazarene humbly examine his or her personal attitudes and actions toward others, as a first step in achieving the Christian goal of full participation by all in the life of the church and the entire community.
We reemphasize our belief that holiness of heart and life is the basis for right living. We believe that Christian charity between racial groups or gender will come when the hearts of people have been changed by complete submission to Jesus Christ, and that the essence of true Christianity consists in loving God with one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself. Therefore, we renounce any form of racial and ethnic indifference, exclusion, subjugation, or oppression as a grave sin against God and our fellow human beings. We lament the legacy of every form of racism throughout the world, and we seek to confront that legacy through repentance, reconciliation, and biblical justice. We seek to repent of every behavior in which we have been overtly or covertly complicit with the sin of racism, both past and present; and in confession and lament we seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
Further, we acknowledge that there is no reconciliation apart from human struggle to stand against and to overcome all personal, institutional and structural prejudice responsible for racial and ethnic humiliation and oppression. We call upon Nazarenes everywhere to identify and seek to remove acts and structures of prejudice, to facilitate occasions for seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and to take action toward empowering those who have been marginalized." Paragraph 915, Manual, Church of the Nazarene
It may help to define Christian Nationalism and remind us all that religious nationalism of any kind is a controlling approach to the polis: "an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God." – Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War