By / Feb 21

Years ago, as my wife and I were renovating our house, we met an African American gentleman who came to help with one of our projects. We welcomed him into our home and left him to do his work. After he finished the job, we began to talk. He graciously thanked us for the hospitality and mentioned it was not always the case. Upon my inquiry, he proceeded to describe some horrendous experiences he had endured as a Black man in people’s homes in our small Southern community. Some wouldn’t allow him in their houses, others watched him like a hawk, and others spoke in passive but incredibly derogatory ways toward him as he worked. He even told us that there were certain areas in town that he asked not to be assigned because Confederate flags fly proudly in front yards, which is still far too common for those of us who call this place home.

As Christians, the ways that this man had been treated should turn our stomachs and push us toward a righteous resolve to rid our communities of these abohorent and blatantly sinful attacks on the dignity of our fellow image-bearer. And while racism isn’t as open and obvious as it once was in our nation, it is still painfully present even if in more subdued or subtle forms. Many Christians today often feel caught between the realities of racism in our society and the calls for social justice that at times are at odds with the biblical social ethic. On one hand, some tend to argue that racism is nonexistent or at least not a prominent issue facing the church — often being seen as a secondary or tertiary issue to other cultural and social issues in Christian ethics. On the other hand, much of what is promoted in terms of social justice today does not accord with true social justice, biblical defined which is rooted in the inherent dignity of all image bearers and redemption through the cross of Christ.

How is a Christian to navigate these questions today of standing against racism but not losing biblically grounded justice? Scripture makes clear that racism in any form is a grievous sin before our Holy God and is to be repudiated in the strongest of terms, wherever it is found, by the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Rev. 14:6). As Christians seek to walk through these complexities and tensions, we must keep two overlapping truths together. First, biblically grounded social justice is central to the gospel message being rooted in the imago Dei. And second, downplaying social justice or failing to address the outworkings of sin in our society is a repudiation of the Christian social ethic (Psa. 89:14).

Social justice and the gospel message

The concept of social justice has at times been hijacked by the wider culture to stand for causes or to justify actions contrary to the biblical message of human dignity and the reality of sin. Christians rightly decry how the term has been overly politicized and has been taken up to promote causes that degrade true human flourishing and the common good in our society. Some calls for social justice reduce all of human existence to power dynamics or push radical social agendas that are designed to normalize hyper individualism and complete moral autonomy. But we also must be honest that the gospel message has likewise been hijacked by some — especially in the past — to support or even promote the horrors of slavery, segregation, and the continuation of unjust policies that seek to define someone’s value and dignity based on their skin color or background. Injustice is an affront to God and his character no matter where it is found.

The Christian moral tradition clearly illustrates that the gospel message is the good news that Jesus Christ lived the life we were created to live and died the death we deserved to die in order to give us everlasting life in relationship to God for eternity. It also makes clear that this message of new life in Christ contains wide-reaching and life-altering social implications for all of society which is rooted in the God-given dignity of all people (Gen. 1:26-28). The personal aspects of the biblical ethic directly inform the social aspects because we are individuals living in community with one another. We each bear immense responsibility for pursuing truth and upholding justice in our society. As new creations in Christ, we are to model for a watching world what Jesus meant when he called his people to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (2 Cor. 5:17; Matt. 22:37-39). Overlooking our neighbors or passively allowing injustices to be perpetrated is completely contrary to this command by God to stand for the vulnerable and downtrodden in our communities as we seek to biblically defined justice wherever injustice is found.

An ethic to make the world tremble

As the world-class evangelical Protestant theologian and ethicist Carl F.H. Henry boldly stated, “Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness.”1Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. IV. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979, 551. For Henry, social justice is a key part of the gospel message because it is the outworking of the Christian social ethic grounded in the imago Dei and modeled by the Church throughout a host of social justice issues such as racism, caring for vulnerable children in the womb, or decrying the killing of the elderly in the name of “dignified death.” Rightfully defined in this era of immense confusion over the social aspects of the biblical ethic and the nature of responsibility, the Christian social ethic is robustly pro-human dignity in every aspect of society, even those deemed not worthy of respect or honor by the culture around us.

This vigorous and unadulterated biblical social ethic must be retrieved in each generation as new challenges arise and questions of human anthropology are being asked in light of the quest for moral autonomy and even in the face of modern technological developments. Henry, speaking of the nature of the gospel and the Christian social ethic, once wrote that we must “confront the world now with an ethic to make it tremble, and with a dynamic to give it hope.”2Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift toward Neo-Paganism. Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1988, 166. This practically means that we recognize sin and the distortion of human dignity wherever it may be found, as well as the hope of reconciliation that we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In an age of rampant moral autonomy and hyper-individualism, the Church must see and proclaim that sin is not simply an isolated personal issue, but something that is pervasive throughout every single aspect of society. Thus, we must not only articulate a vision of biblical justice but also seek to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). We must ensure that our words align with our actions as we proclaim a message of hope in a sin-torn world longing for redemption. As the prophet Micah reminds us, the Lord has spoken and commands that as his people we are to “love justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our God]” (Micah 6:8).

  • 1
    Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. IV. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979, 551.
  • 2
    Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift toward Neo-Paganism. Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1988, 166.
By / Feb 8

Social justice is a polarized topic in these divided times. The issues that are associated within this discussion are important and should be evaluated from a biblical perspective. Dr. Thaddeus Williams, an associate professor of systematic theology at Biola University, helps us do that in his recent book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. Below, he answers questions about justice, identity politics, and the role of social media in our conversations.

Jason Thacker: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What got you interested in a lot of these topics, and why did you end up writing this book?

Thaddeus Williams: I teach systematic theology at Biola University, and I’ve always considered myself sort of a generalist fixated on how the lordship of Jesus applies to every square inch of life. So from where I’m coming from, there’s really nothing out of bounds or any territory of reality that Jesus doesn’t declare “mine.” I’ve been interested in literature and art, and with most of my books, I sort of want readers to be confused and ask, “What am I reading? Is this apologetics? Is this systematic theology? Is this church history? Is this literature? Is this poetry?” And the answer is yes, it’s all those things. Because again, if Jesus is Lord over every square inch, then we should reflect that as best we can. 

So when it comes specifically to questions of social justice — which is my latest book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth — I noticed in all the speaking and traveling, I do, some version of the problem of evil [would come up], with the top question being “How can a good God exist when the universe is so messed up?” But in the last four to five years, that’s shifted pretty dramatically. Some version of “How do Christians think biblically about social justice?” has now taken first place. So the first motive behind the book is realizing there are a lot of Christians out there seeking biblical clarity on these questions.

And I’d say a second big reason was seeing a lot of friends and students of mine getting swept up into certain social justice ideologies, and they just slowly became unrecognizable to me. The fruit of the Spirit — love and joy and peace and patience — slowly got replaced with bitterness, rage, resentment, assuming the worst of other people’s motives, and self-righteousness. I was scratching my head and trying to get to the bottom of it. I realized, at the root, there are a lot of very trendy ideas about social justice that are on the rise these days. And I’m convinced a lot of these ideas are a direct assault on a Christian worldview and directly undermine Christian character.

And one of the final reasons is a lot of the stuff I was reading out there was super polarized. For example, if you think racism exists, then [some think] obviously you’re a far-left, snowflake, social justice warrior Marxist. Or, you might think something isn’t as racist as it’s cracked up to be, so you’re [labeled as] an alt-right, fascist, neo-Nazi or something. And I’m only slightly embellishing there. These days, that tends to be the way these conversations go. So, I hoped to put out a resource that could actually draw Christians together to think it through biblically and as charitably as possible.

JT: In the book, you lay out a biblical vision for social justice, and you make the case that social justice isn’t optional for the Christian. Can you help us understand a little bit of a biblical understanding of social justice and the role of the imago Dei?

TW: Just think of how many passages where God doesn’t suggest, but rather commands justice. “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed” (Jer. 22:3). And most of us are familiar with Micah 6:8. It’s not, “What does the Lord suggest of you?” It’s, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is a running theme from the Old to the New Testament — to do justice. 

So I argue that there’s no such thing as a private injustice or even a private sin that won’t, in some way, affect others. Because both sin, by its very nature, and injustice, by its very nature, are corrosive. They send out a destructive ripple effect on the people around us. So, in a way, all injustice is social injustice in the sense that it affects people around me. And the flip side of that coin is also true. If I’m doing real justice, it’s going to bless the people around me. 

JT: Can we use the term social justice, especially since the term has been co-opted by ideologues? 

TW: The term was invented by a Christian thinker a little over 200 years ago. And if it’s being used and abused today, well, let’s reclaim it and inject those letters with biblical content. Throughout my book, I draw a very basic distinction that runs throughout. On the one hand, social justice, simply defined as the kind of justice that’s compatible with the biblical worldview. But on the other hand, a lot of what’s on the rise these days is what I call “social justice b,” which is deeply incompatible with the biblical worldview. 

So, what are some of the marks of biblical justice? Think of that famous wedding passage where Paul’s describing love (1 Corinthians 13). Paul says that real love is not easily offended. I would say, for example, that’s one mark of biblical justice; it’s marked by a slowness to take offense. This social justice movement that we’re seeing on the rise today is the exact opposite. It actually encourages and inspires people to take offense. By [it’s adherents’] standards, the more offended you are, the more virtuous you are. 

A second point of distinction of biblical justice is going to start with the pride-leveling reality from Paul’s argument in Romans 3 when he says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A biblical approach to justice isn’t going to play these kinds of inner-tribal identity group games of saying, “Well, I’m in the good group. We’ve been oppressed. You’re in the bad group, and you’re the oppressors.” Rather, it’s sort of like a wrecking ball that smashes far-left and far-right versions of identity politics where my economic status, skin tone, or my XX or XY chromosomes will determine the worth and value of what I have to say. A biblical view knows we’re tragically united in Adam. But then there’s this new identity in Christ that draws people together from every tongue, tribe, and nation. So a biblical approach to justice is going to give us a foundation for real, meaningful unity that you just won’t find in the “social justice B” alternative. 

How does the image of God fit into all that? If I’m starting from a biblical perspective, then even the people I most passionately disagree with are not enemies on the battlefront of a culture war. Instead, I need to see them at a deeper level. I need to see them theologically and through biblical lenses where this person is an image-bearer of God. And when that clicks, it’s really hard to keep playing the name-calling game, the mudslinging, the assuming the worst about everybody who disagrees with me. If you look at the “social justice B” alternative, there just isn’t a category for the imago Dei. It lends itself more readily to being able to use some pretty dehumanizing language to describe people who don’t agree.

JT: Let’s dig a little bit into some of the issues surrounding identity politics and the elevation of group identity over and against biblical categories of being in Adam or in Christ. One of the criticisms that a lot of Christians have of the social justice movement broadly is the elevation of this group identity. Help us to think through some of the valid elements of understanding group dynamics in the ways that certain groups have been disenfranchised over time, and at the same time realizing that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. How do we navigate some of the tensions between those worldviews?

TW: I’m going to resort to my mentor, my friend, the living legend of the Civil Rights Movement, John Perkins, who, as you mentioned, was kind enough to to write the foreword to my book. And he shares four basic points. Number one, we’ve got to start with God. If you don’t start there, then these tribal identities are going to lead to tribal warfare. If we don’t start with God, then we’re not starting with the image of God as the premise of how we engage somebody. 

His second bit of insight is to be one in Christ. Basically, he says, regardless of the melanin levels in your skin cells, recognize that you have been adopted by the same Father into the family of God. You have been redeemed by the same Son, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and you’re inhabited by the same Holy Spirit. Whatever cultural differences, melanin level difference, XX or XY chromosome differences, or whatever other kind of cultural category we could sort people into, a running thread through New Testament theology is that we are family. And if we aren’t reminding ourselves of that often, then we’re going to fall into these, polarized political traps and start excommunicating each other left and right. 

His third bit of advice is to keep the gospel first — the historic gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says this is of first importance. He cites this ancient — and some scholars think it’s actually the earliest — creed we have on record from the first century church: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day and appeared. If we get so swept [up] in social justice that the best news in the universe, the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, becomes an afterthought, then Perkins says we aren’t doing justice and forth. 

And finally, he says, just teach the truth. He clarifies and says don’t go with what’s politically in vogue or what’s trendy right now. Don’t go with what politicians and presidents say. Don’t side with the Twitter mob. When we start with God’s Word, it’s going to take us back again and again to the fact that we all need community in Christ. We join an every-tongue-tribe-and-nation kind of community that gives us a foundation for being a true family. Whereas the further and further we drift from the text, the more we get swept up into the political moment, which is all about us-versus-them tribalism. 

JT: Throughout your reading and research, what role [did you discover that] technology, specifically social media, plays in some of these identities and tribalism and polarization? How do you counsel Christians to use these technologies more wisely?

TW: That is a profound and pressing question. The advent of the trifecta of the internet, social media platforms, and smartphones is extremely new in the history of the human race. And that means that I now have at my fingertips instant access to everything horrible happening on planet Earth, with a few swipes. I can quickly be pulled down a rabbit hole of depressing headline after depressing headline. I think a lot of the fallout of the social media and smartphone revolution is that we just don’t know how to cope with scrolling through a news feed and seeing everything horrible thrown into our field of consciousness on a daily basis. That’s part of the problem. 

The second part of it is we need to contextualize the rise of social media. Particularly in American history, we were coming out of the 90s. The internet came to be when I would argue relativism was at its peak in America. Really, the only thing considered sinful in the mainstream 90s was calling anything sinful. Part of the problem is that anything-goes style relativism just doesn’t fit our design. God designed us, according to Scripture, to be part of an epic drama of good versus evil, to fight the principalities and the powers and take every thought captive into obedience to Christ. We’re designed to be part of that grand moral melodrama. And relativism just took that from people, because relativism can’t give you anything bigger than your own personal tastes and preferences. Nobody’s going to die for their favorite flavor of ice cream, right? We don’t die for preferences. So on the heels of that, I would argue that relativism has a shelf life.

As social media has become basically a fixture of life in the 21st century, you have a lot of people who were bored morally through the 90s. Now, all of a sudden, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. So now people think: “I need to to be a warrior, I need to to signal my virtue to the masses, and I need to be able to to hashtag my solidarity or my outrage at every new headline, because that’s a lot more exciting.” In the broader cultural context, part of what we’re seeing is the convergence of a new technology that enables people to voice moral outrage unlike any platform humanity has ever seen, and this is coming on the heels of a stage of extreme moral malaise and boredom. Put those two things together, and you have a recipe for everybody being outraged all the time — at others who either don’t have enough outrage or the wrong kind of outrage. 

So what can Christians do in a moment like that? We don’t want to just write off social media. One of the things the Church has been great at through history is whenever there is a new innovation, new ground is pioneered in communication technology. As soon as the Gutenberg press came out in the late 15th century, Christians were right there at the forefront to say, “Let’s get the Bible out there in a way that it’s no longer under lock and chain in a Roman Catholic cathedral. Let’s get it in the hands of the masses.” During any one of these decisive technological leaps forward, the Church has adapted and often been at the forefront. 

So, as Christians, we don’t want to have [the attitude that] social media is bad. I know people who heard the gospel for the first time through social media. My dad has this mission field in cyberspace where he’s reaching out to Baha’is and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. He’s been able to have meaningful points of contact and share the gospel. So I would say it’s not something to be afraid of, as much as something to capitalize on for the sake of the gospel.

And let me add a few bits of advice on navigating a technology that can be ambivalent and can pull us in really good or bad directions. Two things immediately come to mind. We need to recognize something that I describe in my book as the Newman effect. I’m borrowing here from a 2018 viral interview between Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and news host Cathy Newman. Any time Peterson makes a point, the response was “so you’re saying,” followed by an inflammatory interpretation of what Peterson was saying. I argue in the book that social media has sort of made Cathy Newman’s out of all of us. So, as we engage this very new technology, [we should] not play by those rules. [Unfortunately], that’s how most conversations that I’ve seen on important questions tend to go as we buy into the Newman effect and automatically assume the worst of other people’s motives. 

Secondly, think of the rise of Millennial and Gen Z folks who don’t identify as religious. There is a clear uptick over the course of the last 10 years. Researchers trying to get to the bottom of it found the number one answer was some version of, “I saw this really hilarious two-minute YouTube video of this guy just ripping Christianity.” People were now settling ultimate questions, eternally-weighty questions based on some two-minute sound bite they saw or some 60-second clip. So, that’s something we want to be very careful of, especially as we deal with complex questions like race, economics, sexism, abortion, or fill in the blank. As Christians, we just can’t settle for soundbites, which means we need to deliberately resist the algorithms that will only send us the kind of stuff we’re already buying into. We need to be very intentional about breaking out of our echo chambers. For Christians committed to truth in the age of social media, we need to be as intentional as possible about getting at the whole truth.

JT: What are some books that you would recommend for folks? Maybe one or two works that help us understand some of these issues, whether from a more historical perspective or more of a practical outworking on some of these?

TW: The one I’ve been going through again recently, that seems like it was written for these crazy times we’re in, was written a couple of hundred years ago. It’s William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. It’s rightly considered a classic. And what he does there is he’s able to give just rock solid theology. Wilberforce has a clear grasp on the historic gospel of the Christian faith and the implications of that gospel for society, particularly when it comes to questions of justice and social justice.

A lot of social justice causes revolve around questions of gender, gender identity, and sexuality. Religious freedom gets wrapped up in there, too. So, another resource is The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Truman. He does a really helpful job of kind of walking through the history of some of the ideas that used to be in the ivory towers of academia, but have now gone mainstream. If you want to be discerning in this cultural moment and see a lot of the trendy ideology for what it is, I would put his book pretty close to the top of the list.

This article originally appeared here. 

By / Jun 11

Benjamin Watson lent his voice, along with many others, at our Evangelicals for Life Conference in Washington, D.C. We hope this adapted message will encourage you to expand your understanding of what it means to be pro-life and care for the vulnerable.

“Thus says the Lord, let not a wise man boast of his wisdom and let not the mighty man boast of his might. Let not a rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on Earth. For I delight in these things, declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:23-24).

Several years ago, I was playing for the New Orleans Saints. I became a free agent, and a phone call came from the Baltimore Ravens. We took our family of five kids at the time and moved to Baltimore. I remember getting to Baltimore, not knowing anybody or what to expect. This was a new place, a new area, a new coaching staff, and new teammates. 

I also remember reading Jeremiah 9:23-24. My wife and I have always been people who tried to leave a place better than when we got there. We say, “Lord, you placed us in certain places on purpose. Nothing happens by accident. We spent time in Boston. We know we’re here on purpose. How can we leave this place better? What’s your reason for us being here?”

It’s a question we all must ask ourselves. Why are we here? What’s the reason God put you in the various cities that you’re from? What’s the reason God put you on the West Coast when you’re an East Coast kind of girl? What’s the reason God put you down South when you know you’re a guy from Canada, and you didn’t even want to come to the United States? What’s the reason God has you in Washington, D.C., of all places? What’s the reason God had us in Baltimore? 

Jeremiah says God delights in three things: Lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness. So I prayed, “Lord, wherever we are, we want to delight in what you delight in, we want to be people who bring justice, who bring kindness, who live rightly. We want people to know about you because of the things that we do and the way that we live our lives.”

Pro-life is about more than politics

As I looked at this pro-life arena, I started to realize that if we’re not careful, we will go into a tribal mentality; pro-life will become more of a political stance than truly being about standing beside and for life from the womb all the way until we leave this earth. I want to stand for life in that way. This is more than politics. 

If this becomes about politics, then we lose the power of the gospel, and it becomes more about us winning than about women, men, and families being cared for and being an earthly picture of the way that Christ loves his Church. If it becomes about politics, then why do we need God in it in the first place? It becomes all about pointing the finger, saying, “Hey, we beat you in this race. Our candidate won.” But God wants more for us than that. 

There’s a reason why we are pro-life. And it’s not just to win; it’s because our hope is that [the unborn baby’s] life, and those lives affected by that life, come to know a Savior who can give them spiritual life. That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want it to be about.

Pro-life and pro-justice 

Recently, justice issues have come up. There have been videos that we’ve seen of altercations between police and citizens where young black men have been killed by police officers. We’ve seen police officers killed. There have been riots and protests. And the idea of social justice has come up a lot. And as believers, it’s really important that we engage the culture from this standpoint. Being pro-life does not mean you’re not pro-justice. We can be both. 

This idea of justice emanates from God’s character. Jeremiah 9 talks about God being a God of justice. And as believers, we want to be like who God is. We want to identify and love the things that he loves. At the beginning of verse 23, he says not to let the wise man boast about his wisdom. One of the things we’re lacking, from my perspective, in this life and justice fight, is humility. Pride comes before a fall. It is the wedge that drives between people. Pride prevents you from admitting your own faults and guilt and from seeing where you’re wrong. And it prevents us as a community from giving the life of Christ to people who so desperately need it.

We can’t turn a blind eye when people are suffering and we have resources to help people. So while being pro-life is about the womb, supporting the unborn, and protecting the vulnerable, my challenge to you is to see vulnerability in many different forms. There’s more than one color of it. It comes in many shades. And as a community, we are able to address all those. Domestically, 1 in 3 women will experience physical harm from a partner, an intimate partner. There are churches that profess to be pro-life but won’t address this topic. And those who are abused are led to ask, “Why doesn’t my life matter?” As a community, we can change that.

My wife and I have had a chance to go overseas and support an organization called International Justice Mission. They support victims of sex trafficking and slavery. There are 40 million slaves in the world today. They’re right here in the United States as well. We were able to see a field office in the country of the Dominican Republic, where there are children in the sexual exploitation industry. These children range from little babies to teenagers, young girls, and even young men. They’re forced to do horrific things for money, simply because they have nothing else. This is a justice issue that we as a pro-life community must address.

Isaiah says, “Learn to do good. Seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s case”(Isa. 1:17). Over and over in Scripture, we see where God challenges the people of Israel to be people who protect widows, foreigners, the young, and the vulnerable because they had no power in those societies. And it’s the same way today. 

We can’t stop and only think about one issue. That is not being true to the gospel. The gospel, in its totality, challenges each one of us to, in humility, ask God to show us places where we can make a difference. Ask him. He’ll tell you. Open yourself up to different opportunities. And not just for the cause’s sake. We get involved in these causes of justice because we have an eternal perspective. 

An eternal perspective 

The work my wife and I do with justice and pro-life issues is not simply for us to be nice to people. The reason is because we understand that there’s an endgame. Like football, we go through the tough times, the two-a-days, wanting to quit because it’s too tough, the pain and the injuries, the ups and the downs, and the emotional times because there’s an endgame there. We want to have a chance to win the championship. We know that if we put in the work, we may have a chance to hold the trophy. Similarly, Christians have an eternal perspective.

My challenge to all of us is to have an eternal perspective when it comes to being pro-life and pro-justice. We’re not simply doing these things because we want to check a box behind a certain candidate, or because of our parents, or because of our youth group or a group in our church. We’re doing it because we want to win souls for Christ. We hope many will see this love of Christ and turn themselves to him and say, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s why we do it.

When we sit down with a young mother who is in crisis because her boyfriend has turned his back on her, her family is pressuring her, and she has nowhere else to turn, we stand in the gap for her, hold her hand, and say, “We want to walk you through this.” We do this for the baby, yes. We do this for her, yes. But we do this because we want to see her say, “What must I do to be saved?” 

And what we found every time we’ve done anything in our communities is that the way you get to people’s hearts, usually, is by first meeting their real needs—for clothing, shelter, warmth and understanding, a companion, and to know that they are loved and worth it. Many people feel that nobody cares. By meeting that need, you show people the love of God. In turn, our hope is that at one point we’ll not only see them now, but see them in eternity.

Justice and righteousness

Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This idea of justice occurs 200 times in the Old Testament, and what it usually points to is treating people equitably, repairing broken relationships to people and to structures. So the idea of justice is individual. 

But justice is also about structures. It’s about correcting structural issues and injustices and standing for those things that are bigger than the individual. God is a God of justice. Because of the fall, he has to be a God of justice. Sin entered the world, and we have inequities. We have people that take advantage of other people. We have hatred and racism. We have things that need to be corrected individually as well as systemically.

Righteousness and justice occur together a lot. For example, in Jeremiah 9:24, kindness, justice, and righteousness occur together. And the reason for that is because righteousness is right living. So, you have the idea of justice, which is correcting structures and relationships that are wrong. And you have the idea of righteousness, which talks about our relationship with each other, as well as our relationship with God. 

Because of justice, we need to live rightly. We need to have righteousness to enact that justice. In a time of righteousness, we don’t need justice, right? Because we are doing things the way that they should be done. Therefore, you have to have both. We need to be people who stand for justice and righteousness. We need to look for ways that as a pro-life community we can expand our repertoire. Don’t allow the world to confine us to what they want us to be.


My challenge to you—and myself—is to be people who humbly come before God and say, “God, what would you have me be a champion for?” For some of us, it’s the unborn. For others, it’s sex trafficking victims. For others, it’s racial injustice. And for some of us, it’s all of the above in various ways. Ask God where he would have you pour into. Pray, “Lord, you’re a God of lovingkindness, of justice, and of righteousness. I want to be about those things. Please help me as I discover where I can best use my talent, my time, and my treasure to honor you in all of these areas.”

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By / Feb 25

The calling we have as Christian parents is to help shape the worldview of our children toward one that increasingly reflects the heart and mission of God. This includes talking about things like personal integrity, love for neighbor, generosity, and peacemaking. As a parent to four young children, I’m convinced this must also include conversations about race and justice. 

American culture has been guilty of the sin of racism. It goes all the way back to colonial times; European settlers stole land from the Native Americans and brought African slaves to North America. In short, this is not a new problem, and tragically, white evangelical Christians in particular have often passed down an indifference toward issues of race and justice from generation to generation — an indifference that persists even as our country grows more divided. Brothers and sisters, this should not be. 

Many of us struggle to engage in what are challenging and increasingly complex conversations on race in our country. To that end, I want to share a few guiding principles and practical steps you can take in this direction with your family. The goal is not to have all the answers, but to engage with a posture of humility — listening, learning, and depending on God, his Word, and his people.  

  1. Educate yourself about God’s heart for justice in the Bible. As a pastor, I have found that many of the people I shepherd are surprised by how much the concept of justice is talked about in the Bible. Spend some time digesting the prophetic books where you read things like these passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah: 
    Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isa. 1:17)
    Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (Jer. 22:3)
    As you can see from these passages, the process within your family must move from education to action. For those committed to following the way of Jesus, these are not optional tasks. 
  1. Educate yourself about injustice in our nation’s history. All of our children should be learning about the evils of slavery and the significance of the Civil Rights Movement. They likely know the names Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. But as you do your own research, tell them about the figures and stories you come across that they may not necessarily read about in textbooks. The Equal Justice Initiative has been an incredibly helpful resource for me in this area. In 2019, I purchased their calendar where you can learn about a different historical event in the realm of social and racial injustice in America’s history each day. deBecoming aware of deeper history will help our kids become advocates and burden-bearers for those who have been oppressed by racism, and help them not become casualties to the ignorance that erodes into damaging indifference.  
  1. Educate yourself about injustice in your city. I live in Kansas City, a place with a long history of racial division. A street called Troost serves as a modern-day “dividing wall of hostility” that continues to remind us of our dark past and remaining socioeconomic and racial divisions. Every city and state has stories like these, so do the work to learn them, share them, and model for your kids what it looks like to strive for righteousness. 
  1. Be intentional about sharing what you learn with the next generation. We drive across Troost every day as a family. I’ve shared some of that history with my kids in age-appropriate ways. I’ve also tried to translate the complexities of redlining or racially-restrictive housing covenants into language they can understand more easily, so they can begin forming a wider perspective of institutional practices that have handicapped millions of minorities in our city and how those things are not in alignment with the kingdom of God.
    In the student ministry I led, we toook a driving tour of our city with historical commentary of the role of segregation. We do this in an effort to educate and create space for questions and dialogue, in hope that we may not be guilty of the same sins of our ancestors.
  1. Cultivate empathy. As we watched the events surrounding the death of George Floyd and the following global protests, we talked about the imago Dei, the dignity of every human being made in God’s image, and the pain related to various forms of injustice our brothers and sisters of color have carried for so long — injustice that my kids will most likely never have to experience personally. They saw my wife and I weep and lament the injustice in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color. My friend Brian Key says, “When you weep with someone, you identify with them in their pain. It is humanizing in the face of the dehumanizing pain of grief. It somehow makes the grief less lonely, though not less painful.” That’s the kind of posture we want to cultivate in our kids. It didn’t take eloquent speeches from us to point them that direction; it just took tears. 
    We want to stir empathy, compassion, and understanding in the hearts of our sons and daughters because that reflects the heart of our God. And we want to be the ones shaping the narrative biblically, not the media or their friends. This requires being proactive rather than reactive, and an eagerness to truthfully and courageously confront racist realities we have been born into as Americans. 
  1. Pursue expressions of diversity. In heaven we will worship with every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. But in the U.S., most of us have inherited the reality of living in more homogenous communities. It will take creativity and commitment to continually pursue diversity across the spheres of our life. 

Prioritize the conversation

What we talk about reveals the disposition of our hearts. This is what Jesus was highlighting when he said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). As evangelicals we have done a good job of prioritizing conversations around sexuality, gender, and the sanctity of life — as we should. But we must also not neglect topics of racial justice or treat them as less important issues. 

The opportunities are all around us, whether it be in the history they are learning in school, the political debates they are increasingly aware of, or the questions they ask about people they see every day. So the next time you see something on the news, or your kids share about what they are learning in American history, or when you take them to Ephesians 2 in your family devotional time, seize the opportunity to point them to God’s heart for racial reconciliation and pray with them along those lines. Repent of apathy, and pray for opportunities to live out justice in your community.

May we not be guilty of turning a blind eye or passively handing over discipleship to the culture. But with confidence in Scripture and the calling we’ve been given to be ambassadors of God’s love in Christ to the world, instill in our children a heart that pursues justice, loves mercy, and humbly submits to the God who tears down dividing walls for his glory and the good of the world. 




By / Nov 30

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Everyone has an interest in justice. Everyone would say they want justice and despise injustice. We learn about the complexity of justice as we age, but are born into the world with a spectacularly sensitive sense of justice. No child, for example, has to be told to feel angry about being wronged; the sense is innate. Injustice is rightly decried, denounced, and opposed. Justice is universal. 

The existence of rather widespread disagreement about justice today hardly requires elaborate argument. Some of our most significant disagreements as a society are at base disagreements about the meaning and scope of justice. Abortion, capital punishment, universal health care, immigration, warfare; these and similar issues are at their core about promoting justice and curtailing injustice. But this raises the question of why, if all these pressing social questions are fundamentally about justice, there remains such broad, deeply-felt disagreement about what justice really involves. How can there be rival accounts of something so basic and fundamental to social life?

Explaining rival accounts of understanding justice 

That is the central question raised by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In pluralistic societies of the West, we simply assume disagreement on core social questions as a matter of course, but we cannot stop there if we are to avoid a relativist conclusion. Instead we must ask, “How ought we to decide among the claims of rival and incompatible accounts of justice competing for our moral, social, and political allegiance?”1WJWR, 2. MacIntyre’s answer to this question is fascinating, but on final reckoning, incorrect. It’s precisely why and how it is finally incorrect that the book continues to be of great importance.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality, like MacIntyre’s earlier work After Virtue, stands in the genre of modernity criticism common among intellectual histories of the past four to five decades. It is a compelling how-we-got-here story. Disagreements about justice are disagreements about practical reason, our thinking about judgement and action. But finding a solution through analysis of practical reason is equally futile, because accounts of practical reason are equally divergent. As MacIntyre puts it: “we inhabit a culture in which an inability to arrive at agreed rationally justifiable conclusions on the nature of justice and practical rationality coexists with appeals by contending social groups to sets of rival and conflicting convictions unsupported by rational justification.” Any resolution to this cycle of assertion and counter-assertion is fleeting, and any appearance of consensus simply disguises the facts of disagreement. 

The only reason we are able to discourse at all is because we all inhabit traditions. A tradition here functions as a ground for human agency; we all inherited one, and we all rely on the atmosphere our tradition provides. For simplicity’s sake, you can think of a tradition as being something like a way of thinking and acting durable over time. Exactly how these traditions converge and diverge occupies the large majority of MacIntyre’s account, the reason being is that we aren’t educated into one coherent way of thinking and acting but instead absorb an “amalgam of social and cultural fragments.”2Ibid. Whatever is true or justified is true or justified for that tradition because of principles internal to it. MacIntyre’s account of how various traditions conceive of justice is meticulous, learned, and often dazzling; a great strength of the book.

The primary culprit to our intractable disagreement is modernity itself, particularly its Enlightenment ideals and liberal sensibilities. If everyone is afforded the freedom to pursue their own individual end, as liberalism promises, then what counts as most decisive will be relative to the cluster of people holding roughly similar commitments. According to MacIntyre, modern liberalism not only protects the conditions needed for intractable disagreement, it enshrines them. The only way to get past this intractability and irresolution is to get beyond liberalism itself. This line of argument (among others) has made MacIntyre an important voice in post-liberal intellectual circles.

Areas of agreement

Before offering a few problems with MacIntyre’s account, let me first identify a few things he gets right. First, he is correct to question basic precepts of modern self-understanding. We have, all of us, been inescapably shaped by the liberal tradition. It has formed us. We, to a great extent, want a free and equal society where justice prevails while at the same time admitting that the principled foundations of that liberal order can never secure those lofty aims.  

Second, MacIntyre identifies a modern feeling shared by many, especially Christians, that social disagreement is intractable and irresolvable. A strength of MacIntyre’s account is highlighting why that disagreement occurs as it does. Even if it isn’t true that disagreement is intractable and that traditions are irreconcilable, it certainly feels as though our social situation is permanent. And in desperation or disgust we might contrive our own solution, retreating into localities, embodying our faith as called and commanded. A commendable strategy irrespective the liberal state of things, but, if we cherish truth, then it is worth asserting and reasserting, for without truth justice disintegrates into precisely the malaise MacIntyre posits.

Third, MacIntyre is correct that liberalism is under duress. Everywhere is evidence of social dissolution and fracture. Freedoms crash into one another. Our order is strained. 

Lastly, he is correct that, shorn of any notion of Final End (or telos), liberalism can at best propose only a provisional notion of justice, a notion that assumes some future unanimity but without accepting there’s a Truth about justice. This idea explains some of the resistance to the notion of “social justice” common today. It supposes not a static standard of justice—i.e., giving each their due—but a pliable, often amorphous standard of equality that shifts with the winds of opinion and sentiment. What sort of justice isn’t social, after all? It isn’t a program. It is a virtue and objective authority. Anything that is just for society must also be Good and True. And the question with respect to “social justice” is not whether equality is a worthy aim—of course it is—but of how much inequality and untruth this particular conception of equality may hide within itself.

The problem with MacInyre’s argument

Problems in MacIntyre’s account are well-noted. There is, first of all, the notoriously challenging method of intellectual history itself. Telling a how-we-got-here story, what academics call a genealogy, requires what every story requires—a selection of cast, setting, plot, etc. Including some means and not including others makes it difficult to near-impossible to avoid exaggerating some claims or features and understating others. MacIntyre’s history is selective in this way. Second, and most glaring, is MacIntyre’s argument that truth is relative to traditions of rationality. It simply cannot be that what is just is just because my tradition of rationality justifies that conclusion. Justice, if it is to be meaningful, must be about what is Good and Right. As such, it challenges our errors and biases.  

WSWR is among the most important books on justice of the 20th century. A challenging book for the average reader, but one that, if read carefully, is full of ideas and perceptive to the contested nature of justice today, provided that readers remember that Whose Justice? Which Rationality? offers not a solution but penetrating insight into the nature of our social disagreements about justice. If, on the Christian account, justice has its root in God, then there is a justice that bears universal scope.

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    WJWR, 2.
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By / Sep 2

Human beings are complex creatures. Aristotle described us as “rational animals.” Augustine considered humanity’s driving force to be “love.” In addition to thinking and loving, we experience the full sweep of human emotions, and we do so as creatures who are at once both embodied and spiritual beings. But beyond our complexity, we are also contradictory. Often our words fail to match our actions and our actions fail to match our beliefs. But why is it so often the case that one part of our lives fails to cohere with another, especially when we are discussing matters of great significance? 

Such incongruence shows up in many areas of our lives. Perhaps the most obvious examples stem from the issues of abortion and social justice. But before considering them in detail, let us turn our attention to the root of the problem. Why is it that human beings manifest so many contradictions?

Sin and integrity

The answer is, at least in part, a simple one: sin. Each of us wakes up everyday living in the midst of a fallen world under the curse of sin (Gen. 3:14-19). The apostle Paul spoke to this reality when he said, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Because of sin, even those most deeply committed to following Jesus struggle to live with perfect integrity. That is, we struggle to live in such a way that all of these things “hang together” with consistency. Because of sin, each of us sometimes fails to live, speak, and act in accordance with our beliefs.

Martin Luther famously ignited the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door. Lesser known is the fact that the first of Luther’s theses suggests that the whole of the Christian life is to be marked by repentance. Repentance is a clear example of our work to reconcile our internal contradictions. When we speak or act in a way that runs contrary to our beliefs, we repent of those actions. And in doing this we are foremost seeking to make right our offense unto God. 

But, secondly, we are seeking to remedy and restore the rupture of our own integrity. For the people of God, persisting in a state of unrepentant sin throws our lives off balance. When our lives lack integrity, it is as though we are unable to walk upright. Our words, actions, and relationships are encumbered. And to address these problems, our consciences press for reconciliation.

Cognitive dissonance

But the problem is more complicated still. It is not just that sin often keeps us from acting in ways that align with our beliefs. Sometimes, it is our beliefs themselves that lack integrity, which is not to say that our beliefs are errant but that they contradict one another. For various reasons, our beliefs are occasionally in conflict. And in so much as these contradictions are apparent to us, we can work to reconcile them. Many times this reconciliation happens almost without notice. Someone might simply draw attention to your conflicting views prompting you to respond by adjusting one or the other (or both) to bring them into alignment.

Other times, though, the difficulty is much greater. In certain cases, a person may be presented with information that clearly demonstrates the contradictory nature of their beliefs and, against reason, fail to reconcile the contradiction. This is what is known as cognitive dissonance, where a person holds two or more contradictory views at the same time. And in our modern society, abortion is perhaps the most stunning example.

Abortion and social justice

Cognitive dissonance exists on both sides of the abortion fight. For those holding to the pro-life position, the dissonance is succinctly expressed in one of the most frequent criticisms of the pro-life movement. Critics argue that those who claim to be “pro-life” are really just “pro-birth.” They charge opponents of abortion with paying lip service to the “sanctity” and “value” of human life by arguing that these same people often fail to promote or defend such concepts when it comes to a host of other issues including immigration, addiction, and criminal justice.

A belief in human dignity is just that, a belief that all human life is valuable. For Christians, our belief that every person is made in the image of God means that every person possesses intrinsic and inestimable worth (Gen. 1:27). And for this reason, we adamantly oppose abortion.

Relatedly, throughout the pandemic, many have used some version of the formula “You’re not really pro-life unless . . .” to argue for everything from support for lockdowns to masks to church closures. Soon, to be sure, the same formula will be invoked to support immunization against the virus. But not a few people who are themselves ardently pro-life have bristled at this rhetoric. And many who take issue with this language do not disagree at every point with the proposals being advanced, but they understandably think it inappropriate to use someone’s opposition to abortion to browbeat them into supporting other policies. Certainly, one can deeply value human life without supporting every possible measure to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Even so, the lines of intersection between these mitigation efforts and human dignity could not be more apparent.

A belief in human dignity is just that, a belief that all human life is valuable. For Christians, our belief that every person is made in the image of God means that every person possesses intrinsic and inestimable worth (Gen. 1:27). And for this reason, we adamantly oppose abortion. No matter how small a person may be, we believe it is no small thing to be made in the image of God. And while it is unreasonable to assume that one’s belief in human dignity therefore requires one to support a specific proposal or set of policies, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the same “pro-life ethic” that one uses to oppose abortion would be applied to all of life. 

Sadly, that has not been the case for many who consider themselves pro-life. Too often, many in the pro-life camp have validated this criticism by rightly expressing staunch opposition to abortion while remaining apathetic in the face of other kinds of injustice or human suffering. But again, this dissonance occurs on both sides of the aisle. Advocates of social justice are frequently the loudest critics of the “hypocrisy” of pro-lifers. But in reality, the dissonance regularly on display by many proponents of social justice is even more staggering.

Theoretically, advocates of social justice engage such work because they likewise esteem the value of human life. Efforts to promote justice, alleviate suffering, end hunger, advance literacy, and care for the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable are driven by a desire to see people flourish. Such endeavors are laudable. Not only that, but they are obviously rooted in a high view of the human person. It is therefore all the more mystifying why proponents of social justice so rarely support any measures to protect and secure the well-being of the most vulnerable population on the planet—infants within their mothers’ wombs. The willingness to make any sacrifice to bring relief to those in distress except the people afflicted by our society’s most egregious and violent practice is nothing less than cognitive dissonance on full display. 

And lest one claim that “a fetus is not a person,” it is crucial to remember that such beliefs are contradicted not only by theology but science. It’s true that infants in their mothers’ wombs are wholly dependent beings, not unlike newborn children or adults in the most advanced stage of human development. But dependence in no way negates a person’s worth. Even more persuasive is the fact that modern technologies such as 4D ultrasounds not only allow us to see the heartbeat of a child in utero, but literally bring us face to face with an unborn person. Through 4D imaging we can behold a child’s facial features and witness the movement of human hands and feet. Ultimately, as Nancy Pearcey argues, because of “advances in genetics and DNA, virtually all professional bioethicists agree that life begins at conception.” Children in the womb are vulnerable and most deserving of protection. How a person could champion the value of life while callously turning away from the suffering of the unborn is utterly beyond comprehension.

Reconciling the tension

Thankfully it is not the case that all pro-life advocates have a limited appreciation for human dignity. Nor is it the case that every advocate for social justice ignores the plight of the unborn. In fact, many people in both camps display an exemplary integrity of belief, one that consistently applies their core values across the board—to the born and unborn alike. And it is that kind of integrity to which we should all strive. After all, to do so is to follow the example of Jesus. 

Jesus was perfectly consistent in his beliefs, regardless of the cost. And he never decided which people mattered. He affirmed the value of every person, especially those most frequently overlooked. Following his example will transcend any party platform or ideology. It may keep you out of step with those on “your side,” but it will never lead toward error or contradiction. Cognitive dissonance affects all of us. Fixing your eyes on Jesus is the path to integrity.

By / Jun 23

All at once, our collective hearts were broken. We watched as his last breath left his body. These days, my tears are always right there, ready to be unleashed. Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and then George Floyd. 2020 has us reeling. Resonating with so many around the world, we’re connected by an undeniable ache. Grappling as a culture with the fallout of the sin of racism, we’re being forced to recognize the countless indignities that have always been inconsistent with God’s design for humanity. Loss, weeping, mourning, agonizing, demonstrations, passion, anger, unrest—this newly emerging landscape is almost unrecognizable. We must accept that who we are as a society has already been changed. 

Acknowledging the pain of the generations before us—abused, dismissed, and denied justice—we can’t forget that they labored for us. Despite their hard-fought movement toward “liberty and justice for all,” they’ve had to witness that effort hindered in its progress. Their requests weren’t idealistic, and MLK’s dream wasn’t silly, because they reflect God’s vision taken from his Word. So then, we ask, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” because today, the losses appear insurmountable. 

We hear God’s calls for us to comfort, but we choose to cross-examine instead. Christian infighting and finger-pointing bombards our timelines while calls for justice go unheeded. Unbelievers watch and wait for our response. How do we as Christians choose the gospel above all while doing the hard work of consoling and serving those who are hurting, those who we may not even agree with? Why is unity so hard? How do I, as an African-American woman and a mother to a young man in the South, inoculate myself against the bitterness, fear, and rage all around me? Where do I place my hurt? 

The psalmist wrote, “Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; your Protector will not slumber” (Psa.121:1a–3). Returning to these words many times through the years, I again find comfort for today and renewed hope for tomorrow. God is awake. He is active. With his omniscient view from his throne, he sees all. And with his intimate knowledge of our hearts, he has a purpose for all. God didn’t do this, but he can most certainly redeem it. 

Glimmers of hope 

Amidst these hard months, we’re watching positive shifts take place. Good things are happening, gifting us with glimmers of hope that peek from the shadows. Within my own processing, the sting has been tempered by this hope. For so many of us, our pain has been a catalyst offering the opportunity to look past ourselves and to recognize others and their suffering. Others have experienced a fresh boldness, compelling them to donate their resources and influence to affect necessary change. Arising from the tragedy created by racism, many are experiencing an unprecedented connectedness to others. The gospel is being preached, and scales are falling from once-blinded eyes. Hearts are being massaged, and ears have been primed to hear.

Hope has been the currency that has sustained me in this heavy-hearted season. This currency has investment value for my community, my work, my home, and my soul. Hope can bring healing and resilience to broken situations, and it has pressed me to pursue peace even as we pursue justice. I’ve learned there’s no peace without a storm, no victory without a battle. Pain has a way of guiding believers right into the center of God’s purposes for us. Within God’s plans, pain has worked as a refining fire that he’s used to reshape me. Using our struggles, often he produces in us passions with which to pursue him while blessing others. 

What we’ve been seeing is the hand of God moving despite the backdrop of evil and brokenness. I’m having conversations with many who’ve never had to confront the realities of the harsh systems their black and brown brothers and sisters have had to endure. Hearing from those around me, we’re using this moment in history to educate and then walk through beautiful discipleship conversations in our homes and with our families. Leaders are being forced to acknowledge their ignorance, indifference, and even complicity. This generation of future leaders, including my own, are being enlisted, identifying injustice, and are empowered to use their voices, minds, and communities to broker change. 

More work must be done. Inspired by Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Mamie Till, Harriet Tubman, and others, I aim to be a person of peace, a part of the solution. I’m compelled by Christ to be a bridge-builder while the soil is tender, seeking to “act justly, love faithfulness, and walk humbly” with him as an active calling. We’re still broken, but God doesn’t slumber. And so, we don’t lose heart.

Growing up in the African-American church has steeped me in this rich theology. Our songs so often challenge the hurting to endure weariness, placing their hope and trust in God. Written as a poem, these words from “Lift Ev’ry Voice” became an anthem. Not one of war, but of struggle. Not of division, but of unity. Not solely of lament, but also of inspiring hope. 

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land. 

By / Jun 11

Steven Harris, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, Travis Wussow, and Jeff Pickering process the events and protests of recent days following the horrific murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The team discusses the brutality exposed in these stories and the history of race in America that brought us to this moment and how the church can move us forward.  

This episode is sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of Beautifully Distinct: Conversations with Friends on Faith, Life, and Culture, edited by Trillia Newbell  

Resources from the Conversation

By / May 6

I turned off the video the first several times I tried to watch it. I couldn’t bear the thought of what I knew would be pictured. Many people, from what I hear, had a similar reaction. The violence was so raw that it was painful to watch. And so many other videos and images, showing similar bloodshed, have emerged over the past several years. 

I’m referring, of course, to the video that has emerged in recent days of the killing of 25-year-old African-American man Ahmaud Arbery by two white men in a south Georgia neighborhood. This case will now, with the urging of the governor of Georgia, go to a grand jury to seek justice in this matter. From what reports tell us, Arbery was jogging through the neighborhood and the two men thought he seemed suspicious and took off after him, ultimately shooting and killing him. This was not a case of an interrupted home invasion, nor was it the case of law enforcement personnel involved in an escalating crime situation. 

In almost any breaking news story, I usually ask myself, “What sort of information could emerge to make this the opposite of what it seems to me right now?” In this case, I am stumped to think of what that could be. The video seems to show us exactly what we have seen so often in human history: the violence of armed self-styled vigilantes against an unarmed man. 

The justice system will proceed, of course, and evidence will be marshaled by the prosecution and by the defense, but there’s little question as to what the investigation will be—into a question of murder.

The system of temporal justice is important here—crucially important—but I am perhaps even more concerned about the sort of weariness that has come upon the country, when we use the word “again” about such a case, as if any happening like this should not immediately shock the conscience. The temptation will be to, as I did at first with the video, just avert our eyes. 

Whatever the specifics of this case turn out to be, we do know several things. The first is that the arguments, already bandied about on social media, that “Arbery wasn’t a choirboy” are revolting. We have heard such before with Trayvon Martin and in almost every case since. For all I know, Arbery was a choirboy. 

But even if he were the complete opposite (let’s suppose just for the sake of argument), that is no grounds to be chased down and shot by private citizens. There is no, under any Christian vision of justice, situation in which the mob murder of a person can be morally right. Those who claim to have a high view of Romans 13 responsibilities of the state to “wield the sword” against evildoers ought to be the first to see that vigilante justice is the repudiation not just of constitutional due process but of the Bible itself. And, of course, the Bible tells us, from the beginning, that murder is not just an assault on the person killed but on the God whose image he or she bears. 

Sadly, though, many black and brown Christians have seen much of this, not just in history but in flashes of threats of violence in their own lives. And some white Christians avert their eyes—even in cases of clear injustice—for fear of being labeled “Marxists” or “social justice warriors” by the same sort of forces of intimidation that wielded the same arguments against those who questioned the state-sponsored authoritarianism and terror of Jim Crow. And so, they turn their eyes. 

Now, again, these two men will get their due process, and their day in court. But ought we not to grieve for the family of this young man who is dead at just a quarter-century of life? And should we not lament the fact that there are so many names and faces—from those lynched by domestic terrorists throughout much of the 20th century to the names and faces killed much closer to our own time? Yes. 

And, whatever the facts that are offered up in this case as the process moves forward, we ought to be reminded of the threat of violence that has raged inside of humanity since Cain. The courts will decide whether these men will be punished as murderers—and we can pray the courts are right and just in their verdict—but we also ought to remember that many of our black and brown brothers and sisters were killed by mobs or individuals where there was no video to show anything. 

The memorial sign marking the murder of Emmett Till had to be replaced with a bulletproof marker because too many people were shooting it up, delighting in the lynching of a man by a bloodthirsty mob. And, like Cain, those who do such things always think no one will ever see. But God says to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (Gen. 4:9). 

And, similarly, Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known” (Luke 12:2). Whatever is ruled in this case, we know that the blood cries from the ground in countless matters of violence and bloodshed. And God sees and knows. That’s a word of promise for those weary in seeing justice done. And it’s a word of warning for those who would avert their eyes.

By / Jan 30

Several years ago I read attorney Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice. It resonated deeply with me. I grew up just outside Montgomery, Alabama, the place where, in 1989, Stevenson formed the Equal Justice Initiative, a resource center and death penalty defense organization. But it wasn’t just the common geography that drew me in; it was also the book’s longing for justice and the echoes of the gospel.

Just Mercy (rated PG-13), the new film starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, was adapted from the aforementioned book. This true story faithfully recounts Stevenson’s representation of death row inmates while focusing particularly on his work with Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx). 

A mission of justice 

The film begins with McMillian getting pulled over by the police and arrested for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. Stevenson soon visits McMillian in prison, expressing a desire to represent him, but all McMillian can see is another lawyer making promises he can’t keep and going up against a system set up to destroy the black man. Stevenson tries to offer confidence and hope, saying, “Your life is still meaningful.” McMillian can only reply, “You don’t know what you’re into down here, when you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.”

The murder took place in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1986, and that fact is not lost on the filmmakers. Monroeville is the home of author Harper Lee. When Stevenson initially goes to visit Monroeville, the prosecuting attorney proudly encourages him to check out the “Mockingbird Museum” before he leaves. “One of the great Civil Rights landmarks of the South,” he says sincerely, without a hint of irony. 

Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer from Delaware, who is African-American. When he arrives in the Deep South, he experiences racism ranging from microaggression to humiliation to dangerous threats. But he is undeterred in his quest to find justice, particularly when he reviews McMillian’s case and notices many inconsistencies as well as the thin evidence used to convict him. Once McMillian finds out Stevenson has visited his family and friends (which is more than other attorneys had previously done for him), he’s all in—ready to hope, and ready to fight. And so begins their beautiful relationship and long journey together.

The mystery of how justice and mercy can co-exist in a single scenario is never better seen than in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Just Mercy is a wonderful film, but it is not perfect. Too often movies like this rely less on nuance and more on broad strokes. For instance, almost every white character in the South is painted as a racist. Stevenson himself often comes across as near-perfect. Despite these critiques, the story is well told. I particularly appreciated director Destin Daniel Cretton’s insistence on using closeups. Many conversation scenes, particularly those in prison, push in so close to the actors’ faces, we can’t help but feel the claustrophobia of the setting. We wait for the scene to end so that, perhaps, we can get to a wide shot and take a breath. And his use of choirs, hymns, and old spirituals is an intermittent reminder of the spirituality inherent in the characters’ desire for justice. 

The greatest picture of just mercy 

When asked in a 2011 interview for his definition of justice, Stevenson responded first by talking about injustice and the way it is seen when people don’t “protect the norms, the values, the goals, the aspirations of the entire community.” He went on to say: 

When you can identify injustice, when you can identify inequality and unfairness, and you confront that, then in my mind you are doing justice. You are doing something corrective to the abuse of power that is at the heart of injustice, to the bigotry and bias that is often at the heart of injustice. So in a lot of ways, identifying injustice, confronting it and challenging it is what justice is about.[1]

This mission of challenging injustice is encapsulated in the words of Jesus from Luke 4:18-19 as he began his earthly ministry to inaugurate the Kingdom of God:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

In these words and in the life and death of the One who spoke them, we see the greatest picture of “just mercy”—the coming together of seemingly opposite ideas. With Stevenson’s Christian upbringing, he must know something of this supposed paradox. The mystery of how justice and mercy can co-exist in a single scenario is never better seen than in the cross of Jesus Christ. He experienced God’s just wrath against sin that we deserved, and because of that, we have the opportunity to experience his mercy by placing our hope and faith in him.

The film ends with Stevenson giving a speech on justice and poverty. It’s a fitting conclusion to the movie and a beautiful mantra for each of us: “We all need justice. We all need mercy. And some measure of unmerited grace.”