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Social Justice Jesus

Social Justice Jesus

by Mark Miller on July 02, 2020

Social Justice Jesus

We are hearing a fair amount of commentary these days about Jesus, specifically by some social activists who describe Jesus as a radical political figure who was arrested and killed by an authoritative government that viewed him as a threat to the oppressive political order. Additionally, some want to argue that Jesus’ skin color was black and that those who portray Jesus as a white European are perpetuating a version of Christianity that is rooted in white supremacy.

Pastor Lenny Duncan has suggested that the protesters tearing down statues and burning buildings in recent weeks are similar to Jesus, who overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple (see Matthew 21). Social Justice Activist Shaun King has called for all statues of “white Jesus” to be torn down, because “white Jesus” represents the religious roots of white supremacy. Hawk Newsome, leader of the New York Area chapter of Black Lives Matter, recently shared his belief that the Bible portrays Jesus as “the most famous black radical revolutionary in human history.” Mr. Newsome argues that his personal commitment to Jesus has led him to the conviction that it is time to “burn down the system” of religious and cultural oppression in order to build something that is more just. Last week, in an exclusive interview with the New York Post, Mr. Newsome walked the streets his New York City neighborhood and offered a message to white people, “stay the f--k out of our communities.” This is a much different tone than the one he offered in 2018, when he was calling for non-violence and encouraging activists to treat all people in Christian love regardless of race, creed, or political party.

It seems as if the character of Jesus is changing among some who have grown tired of pursuing social justice with grace, perseverance, and a call for mutual respect. The biblical Jesus, who refused to create a violent army (or lead a riotous mob) in order to overthrow the “system,” is now being re-created by some into an angry radical who would endorse setting fire to buildings and defunding the police. I am all in favor of peaceful protests and calls for a more concerted effort to eliminate racism. Non-violent civil disobedience can sometimes be a helpful catalyst for positive change. The message that “Black lives matter” is important and changes do need to happen in our racially divided culture. But I’ve also spent a fair amount of time studying the Jesus described in the Bible. Let me offer some basic observations:

  1. Jesus was neither black or white. Jesus was a middle eastern Jew. His skin color would almost certainly have been honey/olive colored. However, the whole point about Jesus is not how he looked, but what He taught and what He did.
  2. Jesus did not advocate a violent overthrow of systemic governmental structures. He taught of a kingdom that was “not of this world” but was to be demonstrated in this world by the way in which his followers spoke, acted, and treated one another with deep love. Yes, he did overturn the money tables in the temple, but he was reacting to a form of religious greed that was preventing people from praying in the temple courts. In those temple courts, Jesus actually restored order. And he restored order without stealing the money or burning down the temple.
  3. Jesus was not killed by a government that feared he would overthrow their structures of institutional oppression.  He was executed by the Romans who saw him as no real threat at all, simply a controversial religious teacher disliked by some of the Jewish religious authorities. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate wanted to let Jesus go free, but instead he gave in to an angry mob that demanded Jesus be put to death.  If this teaches us anything, it teaches us that innocent people suffer when political leaders give in to an angry mob.

Putting aside this false narrative that Jesus was an angry political activist in his day, I think there is still plenty in the teachings of Jesus to justify the nonviolent protest of racism and social injustice in our day. But more importantly, there is plenty in the teachings of Jesus to engage in the deeper constructive work that changes human hearts and reflects the Kingdom of God. I understand the impulse of some to post emotional rants on Facebook, or tweet out the condemnation of some comedian who said something twenty years ago that we now deem offensive. But that kind of “activism” hasn’t really helped minority children achieve a better education or reduced the murder rate in some minority communities. Perhaps more of us Christians who are seeking positive social change could become so inspired by the teachings of Jesus that we might invest our energy doing the actual work of helping the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. I’m not trying to condemn protest marches or posting strong opinions on social media if that’s your thing, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that by doing such things we are actually accomplishing anything truly significant. You can’t simply tweet your way to better world.

To misrepresent Jesus in order to justify the violent and destructive actions of those who want to “burn down the system” is not fair to Jesus and not really helpful to the cause of social justice that the biblical Jesus affirmed. I think Hawk Newsome was on the right track back in 2018 when he sounded more like Dr. King, calling on all of us to work together in unity and build something beautiful based on love for all people regardless of our race, creed, or political affiliation. That sounds much more like the Jesus we read about in the Bible: a Jesus who had more powerful and life-changing things to say than “defund the police” and “stay the f--k out of our communities.”

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