Woke Evangelicals: Cultivating Victimhood, Vanquishing Conscience
With astonishing speed, the evangelical world has been invaded by social justice ideology. In a recent podcast, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention (until now a theologically conservative body), J.D. Greear, highlighted "white privilege" as a serious moral issue for Christians. Likewise, David Platt, former president of the SBC's International Mission Board, browbeat evangelicals for having too much of the same skin color: "Why are so many of our churches so white?"
At another historically conservative denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America, things are not any better. Its institution and my own alma mater, Covenant Seminary, hosted a conference on race whose onetime director was a Black Lives Matter activist. Furthermore, the seminary and the PCA denomination as a whole have been embroiled in controversy over the Revoice Conference, which promotes the idea of LGBT victimhood.
Though these evangelicals may be "woke" about some issues, they are definitely asleep about others. For instance, concern about the plight of the aborted unborn has been waning among them. In a YouTube video, a recent graduate of the SBC's Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary observes that these days, one frequently hears about social justice issues on campus but rarely about abortion. Among woke evangelicals, ironically, victimhood ideology has managed to push into the shadows conspicuous sins against present-day victims. This reveals a significant corruption of conscience.
Conscience has always played an indispensable role in Christianity. Jonathan Edwards calls conscience "the instrument in the hand of God, to accuse, condemn, terrify, and to urge to duty." The importance of individual conscience stands out conspicuously in the Bible. However, within the moral universe of leftism, the concept of victimhood silences or perverts individual conscience. Among those who embrace a victim identity, the wail of group grievance often drowns out individual conscience. Furthermore, many come to feel guilt and shame about things that are not really wrong. A fixation on victimhood causes even fictitious transgressions like "microaggression" and "cultural appropriation" to gain legitimacy in endless cries for redress.
Nazi Germany represented the antithesis of Christian conscience. Though the Nazis are often invoked to stigmatize people not in line with progressive causes, the reality is that an obsession with German national victimhood after World War I fueled the Nazi rise to power and helped inspire the creation of that bizarre ideology. As Kurlander explains in his book Hitler's Monsters, many Germans came to see themselves as colonized, oppressed people. Consequently, Judaism and Christianity were branded as alien intruders imposed on supposedly subjugated Germans. As a result, Germany experienced a widespread longing to return to pagan German religious roots and the proliferation of anti-Semitism, leading ultimately to the Holocaust.
Terrorism, riots, murder, bullying, and genocide have all been excused as justified responses to victimization, real or imagined. In his book The Vanishing Conscience, California pastor John MacArthur comments, "Anyone can escape responsibility for his or her wrongdoing simply by claiming the status of a victim." Along with leftist victimhood ideology, he noted that the psychotherapeutic outlook has contributed significantly to the muting of conscience in modern churches. For instance, many church leaders are convinced that instruction about personal sin and guilt wounds self-esteem.
Though many prominent evangelicals have jumped on the victimhood bandwagon, others are protesting the incompatibility of the Christian faith with the promotion of collective blame. One such dissenter, Darrell Harrison, laments the way his fellow black evangelicals are being seduced by leftist ideology and neglecting Gospel proclamation. Last year, a number of evangelical leaders joined together to issue "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel," which reaffirms traditional views of sin and salvation, along with exposing the social justice message as heterodox. The statement rejects the notion that "the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching." Taking aim at fashionable leftist pieties, they declare:
Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one's ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.
Even more significantly, corporate blaming obscures the real heart of the Christian message, which is deliverance from guilt by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In a collective orientation, rather than taking inventory of personal moral failures and confessing real sins, many engage in virtue-signaling about the crimes of their own social group. Others foist responsibility for their own sins onto the members of an accused group. For believers, exchanging personal responsibility for corporate blaming means being robbed of cleansing of conscience. Rather than salvation from guilt, they must then bear the perpetual blame of the leftist worldview, which can never adequately be atoned for by reparations or by anything else.
At a recent conference critical of the social justice trend, Phil Johnson quipped that virtue-signaling seems to be the latest proselytizing strategy among many evangelicals. In this time of increasing contempt for the lives of the most vulnerable, that is dubious virtue, indeed. To borrow the words of Jesus, woke evangelicals have become adept at the ability to "strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24). Or how about simply calling it, as he did, hypocrisy?
Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.