“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,” declares the LORD.
– Amos 4:6
I did a number of medical school rotations in a Catholic hospital, which meant morning and evening prayers were offered over the hospital intercom every day. While “morning” prayer often came after I had already been at work for a few hours, it was still often a relief to have God’s mercy invoked on behalf of my patients and my colleagues.
One day, one of the Sisters who helped run the hospital prayed out of Psalm 121:
The Lord is your guardian;
the Lord is your shade
at your right hand.
By day the sun will not strike you,
nor the moon by night.
I was alone in the newborn nursery with one nurse at the time and began to meditate on the prayer when the other person in the room loudly remarked: “What a lackluster, generic, liberal prayer!”
I am not sure what inspired this woman’s comment. I quickly observed to her where the prayer had come from before I scuttled away to do some work elsewhere, but her comment has stuck in my mind as I have thought about the cultural challenges facing Christians as the threat of real, honest-to-goodness persecution starts to come in the form of various legal initiatives.
While genuine threats to the conscientious, public practice of Christian teaching appear to be growing stronger, our own inability to take the Bible or its commands seriously will not only harm us on its own terms—it will even strengthen the case against us. Specifically, believers in Christ facing discrimination may be living through God’s judgment on us for helping perpetuate discrimination against others.
Misidentifying an unfamiliar Psalm as wishy-washy liberal nonsense is funny, but failing to reckon with the whole counsel of Scripture can have devastating consequences. Evangelical Christians were either hostile or indifferent towards the Civil Rights Movement, thus making them complicit in the death of many African-Americans who as fellow citizens deserved protection under the law and as fellow believers deserved honor and love. Explicit racism persisted in evangelical legal cases as late as 1983 in Bob Jones University v. United States and can still be found today in various corners of different denominations if one is willing to look.
It is thus unsurprising that one of the most frequently invoked arguments against Christians who want to defend the historic interpretation of marriage between a man and a woman relates to the history of Christian racial bigotry. Most of our forefathers in the faith who were otherwise scrupulous in their theology had a huge blindspot in regards to race that in turn helped to perpetuate injustice, so how is that any different from our contemporary opposition to gay sex? Christians and non-Christians have found this particular line of argument unsubstantiated, so I do not think it bears full discussion here.
Yet the historical parallel is enough—particularly in regards to the invocation of the Bob Jones University case in discussions around SB 1146—to raise questions about the accountability Christians may be facing today. Even if Christian acquiescence to injustice means nothing in terms of modifying doctrine or adjudicating discrimination claims in higher education, does this connection signify a divine judgment?
I am not aware of anyone even claiming to have a special revelation to suggest that God is using religious liberty restrictions to judge American Christians for the sin of racism. I also don’t want to terribly picky; the Church’s treatment of LGBT people has also been terrible enough to rankle the Almighty and require repentance.
Rather, I think a clear case can be made from Scripture that God’s judgments on His people are severe enough to attract their attention even if those judgments don’t appear to be the direct human consequences of particular sins. Any connection between racial injustice and religious liberty is, like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, meant to draw attention to the gravity of our sins and the urgency of addressing them. If we are going to take a stand in the public square, we had best be certain that we are not leaning on feet of clay.
The text that illuminates this principle most clearly is Isaiah 58, though passages like Ezekiel 23 and Habakkuk 1 are also instructive. Isaiah’s famous oracle regarding worship opens with God’s people fastidiously observing their religious rituals and noticing God’s indifference. The LORD’s assessment of their faithfulness is incisive: “They seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness.”
He goes on to observe that their days of fasting end in oppression for their workers and quarreling among them. God contrasts this with “a fast that I choose”, which does not distinguish between acts which would consider “charity” or those we would call “justice” but rather blends them together (as the Bible often does). God promises that those who expend themselves on behalf of the poor and oppressed will see their institutions and cities restored. The call to “break every yoke” does not abrogate the practices of fasting or Sabbath observances, but it complements and completes them.
In the New Testament, there is no indication that God’s relationship with His Church differs substantially in this regard. For example, the letters to the seven churches in the beginning of Revelation contain specific warnings with imminent judgment threatened for errors of doctrine or neglect of practices. The covenant of grace expounded upon in Paul’s letters and the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels only expand the scope of cultural redemption we can hope for when we faithfully proclaim the Word and minister to those around us.
Even if we can accept that our current cultural and legal opposition is somehow related to racial sins—so what? After all, the overwhelming majority of conservative Christian are no longer tolerant of legal segregation and many even worship side-by-side with people of color. If God required that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk”, is there recompense yet to be paid for redlining? If “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”, should we expect yet more persecution to account for thousands of lynchings?
Sadly, I think the answer is yes—because the injustice is still ongoing. It would be bad enough if redlining and blockbusting had only cheated one generation of African-Americans out of significant wealth and left a legacy that still controls neighborhoods and cities, but redlining is still happening. The disenfranchisement of black voters pre-1960’s is already a stain on the national conscience, but some contemporary politicians are still pushing deliberately discriminatory voting restrictions. The violence visited upon people of color just a few decades ago would be bad enough, but recent Department of Justice reports in Ferguson and Baltimore speak to a systemic pattern of racial discrimination in policing that has undoubtedly contributed to the deaths of innocent people like Philando Castile.
While many Christians have spoken out and committed themselves to the necessary work of rectifying these injustices, there are still far too many who are silent—or are digging their heels in. Despite serious reflection at places like the Reformed African American Network and decades of faithful practice through institutions like the Christian Community Development Association, there is still great reticence to engage with the work of racial justice… because people fear going along with a wishy-washy liberal program. There are substantial discussions to be had about how to address the disparities that cause needless suffering to our brothers and sisters of color in our churches and cities, but we have to start by taking our previous offenses against God and His people seriously– and then listening to the people who are still experiencing the hurts of racism.
American Christians who want to survive the coming tide of cultural persecution cannot hope to hide in the neighborhoods and churches whose makeup was undeniably shaped by segregation or flee to whiter county or country. We have to reckon with our past even as we hope for a future in which God’s Kingdom is proclaimed in our words and deeds. I have discussed elsewhere what a movement of Christians to address racial injustices might look like practically: addressing the realities of institutional and systemic sin, becoming neighbors with people on the margins, and building Benedict Option communities in places of great need. These sorts of choices will undoubtedly expose us to risks and sufferings created by the systems that we often unknowingly benefit from—but also to joys we would never know if only prioritize safety and security.
We can’t know for sure what sort of divine machinations are behind our current cultural moment. Nor can we guarantee that putting our time and wealth on the line for the sake of racial justice will reverse the legal restrictions that are coming for Christians of conscience (although we probably have an awful lot to learn from African-Americans about how to live as a thriving minority under state-sanctioned oppression). What we can know for sure, though, is right there in Isaiah:
If you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.