Category Archives: Martin Luther King Jr

Let the Church Be the Church! Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., accused the white American church of compromising the gospel. The most painful compromise, he argued, was not some churches’ obviously heretical defense of racism and segregation. The most painful compromise came from those moderate white pastors who refused to let the church be the church:

I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

Numerous theologians have since picked up on Dr. King’s critique. From the careful Willie Jennings, who maintains that Christian theology has never truly come to grips with its own complicity in colonialism, to the radical James Cone, who famously described the mainstream church’s witness as “white theology,” critics have argued that when it comes to the kingdom and its righteousness, the Western church has lost its way.

It seems easy to dismiss these theologians out of hand. Too many of them appear too willing to jettison orthodox Christian teaching for increasingly radical forms of liberation theology that have little to do with the gospel. And yet, to do so would be to miss an opportunity. The reality is that many of these criticisms of traditional Christianity are far more on target than we’d like to admit.

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Jesus and Social Justice

I came to grips with this reality in seminary when I studied Jesus’s preaching in Matthew 5 and Luke 4. The standard evangelical interpretation of Jesus’s proclamation that he came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18)—at least in the respected commentaries I was reading—was that Jesus was using metaphors to describe salvation from spiritual poverty and oppression. And there seemed to be a general consensus that when Jesus described those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—and are persecuted for it—he was talking about those who yearn for justification and sanctification (Matt. 5:6, 10).

So I was surprised when I turned to John Calvin, only to find that, at least with respect to these passages, his interpretation was closer to that of the liberation theologians than to much of contemporary evangelical theology. For example, on Jesus blessing those who suffer for righteousness’ sake:

I say that not only they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. Therefore, whether in declaring God’s truth against Satan’s falsehoods or in taking up the protection of the good and innocent against the wrongs of the wicked, we must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honor. (Calvin, Institutes 3.8.7)

I wondered if Calvin’s theology might help the church recover a more faithful gospel witness in the area of social justice. I wasn’t disappointed.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

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Have We Already Gotten Over Charlottesville?

What happened in Charlottesville last month horrified many people in this country: Nazis marching alongside the KKK on the streets of America; street-fighting; terrorism. There was an outpouring of righteous indignation, much as there was after the shooting of nine black people by Dylan Roof in a Charleston church.

Debates raged over whether or not President Trump was right to draw attention to violence on the part of “both sides.” Are soviet-flag-waving, anti-fascist activists worthy of the same denunciation as Nazi-flag-waving, white supremacists? Is it legitimate to respond to violence with violence?

But now we have moved on. After all, we have been here before. This is the stuff of which PBS documentaries are made, though in the past they have usually been in black and white.

To be sure, much has changed. I am glad that overt racism receives such sharp denunciation by the media and by many Christians today. And yet, what bothers me is how eagerly we as a nation denounce overt white supremacy, even as we blissfully ignore the more subtle racism that permeates our cities, courts, and prisons. This has far more destructive consequences for black people than a hundred rallies similar to Charlottesville’s.

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The sheer vitriol of our denunciation belies our own complicity in racial injustice for which we are so desperate to atone. We forget that even during the 50s and 60s many respectable white Christians, even in the South, abhorred violence and disorder.

Many white moderates love to signal our virtue by condemning violence and calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Meanwhile, we go back to our comfortable white suburbs, built with help from federal, state, and local governments during waves of white flight. We go back to our good jobs, our safe schools, and our stable investments. All the while we forget how racial discrimination systemically prevented African Americans from building the same sorts of lives, leaving millions trapped in poverty to this day.

Read the rest of this article at the Reformed African American Network.

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