As I continue to scan the landscape of Christian social justice activism, that is, social justice-labeled activities that are said to be carried out “in the name of” Christ, I’ve noticed many Christian activists have a tendency to proffer to the world an image of Jesus that is tantamount to that of a sanctified social worker, a holy humanitarian, an exalted egalitarian.
This visage of Jesus as a “Social Savior” is borne of a proclivity many Christian social justice activists have to leverage the works of Christ as the primary impetus not only for individuals who profess to follow Him to do likewise, but also institutions, such as governments and corporations, so that an equitable, just, and impartial society and world, which they believe Christ envisioned for mankind, ultimately becomes reality.
It is through this paradigm that such works of Christ as healing the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:13), and the blind man (Jn. 9:6-7), and feeding more than 5,000 people on one occasion (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 on another (Mk. 8:1-8), as well as His love for the poor (Luke 6:20) and the oppressed (Luke 4:18), are viewed as evidences that mandate Christians to take upon themselves, in accordance with Christ’s words in Jn. 9:4, to “…work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no man can work.”
This kind of sanguine worldview may seem admirable, perhaps even virtuous, to some, especially given the current milieu in which Christianity – and white evangelical Christians in particular – are being called to account for the deliberate and systematic misappropriation, to put it mildly, by their ancestors of various biblical precepts for the express purpose and intent of enslaving and otherwise oppressing black people in America.
That Christianity was practiced in such a deliberately iniquitous manner is both a sad and unarguable fact.
As author and researcher Richard Reddie notes in a 2007 article for the BBC on the Atlantic slave trade and abolition:
“Religion was…a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this. Ironically, although the assertion of evangelization was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work actually took place during the early years. In short, religion got in the way of a moneymaking venture by taking Africans away from their work. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify the cruel mistreatment of fellow Christians.”
Conversely, theologian and author Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, acknowledges:
“Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. The typical criticisms…about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. Historian C. John Sommerville claims that when Anglo-Saxons first heard the Christian gospel message they were incredulous. They couldn’t see how any society could survive that did not fear and respect strength. When they did convert, they were far from consistent. They tended to merge the Christian other-regarding ethic with their older ways. They supported the Crusades as a way of protecting God’s honor and theirs. They let monks, women, and serfs cultivate charitable virtues, but these virtues weren’t considered appropriate for men of honor and action. No wonder there is so much to condemn in church history.”
So, admittedly, there were those, including many Christians, who, while professing to be followers of the God of the Bible, appropriated the teachings of the Bible in such ungodly ways as to devalue, disparage, and destroy those who were equally the bearers of God’s image (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26) as those who, “in the name of” God, volitionally chose to oppress, maltreat, and, on many occasions, murder them.
But, be that as it may, to whatever extent the gospel was leveraged in such base and sinful ways is not the fault of Christianity. Quite the contrary. It is the fault of that which Christianity unambiguously and forthrightly addresses. Namely, the innate depravity of the human soul (Gen. 4:7, 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; Gal. 5:17.)