HomeFaithOPINION: How Jesus would respond to wokeness

OPINION: How Jesus would respond to wokeness

By Sabrina Parker


The issues of wokeness and social justice that divide Americans today can trace their roots back to the turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1960s. It was during this pivotal time that the term “woke” first emerged within Black communities to describe a state of heightened awareness about the systemic racism, discrimination and oppression that plagued society.

Activists fighting for racial equality were seeking to spread consciousness of the very real threats, like police brutality and lynching, facing Black people simply due to the color of their skin. They understood that ignorance could literally be dangerous. Only by truly understanding the depths of anti-Black racism could communities organize effectively to push for change.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Awakening even those not actively promoting hate but passively allowing injustice through inaction was recognized as key.

Terms like “staying woke” were used as calls to awareness within Black communities, fueling the solidarity and hope needed to face immense struggle and believe in achieving justice and progress. Being woke was not a choice in this era, but a necessity for survival, resistance and empowerment of Black Americans.

Now fast forward to today, where the concept of wokeness remains a topic of intense debate polarized along ideological lines. On one side, proponents see it as continuing the important work of raising awareness of systemic injustices like racism, sexism, and oppression faced by marginalized groups. They argue wokeness promotes a more just, equitable and inclusive society by confronting hard truths about historical and ongoing discrimination.

However, critics contend aspects of wokeness have become too extreme, accusing activists of exercising harsh censorship and ideological compliance. They argue it promotes reverse racism by attacking societal pillars like meritocracy, individualism and free speech. There are also concerns some corporate entities superficially tout wokeness for profit rather than meaningful social change.

Caught in the middle are many who support equality and anti-discrimination goals but feel alienated by some negative portrayals of wokeness. There remains an ongoing struggle to balance social progress with protecting civil liberties, and to determine how much change can reasonably happen through empowerment versus confrontation.

It is within this highly polarized context that Christians and other faith leaders are searching for guidance on issues at the intersection of wokeness, justice and reconciliation. But what would Jesus’ view have been on promoting social consciousness and confronting issues like racism? Looking to his teachings and actions, there are clear stances that can be inferred:

  • Jesus would side unequivocally with uplifting society’s downtrodden and challenging unjust treatment of the marginalized.
  • He promoted radical inclusion and recognizing our shared humanity above all else. His message was one of loving our neighbors regardless of outward differences.
  • Jesus confronted hypocrisy through respectful dialogue seeking truth and understanding, not aggression or condemnation of individuals.
  • His example shows proclaiming tough truths about systemic harms need not come at the cost of also emphasizing our interconnectedness and pursuing redemptive social change through peaceful means.

While interpretations may vary, most scholars agree Jesus would respond to modern movements emphasizing similar themes of inclusion, compassion and social justice with open and caring engagement, not dismissal or hostility. His was ultimately a timeless message of uplifting all people through courageous acts of selfless love.

Looking to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, there are clear parallels that can be drawn between his message and core goals of wokeness. Jesus repeatedly spoke out against injustice, challenging social and religious authorities when they privileged some over others. He condemned hypocrisy and advocated unambiguously for the oppressed.

His ministry centered on themes of love, humility, recognizing our shared humanity and bringing people together across dividing lines. In a revolutionary act for his time, Jesus reached out purposefully to those on society’s margins through acts of radical kindness – healing the sick, eating with sinners, lifting up women in a patriarchal culture. 

He emphasized treating people as individuals rather than defining them by group stereotypes or social status. Jesus came to redeem all of humanity and establish a faithful community where the outcasts and outnumbered could find refuge, dignity and justice.

When considering issues like combating racism, promoting understanding between different communities and pursuing social equity, Jesus likely would wholeheartedly support reexamining ingrained systems that perpetuate oppression and marginalization in nonviolent, relationship-centered ways. After all, isn’t combating prejudice and acknowledging our common lot in life some of the fundamental messages of his ministry?

Of course, Jesus also preached forgiveness, seeking truth through open and honest dialogue, and avoiding harsh accusations or rigid ideologies. If wokeness is understood in these terms of enlightening others through respect, humility and nuance – not condemnation – then he surely would embrace its goals of inclusion. But individual Christians will interpret his teachings in differing ways.

There are undoubtedly complexities to any social movement, and critics of “cancel culture” argue aspects of wokeness can isolate fence-sitters if pursued punitively rather than empathetically. However, if we consider how Christ uniquely uplifted society’s outcasts and challenged the injustices of his era through courageous acts of compassion, it’s clear his message resonates deeply with ideals of social awareness, justice and brotherhood.

So where does this leave us today? How can we apply Jesus’ example of loving engagement with all people to push conversations on wokeness, and the issues of race, gender and inequity it addresses, in a more constructive direction?

Experts who have studied how to promote empathy and understanding between divided groups say the most effective means are through open and honest dialogue in a spirit of humility; fostering meaningful interactions and relationships across perceived divisions; sharing personal experiences to humanize differing realities; jointly working on common goals; and celebrating our diversity while avoiding accusations and defensiveness.

When we discuss issues courageously yet respectfully, placing our shared hopes for justice and redemption above partisan positioning, it creates space for listening with new perspectives in mind. There each voice can be heard to collectively advance a more equitable solution.

This approach of principled nonviolence in interpersonal interactions mirrors Jesus’ example of redeeming humanity through grace rather than condemnation. And it just may spread more widespread consciousness in a spirit he would undoubtedly encourage – one of inclusion, repentance from evils like racism, and affirming our interdependence regardless of surface differences.

The road ahead remains long. But taking courage from Christ’s model of walking peacefully with all people to establish God’s justice, there is hope we can thoughtfully continue progress on matters of wokeness – and realize Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community where people are judged not by outward attributes but by character of their conviction. A place where at last, as that old civil rights anthem proclaimed, both free at last and free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.Sabrina Parker is a guest columnist writing about faith, diversity and equality in Jackson and beyond. Contact her at parkerintennessee@gmail.com.

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