Invariably, when grave injustice is exposed in American society, people ask, “Where’s the church?” Maybe there’s something flattering about the question. It’s an acknowledgement of the extraordinary life and words of Jesus Christ and the otherworldly principles of the Christian faith articulated in commands such as “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). However, the question is more likely intended to shame Christians into action by revealing the stark contrast between our beliefs and practices. Sadly, the question has become mostly rhetorical because there seems to be little to no expectation that churches will do what’s necessary to lead the country toward a more just society on racial issues.
Chance the Rapper, a Grammy Award–winning hip-hop artist, repeated this query in light of recent deaths from racialized violence. Some contend that the question unfairly ignores the tireless work some churches are doing in the community. For example, Christians in Chicago have been feeding low-income residents since the COVID-19 crisis began as well as hosting and participating in demonstrations in response to racialized violence.
But in another way, it’s the right question when you consider the American church as a whole, especially those parts of the church who wield the most power in society. At best, many white evangelicals treat racial justice like an extracurricular activity. At worst, racial justice is framed as a distraction to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. When mentions of race and justice surface, too many evangelical leaders roll out distorted and extreme examples to make the case against Christian participation in justice efforts. They’ve resigned themselves to being skeptical commentators, experts at finding fault in the efforts of others and unwilling to find inspiration or courage to attack the problem more biblically. When black people ask, “Are you seeing this? Do you see us?” it gets lost in an echo chamber of bad theology, excuses, and bad faith deflections.
However, the Bible tells a much different story, and its principles lead us to a much different conclusion. I don’t contend with the assertion that our primary purpose is to proclaim the gospel, but I do disagree with the conclusion some draw from that assertion. The primacy of the Great Commission doesn’t diminish our obligation to “act justly” (Mic. 6:8). The Bible clearly establishes that God expects we’ll do his bidding and be self-sacrificial in our efforts to uphold justice and moral order. The prophet Isaiah lived at a time when injustice and immorality were pervasive. Isaiah 59:15–16 says,
Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene.
God was disturbed by the fact that his people were not doing the work of justice. He had set a standard and, obviously, intended his people to be purveyors of justice. Instead, his people had grown accustomed to the iniquity in their midst, at peace with injustice and immorality. God grew deeply distressed.
Our duty is more than not perpetuating injustice. We have an affirmative obligation to proactively assert God’s will through acts of justice. To contend otherwise hedges on biblical illiteracy since God continually repeats this requirement (Isa. 59:15–16; Mic. 6:8; Amos 5:23–24; Luke 4:18; 10:25–37). Justice isn’t a lack of injustice. It’s an active affirmative with form and substance of its own.
Racism is indeed a sin and heart issue, but its deadly effects can’t be taken lightly and can be brought to heel by Christian advocacy. Slavery was also a sin issue, but Christian abolitionists decided it was their duty to advocate for the freedom of their brothers and sisters instead of waiting for everyone’s heart to change. The “pray and let God take care of it” cop-out concerning racism is problematic from a biblical perspective. When your child cuts her knee and is bleeding profusely, you don’t just pray and wait. You urgently clean and bandage the wound because God has given you the means to address it. Accordingly, why would one only pray and wait when our brothers and sisters are being terrorized by racial injustice? God uses his servants to do his work, and majority Christians have the social and political capital to dismantle racism in all its forms. In the past, believers like Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers fought to end segregation and champion the right to vote. More recently, Christian leaders like Dr. CJ Rhodes and Dr. Ligon Duncan advocated for changing the Mississippi state flag.
First John 3:17–18 says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” In the context of racial injustice, it is unfaithful to say we love our brothers and sisters and not act on their behalf when we have the capacity to do so. We must uphold the imperative of prayer, but we can’t use prayer as a cover for not fixing the problems God has placed in our spheres of influence.
Christians taking the lead on fixing racial justice would give us the opportunity to counter the distorted versions of justice we often lament. If we want to show society that justice isn’t just about an exchange of power or tearing down important institutions, then we must demonstrate it on the ground. Providing a hopeful vision of justice is much better than avoiding justice due to the misconceptions.
Christians need to bring the same tenacity that we demonstrate when advocating for pro-life and religious liberty to the policy debate about racialized violence. I truly believe that our failure to do so has impeded our ability to create a more diverse coalition around the aforementioned and other issues confronting our world. The failure to uphold Christian values when it comes to race and justice seriously compromises the credibility of Christian conservatives. Tenaciously attacking racial injustice uplifts and endears marginalized groups who, historically, have little reason to trust that majority Christians have their best interest in mind. Doing justice would enable majority Christians to advocate for other issues from higher ground and with better footing. Most importantly, the failure to do justice damages the American church’s ability to evangelize. And if evangelism is to be our first priority, we’d best begin battling injustice, if for no other reason than to prove our faith isn’t dead.
Justin E. Giboney is an attorney, political strategist, president of the AND Campaign, and coauthor of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement. Follow him on Twitter @JustinEGiboney.