“Jesus wasn’t a Republican”. By now, I’ve seen more than one Facebook post go viral with this as a thesis. In light of current events centering around racism and justice, it’s gaining steam. I have witnessed numerous college-age, predominantly white Christians become vocal about their fatigue with the identity politics of their parents’ generation. I’d even go as far as to say they are disillusioned, and reference this as to why their generation is leaving the church in mass. The specific issues are easy to understand: the strong association of following Christ with conservative politics, racism in the church both subtle and overt, and the conflation of patriotism with ethnocentrism (i.e., allowing a reasonable phrase like “I’m proud to be an American” to become a sinful pride that feels superiority to other nationalities.)
Fair or not, these things have come to a head with the election of Donald Trump. The oft-cited statistic that 81% of white evangelicals voted for him, along with the regular accusations of racism and prejudice leveled against him, testify to this.
I do not intend here to dismiss this thinking entirely, because much of it I know is real. I also think people like me do well to at least listen to it, even if we do not agree with all of it. It typically does not hurt to be “the eyes and ears of Grace,” by genuinely letting a person know that you see them and hear them. Because many times you find that there are deeper wounds than the words people use to express frustration. And others are sharing viral posts because they are simply trying to empathize with those people.
Yet I have enough college-aged Christian friends on social media that feel similarly enough to these viral posts that they have shared them, yet also would be open to reading some pushback. That is what I intend to do today. Because it is human nature to try to course-correct by knee-jerking too far the other way1. By making different and even polar opposite mistakes. I have made plenty in my life and I know God has granted me wisdom from them.
This is a huge part of who I am
On that note, I want to share where I am coming from before I get to that. I am a 42-year old pastor. I grew up on a farm, working alongside far more black and Spanish-speaking workers than white people. My brothers and I attended a public school essentially our whole lives, through high school, in a school that was racially-mixed. Additionally, I lived and worked in Bel-Cragin, Chicago for 17 years, a mostly Spanish-speaking neighborhood. And I attended a church that through sweat and tears transitioned into a bilingual church, because of its context.
That entire time I was mentored by a pastor who is one of the most thoughtful, nuanced, balanced, wise and well-spoken men you’ll ever meet. And who bled Christ’s love for the diversity of Chicago. When I first arrived to the city, I worked downtown and the staff I labored with had 10 people—eight African-Americans, one Mexican and me. I attended Moody Theological Seminary and was usually in the minority in my classes as a white, first language English speaker2.
I say that to not boast, because essentially all of that was not by choice but was thrust upon me. But rather I share that to say that I have had hundreds of conversations in my life about race, racism, ethnicity, culture and cultural ego. I understand many of the arguments people make about these things right now in America on social media quite well. From all sides. I don’t write if I don’t understand3.
So with that in mind, allow me to share three potential concerns I have with viral posts I have seen from younger Christians leaving the church over racism and politics.
1. I worry about a proverbial pendulum swing.
We live most comfortably in the extremes. It is difficult to live in tension and in the nuanced middle. We seem to crave and find security in tribalism. Therefore it is natural to want to reject identity politics on one side and run to the other.
So I’ll say it plainly: Jesus wasn’t a democrat, either. He wasn’t a Socialist. He wasn’t “liberal”. However, I have no doubt there is a growing minority of Christians in America who have rejected Donald Trump to follow Bernie Sanders. Jesus was about turning the other cheek and sacrificing to help the less fortunate, right? This should affect how we think about guns and helping the poor and immigrant, right? Yet, Jesus lived in a different time and culture than we do, and hence does not speak clearly to things like illegal immigration, health care or buying a gun for recreation or self-defense. Also, much of what Jesus taught was for the church or the individual and does not fit neatly into the goals of a secular government and what is best for a nation4.
I believe you can and generally should have opinions on these issues based on the Bible. I certainly have them. My point here is to not shun the weaponizing of Jesus on one side, just to do the same on the other.
Additionally, a similar concern I have is that, in the name of racial justice, people exchange harmful thinking for different harmful thinking. It is harmful to be unwilling to listen to people’s stories of racism. Likewise, it is harmful not to thoughtfully consider the data that exists about inequality of outcome for blacks in areas like prison sentencing, wealth and education5. And it is quite harmful to say or imply that George Floyd deserved his graphic death because he was a criminal. Sadly, I know there are people out there like this.
Yet it is also harmful to not fact check or vet everything that gets posted under the name of “anti-racism”. Facts matter. Truth matters. Racism is evil, but misinformation and disinformation are destroying our ability to dialogue. Policemen and white people are not hunting down and killing black men every day6. This issue is not even close to genocide. It is not necessarily racist to say “Make America Great Again”. It is not “covert white supremacy” to teach or preach that we are all of one race7. I do not believe Donald Trump said or implied that white supremacists in Charlottesville were “very fine people”8.
Christians I know have posted all of these things (and many others I won’t get into here). I believe their intentions are often good. But I also believe in an attempt to be empathetic, we’ve turned our hearts up to maximum and our brains off. This can be wise for a time, but this is not healthy in the long run. If we are to battle racism in the church and try to stem the tide of young people defecting over it, we need to interpret and apply the Bible. We cannot do this if we live in the weeds of hyperbole and propaganda. As a result, I beg of this generation to not allow a cultural war against injustice to replace the actual Gospel, and its war on all sin. Don’t let the pendulum swing.
2. I worry about stereotyping.
One thing that invariably happens when you start talking about groups of people is stereotyping. I do not think it is fair to stereotype young Christians in any way. I rarely if ever use the word “millennial” because of this9. We wield terms like that disparagingly too often, as if any behavior or habit can capture a group so complex. The same should be true for older Christians as well. Refuse to speak as if they are all the same. Demographics can be helpful for areas like advertising. Yet, they are a poor way to understand human thinking and morality.
Social media has amplified this. For instance, you constantly read things like “The left wants to do this…” as if every single person in some nebulously-defined group believes whatever the accusation is. What is “the left” any way in specific terms? What is “the right”? And what is a “Trump supporter”? Is it every single person who voted for him, even those who did so primarily because of the alternative?
We do well to be very specific when talking about sins in our culture. Even terms like “systemic racism” do not help us reach solutions if we do not call out specific people and policies10.
And I fear that it is too easy to classify people by broad categories like age and presidential support. And then to lump complex groups together on issues like racism and politics. It creates this ambiguous boogeyman that is impossible to confront. Ironically, this is the very thinking that causes people to be racist. Hopefully, we can see the danger in starting any sentence with “All black people…”. Why do this with any category of people?
3. I worry about the lack of accountability to and recognition of agency.
I do not ever want to viciously parse people’s words, but I do think how we phrase this matters: young people are leaving the church in part because of the negative influence of racism and identity politics, but foundationally because of their own free will. And if we are not careful, we can allow people to liberate themselves from their decisions.
I can fully get behind parents being a stumbling block to children, because the Bible teaches that (Matthew 18:6). But young adults must own their choices. Defecting from the church is a serious crisis of faith and I believe it is a scary thing to think someone else should be entirely blamed for that kind of decision. Victimization runs contra much of Scripture11(Ezekiel 18:19-20; Acts 17:32).
The End of the Beginning
I realize even with 2,000 words, which is a long article for me, that I cannot fully capture all of intricacies of everything I believe. As a result, I invite feedback to help foster more discussion and even clarification if necessary. Moreover, if I can be proven wrong about anything I believe, I will gladly change my mind with good data and deep reflection. So please do not hesitate to comment below.
- As with Peter’s reaction to Christ washing his feet in John 13. ↩
- I even once was in a group project of four people where I was asked to only do 10% of the research so that I would do all of the actual writing for the paper. Because I was the only native English speaker. ↩
- Having said that, Truth is true no matter who says it. Experience, or lack thereof, has no bearing on the truth of any message. See Jeremiah 1 or 1 Samuel 3. Even so, experience helps us significantly in wisdom and understanding in how to live out what we learn. ↩
- For example, I believe we should allow tens of thousands of refugees into our country each year, because it seems compassionate to me as a Christian. Yet the U.S. government has to consider security of its citizens and not merely compassion. So while I may advocate for more refugees, and may present a sound, data-based argument for them, I do not think I can play the Jesus card in that argument. Governmental leaders are not and should not be guided the way churches and individual Christians are. ↩
- Here is one of many articles you can find. Again, I do not advocate merely reading it and dismissing it, or reading it and accepting it without thinking and dialoguing with about it. ↩
- See this LeBron James tweet from May 6th. And contrast it with this article. ↩
- See this chart. For whatever it is worth, as a pastor, I do not teach that we are all one race without qualifying it by saying that race has become very much like culture in the U.S. So that would be a biblical difference, like Jew and Gentile differences taught in 1 Corinthians 9. But it is clearly biblical that we are one race, as Acts 17 teaches. So I cannot fathom calling that teaching “racist”. ↩
- Here are Trump’s own words: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name...I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” Conversely, what he said about Mexicans when he announced his candidacy five years ago was offensive. My contention is that Trump is far more complicated than either of these quotes, or how his enemies and followers portray him daily. ↩
- 18-22 year olds are not millennials, but I think you get my drift. ↩
- For the record, I have seen plenty of people, including peaceful protestors, articulate plainly what their demands are. And I have seen them accomplish actual policy change as a result. ↩
- This is not to deny whatsoever that some people are victims. Not everyone can simply “work harder” to get out of things like poverty. I am indebted to people like Tim Keller in Generous Justice and David Platt in a sermon on racism from 2018 for teaching me that these things are usually complex. It is rarely 100% the choice of the individual or 100% the fault of oppression by others as to why people struggle. It is usually a mixture both. But when it comes to following Christ or abandoning him, Scripturally I cannot justify playing the victim. ↩