Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

A Fight I Am Asking You to Join

It was one of those passing, ugly, hurtful moments. I still remember it sixty years later. My family was vacationing on the coast just north of San Diego. There was a motel near the pier owned by friends. After checking in, we stopped back by to visit. Moments later, a car drove up. The husband stepped out to secure a room for him and his wife. But as soon as the owner saw him getting out of his car, he hit the “No Vacancy” sign. It’s not that there wasn’t space—there simply wasn’t room for a family that was black.

It’s not at all difficult to understand how years of such despicable behaviors have led to so much of the growing rage in our culture. Like everyone else, I have been confronted with how to respond.

Ignore it?

Tell myself that I am not racist? After all, I have pastored an international church in Europe with some thirty-five nationalities, as well as a multicultural church on the west side of Portland. I embrace people of every color and celebrate our diversity, as well as our common faith in Christ.

Or get defensive? Especially with some of the inflammatory rhetoric spewed by BLM and CRT advocates—the sort intended to condemn me as an irredeemable white racist, permanently stained. Worse, a white, male, evangelical.

I have come to realize all of these responses are wrong. Much of it has been prompted by recent discussions with a friend, but particularly by an article in the New York Times this week. Did you see it? Esau McCaulley, a professor of theology at Wheaton College wrote, “Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism.”

What made this article so unique and compelling was the absence of a strident tone. No virtue-signaling. No effort to grandstand. This was no critical race theorist seeking to shame his white readers. It was simply a measured, articulate appeal from a theologian to stop and consider what systemic injustice looks like through the lens of Scripture. See our condition as God sees our condition. If only more and more of us in the church would put aside our complacency and defensiveness, repent of any racism, and listen—and give ourselves to alleviating the suffering.

Along with his article, McCaulley has written a significant book, Reading While Black. With the skill of a theologian, he takes the reader through passages of Scripture that have been historically abused to legitimatize racism and slavery. He also helps us see how powerfully God’s Word speaks to the issues of injustice. He reminds us that Jesus’s ministry, in the main, was an act of political resistance, a calling out of those who oppress, and an embrace of the marginalized (Luke 4:18-19). He reframes the true Jesus and corrects our misconceptions. The Son of God was not the meek and mild Jesus of popular imagination, “the creation of a comfortable middle class.”

McCaulley also points to the Apostle Paul who also courageously condemned the evil of his oppressive age. He too called for justice and advocated for the undervalued. But transformed by the gospel, Paul’s was more than a rage leveled at the oppressive majority population—he also preached love and forgiveness. This became his mission—not to view the Gentiles (and Roman oppressors in particular) as irredeemably racist. Instead, he accepted the call to be a light to the Gentiles, preaching God’s amazing grace (Acts 13:47).

It is well past time we as the church recover our same prophetic role to call out culture and extend mercy to those who have been shattered (Acts 2:17). As one black pastor friend recently wrote to me—“Please acknowledge our suffering and help alleviate our suffering if possible.”   Too many of us are more concerned with identifying with a political party and a political agenda than identifying with the marginalized. It’s time to recover an Isaiah-type spirit, speaking into rather than aligning with culture. This means naming injustices and speaking against prejudicial hearts. It means relying less on our own power and relying more on God’s. It means doing a daily inventory of our hearts, repenting of any and every form of racism, and taking a radical stand.

It is true that, in differing degrees, we are all victims, experiencing some injustice, some abuse, and some pain. We all have our grievances for we are all part of a sinful, broken world. As McCaulley notes, if we dig into any people’s corporate or personal past, one will find wrong. Nonetheless, it is time that many of us acknowledge and speak against the structural racism that people of color face—be it in health care, housing, policing, employment practice, or who you let stay in your motel. But do it differently than those who protest, condemn, and destroy. Do it not to shame but to heal.

When Christians stand up against racialized oppression—in demonstration of the narrative of Scripture, out of the compassion of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, and as a witness of the gospel of grace—“they are not losing the plot; they are discovering an element of Christian faith and practice that has been with us since the beginning.” We will begin to recover our credibility.

(This post was in my newsletter, which includes book choices and other thoughts. Just go to Subscribe on this site)

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