A good question: Is Christianity woke?
One question, four answers
‘All humanity matters’
An era is remembered by the broad strokes of what was going on at the time – whether true, a romantic memory or a dream. For the Second World War generation, it was community spirit and resolve that got them through the tyranny of Hitler. For the Baby Boomers, it was all about the freedom and exploration of the 1960s, the sexual revolution and its musical soundtrack. For us in the 2010s and early 2020s, one of the prominent buzz words has been ‘wokeness’.
Like Marmite, it is either loved or hated, a badge of honour or a signifier of self-righteousness, depending on your tribal allegiance.
You could argue that while the Christian faith is political in its actions, it is non-party political (at least that was the idea). But which is the chicken and which is the egg? If wokeness is fundamentally about being aware of social problems, inequality and oppression and actively standing against it, then by what metric are those things deemed a problem? The Western value system, it can be argued, is the legacy of the Christian worldview embedded in our psyche even if the churches are largely vacant. So the chicken that laid the egg of social justice and the fight against oppression is Christianity, whether acknowledged or not…
Antony Aris-Osula is co-founder of the mentoring company Tribe Redeem and author of Coconut Prince: Memoir of a black sheep (Rite Tone, 2021)
‘Jesus spoke to the voiceless’
I find this question hard to answer. The popular use of the term ‘woke’ tends not to do the origin of the concept justice. To be woke is to be awake to structural injustice, specifically racial injustice. Although not using exactly the term ‘woke’ Allan Boesak summed up this consciousness in his 1976 Farewell to Innocence: ‘Blackness is an awareness, an attitude, a state of mind. Where fear and the urge to survive made deception a way of life; being denied a sense of belonging; discrimination… Blacks, through Black Theology and Black Consciousness, now seek their authentic humanity, free from the blemish of white contempt – systemic or personal.’ I, as a white person, benefit from the system of white power and oppression, so I can never understand what it means to need to have a woke mindset.
Yet, Boesak would be the first to argue for Jesus’ wokeness. Jesus worked outside of the remit of empire, speaking to the voiceless, the outcast, and the ‘dirty’. He was all too aware of the mind games of Roman centurions, the dangers of exclusive attitudes from his own people, and the seemingly solidified discriminatory social conventions of his day, but, little by little, by working outside of the socially conventional and the powerful, he showed us how to gradually break down oppressive systems.
But today, is Christianity as an institution woke? Sadly, somebody who does not belong to the Church would inevitability say no. Our religion does not tend to spring up connotations of fluidity, resistance and awakeness. It’s more like sleepy, tradition hugging, backwardness….
Victoria Turner is a PhD researcher in ecumenism at New College, Edinburgh
‘Christianity is on the side of the marginalised’
The word ‘woke’ has become one of those terms used in a pejorative way by people on the right of politics and faith to refer to politically correct social justice warriors on the left. The culture wars through which we are living see people on either side of the debates shouting at each other without taking the time to listen, and the Church is sadly no place of exception. For Christians who would describe themselves as anti-woke, wokeness is unchristian and unbiblical.
Debates have been raging, particularly within US evangelicalism, about the nature of Christianity, with some claiming our faith is most definitely woke while others vehemently argue it most definitely is not. For the latter, the alignment of critical race theory and intersectionality with Christianity is too much to even conceive of.
But if we look at the origins of the word, we will find sentiments not too dissimilar to those littered throughout the Bible. Woke means to be ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’. Many Christians who would describe themselves as woke – even in a tongue-in-cheek way – are sensitive to any hint of injustice or inequality.
In some instances, it is this perceived hyper-sensitivity for which they are critiqued. I too become uneasy when wokeness becomes another form of dogma, but I would much rather be woke than not – because I believe that Christianity is on the side of those who are marginalised and oppressed. I find in it strong critiques of those who oppose attempts to make things more equal…
Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster, head of public engagement at Christian Aid and author of God Is Not a White Man: And other revelations (Hodder & Stoughton)
Well, obviously not. (Our prescient editor requested 450 words, but recognised that ‘you might find 449 of them superfluous’.)
‘Wokeism’ does have certain traits in common with Christianity. It tends, for example, to resemble Christian fundamentalism in considering itself to have an exclusive claim upon truth. And, like at least some Christians, its devotees are often devoid of a noticeable sense of humour. Unlike any type of Christianity in recent centuries, it is demanding a monopoly of the public square.
In essence, however, it tends to be an ‘ultra’ version of ideas that have been around for some time. There is a certain compatibility here with Augustinianism: one is born in a state of damnation because of the circumstances under which one was conceived. But whereas with Augustine this applies to the whole human race on account of sexual procreation, in wokeism the stain of birth-derived damnation is selectively applied, and works on a sort of sliding scale by gender, ethnicity, etc.
To be sure, the Gospels tell us that ‘the last shall be first’ (Matthew 20:16). And if a Christian were to respond that this is about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ (20:1), that is, in the eschaton, he or she might expect to be met with scoffing: ‘See! Your religion is about legitimising injustice in the here and now with pie in the sky by and by.’ More pertinent is the critique that old elites have merely been replaced by new, far more vigilant, far less tolerant ones; and that, by delegitimising free discussion, free choices, and meritocracy as ‘masks for oppression’, we have merely made ourselves less efficient and less free. Nothing very ‘kingdom of heaven’ about that….
Meic Pearse is Emeritus Professor of History at Houghton College, New York
This is an extract from an article published in the October 2021 edition of Reform