The Church and Race: Ron Highfield

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ron Highfield

Ron Highfield is a professor of religion at Pepperdine University. He’s working on a book about Christianity and social justice. Today, he posted an article making a couple of points that fit well with the current theme, although not specifically about race: “Is Social Justice Ministry a Substitute Gospel?”

Highfield is no rightwing, legalist opposed to social justice. In fact, he has quite a strong history in social justice. And he’s quite the thinker. Some of his work has been extensively reviewed by Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed. Smart theologians read Highfield.

Regarding social justice, Highfield suggests that there are three ways we might do it.

First, we might seek justice for ourselves. This is hardly wrong but neither is it particularly Christian. The pagans also seek justice for themselves.

Second, we may seek justice for others, but this path is fraught with danger.

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity of seeking justice morally ambiguous. … We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of disdain springs to life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we are trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. … Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible rule that we become like what we hate.

These are very unfamiliar thoughts. I mean, I thought that by seeking justice for others, that God would surely be good with my actions, that my parents would be proud, that my college application or job resume would look stronger, and my congregation would affirm my value.

And yet Highfield says that by using my own privilege to serve others, I risk so segregating myself from the others that I can’t stand them and they can’t stand me. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is very easy for “the poor” to become an abstraction. I love the poor, but not John, the poor person who begs for money outside my office.

A third approach is to “do justice.”

You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself; and the foundation for loving justice more than yourself is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t act justly in all our relationships? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

(bold is mine).

So, to me, a white church in a racially mixed community does not act justly in all its relationships — or else it would be a racially mixed church. Something about that church communicates to the Christians in the area that only white Christians are welcome. And this is a form of injustice. How does a predominantly white church communicate that it wishes to be a more just church?

Highfield summarizes his conclusions in terms that sound much like Hauerwas, Yoder, Nugent, Thompson, etc. —

[T]he shift to social justice as the church’s primary outreach to the world also distorts the mission of the church. I see three obvious ways this distortion takes place.

(1) The social justice model possesses a strong tendency to play down the need for individual repentance, faith, and conversion. The evil it aims to address is socially systemic injustice rather than personal sin. It views the human problem as rooted in its racist, sexist, colonialist, homophobic, environmentally exploitative, plutocratic, etc., social structures rather than in each person’s idolatry, ignorance, and rebellion against God. Or, it engages in relieving poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc. without engaging in evangelism and establishing churches.

(2) It tends to blur the line between the kingdom of God and the world. It allows the church to become an adjunct to the world, functioning as a social agency devoted to ameliorating the world’s ills. Christianity, originally understood as the present, supernatural manifestation of the future reign of God, is transformed into an ideology whose value is based on its usefulness in support of social activism. Christians working for social justice are tempted to root their identity more in a cause held in common with nonbelievers than with a cause exclusive to believers.

(3) It tends to utopianism, that is, the naive view that we can bring about the kingdom of God on earth by dent of human effort. It seeks to cure human sin by reorganizing social structures or meeting bodily needs.

(paragraphing modified)

Amen.

It’s not that we shouldn’t care about the oppression and suffering of the poor outside the Kingdom. Rather, Highfield’s point is that we need to view such things in terms of the Christian worldview — in terms of sin and the reign of God through his Kingdom and atonement through the cross of Christ and the transformative work of the Spirit. It’s too easy to think in worldly terms when social justice is discussed. A clear sign of worldliness is when we propose a solution that doesn’t involve God, Jesus, or the Spirit. We then become humanists.

Now, apply this principle to the Black Lives Matter controversy. How does the work of God, Jesus, and the Spirit speak to the injustice being suffered in the black community? (And sometimes it really is injustice.) The church has only one solution to offer — and yet we have no confidence in that solution. We just don’t see how Jesus is the answer.

In fact, we seem to seriously doubt whether Jesus is powerful enough even to heal the racial divide within the Churches of Christ! No wonder we turn to other solutions for the racial divide in our communities.

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  1. “The church has only one solution to offer — and yet we have no confidence in that solution. We just don’t see how Jesus is the answer.
    In fact, we seem to seriously doubt whether Jesus is powerful enough even to heal the racial divide within the Churches of Christ!”

    This is quite true. To begin, Isaiah and Micah both sanctioned the doing of justice by Jews and taken up by Christians too. I think some times the doing of justice puts too much religion in the church house. It is one thing to attend on Sunday, perform the 5 acts, get a sermon on how to be saved, and go home. The elders keep things running smoothly and one teaches I Corinthians for yet another time in Sunday school. It is another thing when people start getting themselves (and the church) involved with real perhaps shady people in the secular world who might have rioted the previous night. This matter puts in the elders in an unfamiliar setting and upsets the church who has been proud of its past and always, at least till now, had fine people and kept its hands clean. This is why the Christian social justice people tend to go with the secular social justice people. It’s tearing Christianity apart.

  2. From much I have witnessed, many Black Christians have no desire to worship with a predominately white congregation because of the pressure that would be put upon them to agree with the white interpretation of the gospel and social justice. We should not forget that African Americans see the gospel working for them in and through political and social justice, no differently than other Christians have no problem seeing abortion abolished through politics.

    There will continue to be a great divide between White and Black Christians as long as whites keep saying, “We know what makes you free better than you”.

  3. What is sometimes difficult is helping the oppressed to see what is ultimately in their own self interest (acceptance of the Gospel with its’ implications): Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? ESV (I would guess Highfield deals with the passage, but not read him yet.) It is hard to “see” justice when the whip is on your back, the children are hungry, or the police (or other “powerful” seem to challenge your very right to exist in the same social framework. It is even more difficult to want to be “absorbed” by those who are perceived to be the oppressors (now or in the past -“sins of our fathers”). It is also difficult to want to exercise Micah when the message of “walking humbly” is rejected.

    In practice, the whip of oppression must be thrown away: one hand must offer the physical needs — the other must offer the Gospel. Only when both hands are open can the Prince of peace bring peace. Social justice is seldom either — it too often becomes the self interest of all involved (makes ME feel good [I’ve “done” justice and kindness) on the one hand and just give ME more free stuff on the other hand).

    I have walked the path with my brothers and sisters who are black (still do after 50+ years). I do work with James 1:27 in oppressed areas esp. Zimbabwe) and have and do deal with the selfish corruption that hinders those efforts. How do we serve through and past and in spite of these things? We have had to terminate help because of the corruption; it hurts most the innocents, and yet to continue would still hurt the innocents because they were NOT receiving “social justice”. I ‘ve posted on this before — sometimes the concept of social justice goes no further than my own selfish interest and my own house — not even my neighborhood.