How do holiness and promoting justice in society relate? In a Facebook post on July 25, 2020, longtime Nazarene Pastor Michael Hull observed:
My heart is breaking with concern as I watch many of my beloved denominational leaders rushing to ‘take a knee’ before the cultural idol of ‘social justice’ rather than leading us to the true answer for the hour: a clarion call to Christian holiness.
His alternative solution? “The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of Christian holiness IS the answer! It’s revival we need.”
There’s much to consider in what Pastor Hull has written, and I hope you’ll read the entire statement on his FaceBook page, as linked above. There’s no question that sin in the human heart is a sickness that needs the cure that only Jesus can provide. By “revival,” Hull and those of us in the holiness tradition recognize that God wants to change our hearts. We individually need forgiveness of sins and the heart cleansing that the blood of Jesus provides (1 John 1:7-9). For this end we constantly pray.
But as a 3rd generation Nazarene who grew up in a revivalistic tradition, I wonder whether this individualistic lens is sufficient in our current cultural moment. “Just get people saved and sanctified and everything will be fine” is the sentiment I hear periodically. Usually it is voiced at a moment of societal reckoning like we’re witnessing following the brutal killing of George Floyd, a Black man arrested and murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.
I’ve been processing in my heart and mind what we all saw in that video. In this essay, I want to talk about it on two levels, namely, emotionally and theologically.
First, what can we say emotionally?
I’ve tried over the last 60 days to hear the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian Americans as they open up about their daily experience of living in the United States. (In this pandemic, that has mostly been through watching short testimonial videos and reading stories online). What I’ve heard is a heart’s cry from people who in a hundred ways, large and small, sense that they have been disrespected, wronged, and marginalized because of their skin color. Hull criticizes some of our Nazarene denominational leaders for “taking a knee before the cultural idol of social justice.” I respectfully disagree. What I see our denominational leaders doing is what hundreds of thousands across our land have been doing. We’ve stopped, we’ve sat down, and we’ve attempted to listen to the hurt. (If you haven’t watched the movie, “Just Mercy,” I highly recommend it as a good discussion starter). Out of those conversations have come stories of individuals of color who have been hurt by society in general and (sometimes) by churches. Only when we acknowledge that and ask for forgiveness can we experience God’s healing together.
Some years ago, General Superintendent Jerry Porter and other denominational leaders met with a group of Black Nazarene pastors. At the end, he knelt in front of one of the lead pastors and on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene asked for their forgiveness for our silence and (sometimes) complicity around racism. That moment seared itself into my memory, as I read about it in Holiness Today. I remember thinking that this is the essence of entire sanctification, of God’s Holy Spirit moving the church as a whole to a place of repentance. These kinds of gestures can be the first rain drops of a mighty divine downpour among us! And as we see similar gestures unfolding in our society – powerful signs of God’s prevenient grace at work – can we dare believe that the God who has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) is up to something new?
In the spirit of Dr. Porter’s historic gesture, I’ve been gratified to see reports on social media of pastors who – following George Floyd’s death – have headed into the streets to stand in solidarity with those raising their voices in support of Black lives. On Facebook, Adam Lipscomb, pastor of the City Life Church (a Wesleyan church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan) wrote of his involvement in one such protest on May 30, 2020:
I was at the protest downtown in Grand Rapids tonight. I was asked to pray by the organizers of a nonviolent protest that was to include a silent march. There were other groups that were not part of that protest that were filling the space before the non-violent protesters arrived. It’s easy to watch the news tonight and think that only one group was involved. There were multiple groups, some of which were Christian, nonviolent, and very disciplined. Other groups were from some sort of militia, and there were identifiable provocateurs.
I spent much of the night as part of the safety team standing between the protesters and police. I did end up taking an opportunity to pray publicly. It was a particularly dicey moment, and I shouted out my prayer over the crowd. I’m home now and will continue to pray for peace with justice.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the devil will try to sow weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus warned us as much. But it strikes me that what Pastor Lipscomb did and what many clergy and laity from a broad spectrum of denominations are doing is God’s good work and puts feet to our holiness.
Secondly, what can we say theologically?
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police calls us not only to process emotionally but also theologically. On this score, there is much to say.
1 Thess. 5:23-24 is a favorite passage for those of us who are persuaded that entire sanctification is a second definite work of grace after the New Birth. Yet as many sermons as I’ve heard preached on that passage, I’ve yet to hear a preacher underscore that Paul’s admonition is not to an individual, but to a church. When Paul writes “May the God of peace sanctify you through and through,” we could translate it as “May the God of peace sanctify y’all through and through.” Yes, God sanctifies individuals, but God does so in the context of our relational networks. In Africa, the meaning of Ubuntu is summarized as “I am because we are.” We cannot conceive of individual holiness apart from our connections with other human beings, so we could just as well say social sanctification as sanctification. It’s all of one piece.
Hull criticizes the term “social justice” as an “idol.” He says “the moment that ‘social’ is added to justice, it isn’t.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that statement. In fact, justice often plays itself out in the social setting as is evidenced by the Old Testament prophets’ calling out the injustices of their day. Sometimes, young idealists are mocked as being SJW’s – Social Justice Warriors. If they dropped the word “social” and just became JWs (Justice Warriors), would that satisfy their critics? Maybe we should just adopt the language of Zambian Nazarene Chanshi Chanda, who speaks of “Christlike Justice.” (See his excellent primer, Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition, where he maintains that our theological tradition is the natural soil for justice concerns to grow). Perhaps we should speak of Christlike Justice Warriors – CJWs? But I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever label we might use – SJW, JW, or CJW – someone would criticize. It’s time to ask ourselves:
What is it about the demand for justice that makes us profoundly uncomfortable?
How might our view change if we saw our pursuit of justice not as a distraction from holiness but as one important way that the church models Christian holiness for the world to see?
Finally, we need to revisit our concept of sin. Sin is not just individual; sin can be systemic. This is what the prophet Amos had in mind when he admonished Israel:
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:15, NIV).
God’s favor upon His people was dependent (according to Amos) on how just the court system was. For that system to be corrupt (i.e. sinful) brought God’s judgment upon the people. In verse 14, seeking good and not evil had an objective. It was “that you may live.” God cared about whether the systems in place were righteous or evil. Society flourishes when justice dominates.
This is but a taste of the Scripture’s concern for justice. As Nazarenes who are part of the holiness tradition, we must consider whether revival comes first and then racial reconciliation follows, or whether we have the order backwards. As the church, should we not come alongside anyone animated by God’s prevenient grace (Christian or not) to work for racial reconciliation as a necessary prerequisite and foretaste of revival? Is this not the model from Zaccheus? First, he acknowledged his wrongdoing then explained how he would be reconciled with those offended, by making restitution (Luke 19:8). Only then did Jesus say: “Today, salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9a, NASB). Reconciliation preceded revival.
Thank you, Pastor Michael Hull, for your thoughts. You are my brother in Christ. I’ve been struggling to understand what holiness looks like in the age of George Floyd and I sense that you are, too. Let us continue to feel, to think, and to act as the Lord leads us in the holy way of Gospel reconciliation.
Image credit (Black Lives Matter marchers)
Wikimedia Commons: Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)