Toddlers on a treadmill: Why evangelicals can’t even take baby steps toward justice

Toddlers on a treadmill: Why evangelicals can’t even take baby steps toward justice January 4, 2016

So InterVarsity took a bold leap into advocating for justice — and then hastily retreated, retracting its support for liberty and justice for all in an official statement posted to the Web titled “InterVarsity and #BlackLivesMatter.”

This word salad is hardly even a statement. It reads more like the index to some scholarly history text, something like A Survey of Tactics White Christians Have Used to Support Slavery, Segregation and Opposition to Civil Rights (1800-2015).

InterVarsity is retracting its support for #BlackLivesMatter. But IV is still selling these Martin Luther King Jr. T-shirts.
InterVarsity is retracting its support for #BlackLivesMatter. But IV is still selling these Martin Luther King Jr. T-shirts.

Somewhere in there you can still find traces of the initial, righteous impulse that led InterVarsity to flirt with the idea of what seemed to be, as Religion News Service first reported, “bold” and “unabashed support” for the Black Lives movement. But that impulse is buried beneath a muffling layer of equivocation and apology. The statement is wholly incompatible with the dynamic, prophetic statements from Michelle Higgins and other speakers at IV’s Urbana conference. They were convinced and spoke with conviction. IV’s statement is neither convinced nor convincing.

At Urbana, preachers and worship leaders plainly supported #BlackLivesMatter, and plainly asserted that other Christians ought to do so as well. InterVarsity’s post-Urbana statement doesn’t come near saying that. Nowhere does this statement plainly, unambiguously say: InterVarsity supports BlackLivesMatter because it’s the right thing to do. Nor does it follow the lead of Higgins and state the obvious and necessary implication of that: You should support it too or else you’re not doing the right thing.

And not having said those things, InterVarsity’s statement isn’t able to come anywhere near saying what they would really need to say for this to be meaningful: Repent and join us, or else get out of the way.

Instead, this statement is wholly defensive. It is an apology — a plea in which they beg other white evangelicals to allow them to say this, or to forgive them for saying this, piling on qualifications and escape clauses, caveats and loopholes, until all that’s left is a meaningless whimpering.

If that sounds like I’m being harsh toward InterVarsity, please understand that, really, this is me being harsh toward me. I spent years in this exact same defensive posture, flinching from the same anticipated attacks from the same set of white evangelical gatekeepers. And thus I helped to produce a steady stream of this same unsteady whimpering.

Consider, for example, the Evangelical Environmental Network. We did some good things and the organization still limps along, doing some good things. But, like this IV statement, we didn’t so much speak the truth as defend the possibility that perhaps speaking a bit of truth might, in some circumstances, given certain caveats and qualifications, be one of several permissible options for white evangelicals — provided that it did not interfere with other priorities or cause us to soften the firmness of our stance on the other tribally mandated Official Stances.

We came out of the gate in this same defensive mode, apologizing beforehand for every syllable we uttered. And so we weren’t able to say, flat out, that caring for the environment is simply the right thing to do. And thus we were not able to also say that others should care for the environment, or else they are doing the wrong thing. And thus we never approached being able to say what we really should have been saying: Repent and join us or get out of the way.

The one step up, two steps back dynamic we just saw with InterVarsity gets repeated over and over in white American evangelicalism. The spirit stirs and some voice stands up to say “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” It’s a powerful, prophetic moment that resonates. But then it’s quickly beaten down.

First, this voice and this message are officially designated as “controversial.” That’s a warning to the larger community: Heeding this call to do justice puts your standing within the community at risk.

Next, the call for justice is theologized. Yes, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly” is a direct quote from the Bible, but it will be twisted and massaged into something purportedly at odds with the authority of the scriptures. Those supporting this call to “do justice” will thus be called upon to reaffirm their submission to TAOTS, and will be catechized on that point until either: A) they trip up over some point of this catechism, and can thus be expelled as heretics opposed to TAOTS, or B) their allegiance to TAOTS is demonstrably reaffirmed, but since TAOTS is all they’ve been allowed to talk about for so long, everyone forgets their original call to do justice.

Finally, the controversial justice advocate will be expected/required/compelled to restore their good name in the community by balancing out their earlier talk of doing justice with some full-throated reaffirmation of the Official Required Stance on one of the two essential core issues of the faith. They will, in other words, be required to say something unambiguously anti-gay or something unambiguously anti-abortion. In exchange for reaffirming the firmness of the official stance against gays and abortion, the justice advocate will be granted permission to speak about justice.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed to say “Do justice.” But — provided the anti-gay and anti-abortion stuff remains in good order — they may be allowed to suggest that doing justice is one possible optional extra that some Christians might optionally be permitted to consider as a hobby, just so long as they get their homework done first and it doesn’t otherwise interfere with their support for TAOTS or their opposition to gay baby-killing.

That’s pretty much what InterVarsity’s statement says.

But even if that’s all it does — suggest that support for justice might be a permissible option for white evangelical Christians — isn’t even that much a baby step in the right direction? It seems like an improvement over the previous status quo — a context in which support for justice seemed to be implicitly forbidden.

Yet, again, I know from experience that this baby step of progress is an illusion. It’s a baby step on a treadmill. We could spend years taking such baby steps over and over again without ever moving forward. We’ll spend those years toddling in place. Even worse, we’ll lose sight of the original call to “do justice,” gradually becoming advocates, instead, for our right to toddle in place.



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