You can listen to an audio version of this article here.
Wokeness is perhaps the most cultural hot-topic phrase when speaking about cultural issues today. Professor Owen Strachan, in Christianity and Wokeness, defines it like this:
“Wokeness is first and foremost a mindset and a posture. The term itself means that one is ‘awake’ to the true nature of the world when so many are asleep. In the most specific terms, this means one sees the comprehensive inequity of our social order and strives to highlight power structures in society that stem from racial privilege.” (Strachan, Christianity and Wokeness, 8)
It is usually used by its proponents to describe someone who has been “awoken” to the various perceived societal injustices in the areas of sexuality, gender, feminism, queer theory & LBGTQ issues, racism and social justice, postcolonialism, disability & fat studies, along with a whole host of other (what may be called) “Leftist” causes. One of its main aims is at achieving a humanistic utopia of radical egalitarianism via the breaking down of all distinctions and disparities in all areas of society and life. It is often connected with social justice - a term we’ll unpack a little more later in this episode. Perhaps one of the most well-known causes associated with wokeness in recent times has been the Black Lives Matter movement.
Infiltration into the Church
This problem of wokeness is not just something “out there” in our societies and culture, but in many ways has infiltrated the Church and Evangelicalism today. A few quick examples will illustrate.
Popular Evangelical pastor and author, Tony Evans in his book Kingdom Race Theology writes,
“While an individual today may not be personally racist, they can contribute to the racist structures by supporting the inequitable systems still in place, or by denying that they exist… If you are a nonracist yourself but do not actively oppose racism (willing to speak or work against racism and racist systems where they show up), you are failing to fulfill the whole letter of the law of love (Rom 13:8).” (Evans, 36)
Note that what Evans is arguing is that you can have racism without actual racists! One is automatically guilty just by merely belonging to a certain ethnic group. This sort of thinking is not dissimilar to the famous CRT author of the New York Times bestseller, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo says: "racism is unavoidable and…it is impossible to completely escape having developed problematic and racial assumptions and behaviors." Speaking of herself (DiAngelo is white), she says, "I also understand that there is no way for me to avoid enacting problematic (racial) patterns."
In his NYT #1 Best-Seller book, How to Be an Antiracist, popular CRT activist Ibram X. Kendi writes,
The opposite of racist isn’t “not racist.” It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? . . . One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.”
Woke ideology promotes a sort of activism which turns into a type of works-based righteousness that is antithetical to the true Gospel. Kendi has also been on record explicitly rejecting what he calls “saviour theology” (denying repentance and faith in Christ as man’s primary need) in favour of a form of black “liberation theology”. Yet his books and videos have been popularized all over Evangelicalism. Other popular Evangelical voices such as Eric Mason, J.D. Greear, Tim Keller, Jemar Tisby, and Matt Chandler have also lent their voices in support of movements and tenets of woke ideologies. The book Divided by Faith has been hugely influential in bringing woke ideology into Evangelicalism, yet it landed at the top of the Gospel Coalition's (TGC) 2016 recommended reading list on the topic of racial division. The book Prophetic Lament promoting woke ideology by Soong-Chan Rah in 2015 was listed as one of its top ten books by Relevant Magazine. Daniel Hill’s book White Awake in 2017 was backed by InterVarsity Press and Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).
Now, this is not to say that all of the pastors and leaders that have said or affirmed something “woke” have abandoned the Gospel and gone apostate. Some, with the exception perhaps of Kendi and DiAngelo, are brothers in Christ who have historically affirmed an orthodox Protestant Gospel and the Five Solas yet have stumbled into serious errors on these issues. While they have produced many helpful materials, there have also been areas of disagreement where they have been less than biblical. We pray that they would see their error and repent. The point here, however, is rather to illustrate that this problem of wokeness is not irrelevant to us today, and it is not just a problem “out there” in culture but also has made its way into the Evangelical church in significant ways. Many unwitting and immature Christians can be taken captive by this philosophy - especially when it is coming from teachers they trust using language that sounds biblical and compassionate. This is nothing new. Even the Early Church was battling false teaching from the very beginning. Every generation has its battles and battlegrounds. This is one of ours.
The goal of this episode is not to exhaustively define all of the various topics within wokeness and social justice, but rather to equip you with the basics you need to understand, recognize and respond to it. There are certain core markers which can be helpful to us as disciple-makers to recognize points of concern and help those we’re walking with to form a Biblical worldview on these topics. In this first episode, we’ll examine some of the terminology surrounding woke culture and social justice. In the next episode, we’ll take a look at how it is actually a different religion and a competing worldview.
Understanding the Terms of Woke Ideology
There are a lot of terms which are thrown around in these discussions. So, it is important to clearly define the concepts behind much of woke culture. My hope is that it will help alert you to spot when this sort of thinking may be influencing the way our culture (and even some Christians) talk about these topics.
One of the most important terms to understand in discussing wokeness is Postmodernism. The online Encyclopedia Britannica defines postmodernism as
"a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power."
Postmodernism is one of the most influential philosophies shaping our modern Western world today. It is perhaps most commonly summarized in the cultural axiom, “What’s true for you, is true for you. And what’s true for me, is true for me.” We often use it as a shorthand term for radical relativism on truth and morality - yet it is so much more than just that. There are also 2 important concepts of postmodernism that are relevant to this topic of wokeness:
The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.
The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.
Thus, Postmodernism rejects the correspondence theory of truth: that objective truth must correspond to reality (this is seen most prominently in transgenderism where biological sex does not have to correspond to gender - a psychological category). It also sees “truth” as a result of dominant discourses enforced by those with sociopolitical power - hence truth becomes politicized. Lindsey & Pluckrose note that,
“postmodern approaches to knowledge inflate a small, almost banal kernel of truth that we are limited in our ability to know and must express knowledge through language, concepts and categories to insist that all claims to truth are value-laden constructs of culture. This is called cultural constructivism or social constructivism. The scientific method, in particular, is not seen as a better way of producing and legitimizing knowledge than any other, but as one cultural approach among many, as corrupted by biased reasoning as any other.” (Lindsey & Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, 32)
No longer is something true just because it is so. Rather, Postmodernism asserts that society believes it to be true because those in power have enforced it to be so. Therefore, according to Postmodernism, that which is known is only representative of systems of power.
Tied into this are four other major themes of postmodernism that come into play with wokeness: The blurring of boundaries, the power of language, cultural relativism and the loss of the individual and the universal. All of these have drastically affected our societies today.
Cultural Marxism is another term which is used frequently in conversations surrounding wokeness. I did an episode recently on 10 Things You Need to Know About Cultural Marxism which you can go back and read or listen to. It is sometimes used as a synonym for wokeness. It isn’t without its difficulties though, as many have contested its usefulness - e.g. is there a body of work that cultural Marxists would embrace? There may be some validity here to this critique of the usage of the term since there is often a lot of unclarity surrounding it.
However, the term is meant to acknowledge the historical and philosophical roots of much of the woke movement - being tied to Classical Marxism. Classical Marxism was a 19th-century economic philosophy invented and propagated by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels most closely tied to Socialism and Communism. Over 100 million people were killed as a result of Marx’s demonic philosophy applied under regimes such as Soviet Russia, Communist China, North Korea, and Venezuela by men such as Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot and the Kim family of dictators. (If you didn’t listen to that episode on 10 Dark Facts About Karl Marx, go back and check it out)
Marx was an atheistic naturalist who saw society in terms of the oppressed and oppressors. Core to Classical Marxist philosophy were the concepts of Class Theory and Conflict Theory which teach that there were different economic classes (the bourgeois and proletariat - rich and poor) who lived in a dynamic of oppression and power differentials. Marx assumed that the poor were poor because the rich hoarded and attained wealth in an unjust manner. The only way this ‘injustice’ could be corrected according to Marx was for the inevitable conflict of these classes - the proletariat revolution - where the workers would unite to overthrow the oppressive land and property owners and redistribute the means of production and the fruits of their production equally amongst themselves to usher in an egalitarian communist utopia.
This concept is important in understanding today’s woke culture that has taken Marxism’s economic philosophy and applied it to the social and political realms. In wokeness, Marx’s proletariat has become the oppressed and marginalized identity group, and the bourgeoisie has become the privileged hegemony that makes up and perpetuates the systems of power. These two “classes” are seen as heading towards an inevitable conflict. Thus, wokeness tends to be extremely divisive in society. It also tends to be extremely reductionistic and simplistic in its analysis of culture - assuming its conclusion (oppression) and then hunting for evidence to fit into that narrative.
Critical Theory is an analytical tool of wokeness and Cultural Marxism. Secular authors James Linsay and Helen Pluckrose, in their book, Cynical Theories define it this way:
“A critical theory is chiefly concerned with revealing hidden biases and underexamined assumptions, usually by pointing out what have been termed "problematics," which are ways in which society and the systems that it operates upon are going wrong.” (Lindsay & Pluckrose, 14)
Critical Theory, as the name implies, is focused on criticizing all traditional structures in society. Its aim is primarily deconstructive - to dismantle the current systems and powerful “hegemonies” (majority power groups) and cause a ‘reset’ of the social order according to their utopian visions for a totally egalitarian society. Critical Theory becomes the tool which is used to reveal the hidden oppressive power structures that need to be overthrown. It can be applied to a wide array of disciplines - most popularly in Critical Race Theory, but also in queer & LBGTQ studies, disability and fat studies, Postcolonialism and other disciplines.
This is a theory originally put forward by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Although its modern application is not quite what she had originally envisioned. Crenshaw’s 1991 "Mapping the Margins," is the foundational intersectionality text. Crenshaw makes a point of distinguishing "I am Black" from "I am a person who happens to be Black." People are encouraged to primarily identify by their group identity - gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, queer, disabled, ethnic background and even mental illnesses or depression and anxiety became identities.
Intersectionality considers the multiple intersections of oppressed identities that a person may suffer under in order to figure out how to privilege them to compensate for their perceived disadvantages in life. Thus, it tends to be radically cynical and suspicious - assuming that oppression is hidden in every system and institution and needs to be found, condemned, and dismantled. It also simplistically assumes that these “oppressed identity statuses” can account for all the disparities of life. Applied to modern Social Justice theory, it also seeks to elevate and advantage marginalized and oppressed classes over dominant classes. This is Classical Marxism’s Class Theory applied to social theory (it’s how you figure out who belongs to the bourgeois or proletariat). It is also where the phrase “elevate _____ voices” and identity politics find their root. It is also essentially the sin of partiality (see James 2).
Again Lindsey and Pluckrose note that,
“It reduces everything to one single variable, one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power dynamics asserted by Theory. Thus, for example, disparate outcomes can have one, and only one, explanation, and it is prejudicial bigotry. The question is just identifying how it manifests in the given situation. Thus, it always assumes that, in every situation, some form of Theoretical prejudice exists and we must find a way to show evidence of it. In that sense, it is a tool, a "practice" - designed to flatten all complexity and nuance so that it can promote identity politics, in accordance with its vision.” (Lindsey & Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, 128)
Intersectionality divides society into privileged and oppressed classes according to group identities such as race, gender, sexuality, physical characteristics, immigration status, religion, etc. One thing notably absent is economic class - since that would be inconvenient for many of the global elites who push this nonsense to further their own globalist agendas.
The concept of intersectionality is simple. It does the same thing over and over: look for power imbalances, disparities, biases or bigotry that it assumes must be present and problematize them.
This term has been problematic, as some people use it in a legitimate way. However, the majority of our secular culture uses it in an unbiblical way associated with the concepts of wokeness we have been discussing here. Consider that when both Antifa and the American Nazi Party can call themselves “social justice warriors”, we may have a problem with this term. Scott David Allen in his book, Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice, describes Social Justice as,
“Deconstructing traditional systems and structures deemed to be oppressive, and redistributing power and resources from oppressors to their victims in the pursuit of equality of outcome.”
You should recognize that that is not what a Biblical concept of justice is.
Perhaps helpful in distinguishing what type of justice we’re talking about are the two terms: equality and equity. While these terms are used inconsistently by many (sometimes in opposite ways), we will define our usage here for clarity:
Equality has to do with the equality of value, worth and dignity that every human being possesses as an image bearer of God. It is also a term we’ll be using to refer to equality of opportunity - meaning that in a just society, there should not be discrimination between people of different ethnicities, physical characteristics, etc. in terms of the opportunities that are available to them. This is a biblical and right concept of justice.
Equity is the concept of “sameness.” It desires the flattening of all distinctions between people - such as sex and gender roles. It is also called radical egalitarianism. It aims for equality of outcomes, not just opportunities. It sees disparities as automatically problematic and unjust. This is what secular Social Justice aims at and it is unbiblical. God has created differences in people and even in outcomes as part of His good design.
Perhaps one of the most helpful ways we can end this first episode is to define justice biblically. Ultimately, we want to acknowledge and uphold that the Bible does call Christians to “do justice” - however, it is justice according to God’s definition, not the world’s definition.
Biblical Justice (the term we will be using to avoid confusion between this and secular social justice) is the type of justice that God commands. Now, it is true that Biblical Justice is “social” in a particular sense. In Leviticus 25:1-7, God’s vision for justice includes all of the social fabric of the creation, including land, domesticated animals, wild animals, and migrant workers. Individuals matter, but biblically speaking, you can’t engage the individual outside of his or her social situation. So, the Bible is concerned with the social dimensions of justice. However, there are other important factors to truly Biblical justice apart from only its social dimension.
Biblical justice is truthful, direct, impartial, retributive, proportional and limited.
Truthful - it accords with reality and the truth of God’s Word, and charges must be established on multiple independent lines of witnesses (Deut. 16:20; 17:6; 19:15; Num. 35:30; Prov. 28:5; Job 8:3; Matt. 18:16; John 7:24; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28)
Direct - its rewards and punishments are meted out directly to the achievers and offenders, not to people of their descent/ancestry, tribe, ethnicity, social group, etc. (Deut. 24:16; Ezek. 18:20; 2 Kings 14:6; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6)
Impartial - it does not show preferential treatment to anyone based on identity group (Deut. 27:19; Lev. 19:15; Jer. 22:3; Prov. 18:5)
Retributive - it seeks to restore that which was broken and punish the guilty (Gen. 9:6; Exo. 22:1-31; Lev. 24:18; Rom. 13:4; Gal. 6:7)
Proportional - its rewards and punishments are proportional to the act or crime committed. There are just weights in judgment - e.g. The Lex Talionis principle - “an eye for an eye” (Exo. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21)
Limited - reward and punishment do not continue on in perpetuity in this life (that is left up to God in eternity). Thus, there is a recognition that in this life there will not be perfect justice, as some people die before receiving their just reward or get away with things in this life, but it entrusts ultimate cosmic justice to God. (Gen. 18:25; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:11-15)
Today’s secular Social Justice gets these important factors about justice wrong. It is often based on falsehood, subjective accusations, and flattening of the details/complexity of reality, indirect - punishing those who weren’t directly involved in the injustice, it is redistributive instead of retributive - seeking to obtain equal outcomes by compelled redistribution of resources. Thus, it is often disproportionate and unlimited - having no end point in sight, just continual repentance, grievances, penance through reparations and no hope of absolution. Due to its root in naturalism and the quest for a man-made utopia, it seeks final justice now - even when impossible.