“Hey brother. Be a uniter, not a divider.” That’s the admonition I’ve frequently received on social media from a dozen or two fellow Christians since becoming vocal about systemic human justice violations committed in our society. The general thrust of their concern is that by sounding the alarm in response to anti Imago Dei initiatives, systems, & structures, I am offending other Christians & creating division within the church. Said admonishers are invariably white Americans & almost invariably male. It should be noted that whenever ones words &/or actions ruffle the feathers of the dominant culture by challenging a painstakingly guarded status quo, he or she is probably tugging on the right thread. But I am confused by the inconsistency of their objection(s). What makes church unity the biblical principle that eclipses all others, specifically justice? It is my hypothesis that elevating church unity to a higher place than God-honoring justice is an attempt (conscious or unconscious) by dominant culture Christians to preserve their respective forms of privilege while assuaging their Holy Spirit given sense of guilt in so doing; I will coin this term “privileged pleasantry”.
Usually, those cautioning other Christians not to “make unnecessary waves” appeal to John 17:23 &/or 1 Corinthians 1:10 as a basis for their plea that no Christians be called out for their sins of injustice, but this is a weak argument for at least two reasons. For starters, opting out of opportunities to seek justice for oppressed peoples creates disunity with oppressed Christians in the church (Gal 6:10); so there is that inescapable fact. Secondly, though the aforementioned verses are certainly to be weighted heavily, they are but two (often cherry picked) exhortations about church unity in the overarching biblical metanarrative that makes abundantly clear God’s unwavering demand for justice of the tzadeqah/mishpat variety, meaning ‘protection of and provision for the most vulnerable and marginalized in society‘ (go ahead & do a word study on those two Hebrew words). Psalms 68:5, 140:12, 146:7-9; Zech 7:9-10; James 1:27; & Isa 1:17 by themselves, lucidly identify the God of the Bible as the God of justice. But let us sift through a fraction of the additional biblical evidence that calling other Christians to repentance for sins of injustice is not to be omitted in the name of church unity; especially the superficial kind, rooted in a desire to avoid the interpersonal tension that invariably results from offending privileged consciouses.
Both Matthew 18:15-18 & 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 instruct the church to excommunicate those among us who refuse to heed correction for their sin. Unjust behavior, including inaction against injustice, is contrary to the character of the God of justice, so committing injustice is inarguably sinful. As such, Christians who commit injustices, such as racism &/or economic oppression, are to be confronted &, if unrepentant, ejected from the church. Here, neither New Testament author inserts an “unless doing so is awkward or leads to division” stipulation. In Acts 15:37-39, the text even reports Paul (the very author of the 1 Cor 1:10 passage) parting ways with Barnabas over a non-sin issue, & in Galatians 2 he publicly rebukes Peter (his senior in the faith & a direct disciple of Jesus Christ himself) for taking the path of least social resistance. So he is clearly not promoting the unity-at-all-costs stance to which worshippers of privileged pleasantry would have other Christians co-subscribe. Therefore we easily arrive at the conclusion that, not only is justice not subordinate to church unity (especially as a foil for privileged pleasantry), it is, in fact, preponderant to it.
In addition to biblical merit for justice having preeminence over
church unity privileged pleasantry, there is ample logical moral reasoning to support this view as well. According to Romans 10:9-13, the bare minimum requirement for salvation (aka being a Christian) is openly declaring that Jesus is Lord and believing in ones heart that God raised him from the dead. We also know from Romans 7:14-25 that Christians sometimes live in error & do not always do what is right. This is also confirmed by the very existence of the New Testament epistles, which are canonical letters written to other Christians, usually containing correction(s) regarding belief(s) &/or conduct that is contrary [in some cases, grievously so (1 Cor 5:1-8)] to the will & character of God. In light of the tension of these two realities, we must assume that the very fellow Christians with whom we are to be unified have also landed on the anti-Imago Dei (read: God-opposing) side of many major moral conflicts throughout human history, especially when said side self-identified as Christian. So some of those who participated in: The Crusades; the Transatlantic Slave Trade; The Confederacy; Jim Crow; The Holocaust; & the recent Charlottesville white supremacy rally, were indeed genuine Christians. As such, what should Christians on the pro-Imago Dei (read: God-honoring) side of said conflicts have done? Should the horrors of American slavery have gone unopposed in a Civil War, so that abolitionist Christians would not break unity with Christians who read their Bibles, yet somehow found a way to justify owning fellow Image-bearers as property? Should Christian Allies have never halted one of history’s most ruthless genocide attempts, for the sake of being “likeminded” (Philippians 2:2) with any Christians among the ranks of the Axis Powers? On 8/13/17, should American pastors have preached about something other than the evils of racism, for fear of offending whichever of their congregants that were confidant they could dawn full white power attire, participate in a hate-fueled white supremacist convention without a mask on, & then stroll down the center aisle to their usual seat in the front row of the church sanctuary the next day, completely unchallenged? No. The proper Christian response to sins of wanton injustice is overt & public opposition, no matter who is the culprit. If we, as Christians, do not believe this, let us never again collectively revere the late Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whose God-glorifying life’s work largely consisted of challenging other Christians that would stand as hinderances to the seedlings of shalom that Christ ushered in with his inaugurated kingdom. In fact, if we are going to follow privileged pleasantry worship to its natural conclusion, we will need to institute a new brand of Christianity that is 100% correction-free across the board; instead of maintaining the present syncretism that allows only certain demographics of Christians to placate their guilty consciouses under the banner of ecclesial solidarity.
Of course, none of the above should be thought to mean that authentic church unity is of little import in God’s eyes, or that Christians are licensed to adopt a lax posture toward biblical imperatives to visibly love & bear with one another. But we must operate with a clear understanding that church unity is intended to glorify our God — not be our God. We may worship the God of justice, or the idol of privileged pleasantry, but not both. So, Christian, when you are chatting with your Christian father-in-law as he is working the grill at this weekend’s cookout, & he perpetuates an open tolerance for injustice by suggesting that Joe Arpaio “was just doing his job“, that Terence Crutcher “would still be alive today, if he’d just complied“, or that Black Lives Matter is anything remotely akin to a “hate group“, you will have a choice to make. Worship wisely, saint!