Dr. Eric Watkins

Social Justice and the Gospel

“When the world is on fire, only the cool waters of the gospel can genuinely
bring healing, hope and forgiveness.”

On May 25th, 2020, the world caught on fire, or so it has seemed. On the streets of Minneapolis, a crowd of bewildered people watched in horror as a man bearing the image of God died slowly with his neck under the knee of a law enforcement officer, also bearing the image of God. To further complicate things, the onlooking crowd was peppered with camera phones, not only recording a sight which remains painful to remember; even worse, the repeated pleas for mercy and intervention from the crowd were ignored. But the most troubling aspect of the event for many was the fact that the police officer was white, while the man on the ground, George Floyd, was black. Whatever the backstory of this event was, and whatever the actual motive and context may have been, remain almost meaningless to the watching world that immediately perceived this as a video-recorded moment of police brutality and systemic, racial injustice. The moment he died, George Floyd became the instant symbol of a movement. A fire was kindled that day that has not yet been doused. But where sin abounds, so also does the grace of God. The world may be on fire, but Jesus came to bring streams of living water and healing for those who have been ravaged by sin and its inescapable wages—death. And He uses His church to bring gospel healing.

It is important for Christians to see the George Floyd narrative biblically and compassionately. Sin tends to follow sin and violence tends to follow violence. As soon as videos were posted on the internet, the media immediately exacerbated and politicized the event. As with many highly publicized occasions in the past involving a white officer of the law and a black suspect, accusations of systemic racism, police brutality, and social injustice erupted like a volcano. The rhetorical wildfire spread worldwide almost instantly. Protests—some peaceful and some violent—became regular fare in nearly every major city in the United States and in many other countries.
Police stations were overrun, occupied and vandalized. Buildings and property were destroyed, and worst of all, people were killed. The Scripture has once again been proven true that the anger of man cannot produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20)—only the gospel can. But this is a moment in time in which Christians can learn about people whose stories and struggles we barely comprehend. Where there is genuine understanding and compassion, there will also be gospel opportunities.

In order to process this narrative with wisdom and understanding, it is important to reflect upon several things. First, people’s perception is their reality. What people think and feel to be true, they believe to be true, even if reality is at odds with their perception. For anyone who watched the video of the death of George Floyd, it is hard to not see the event as a horrific moment of police brutality. Charges to that effect were filed shortly afterwards, and in time, the investigation and subsequent trial will conclude, and justice will be served. Yet while these things may be true enough, it is worth asking whether or not there was any clear indication that George Floyd’s death was racially motivated. Sadly, people kill one another almost every day, but in most cases the suggestion of racial motivation is omitted. So why have so many made this into an episode of “systemic racism?” In answer to the question, it may be too simplistic to say because the officer was white and the man on the ground was black. It is more complicated than that. And this leads to our second point.

The reaction that many have had to this death of George Floyd must be seen against the backdrop of the long and difficult narrative of the black experience in America and the perception of longstanding profiling, targeting, and mistreatment of people of color. To be clear, it is not the intention of this article to suggest that every perceived instance of such mistreatment is, in reality, what it is said to be. Many people have been falsely accused, falsely misrepresented and mistreated—and that includes police officers. An important illustration of this is found in the fact that in the majority of the highly publicized cases in the last decade in which a white police officer was accused of using excessive force in the arrest of a black suspect, once the investigation was completed, the officer was found to be not guilty in the eyes of multi-ethnic juries. In other words, the broadly publicized and politicized accusations of police brutality and systemic racism were proven false. But again, once people’s perceptions were formed, not even a multi-ethnic jury could change their minds. And, of course, there are the other, sad episodes that were proven to be exactly what they were suspected to be.

There is a deeper story here. It is not simply the popularized and politicized events of the last decade that paint the difficult backdrop of recent occurrences. There is a longer historical narrative that is difficult to deny or qualify. The two major moments in this narrative are the turbulent events surrounding the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and the even longer, more painful story of antebellum slavery in America. When people who are sensitive to these realities see a black man on the ground or in the back of a police-car, they don’t just see an event; they feel a story. It is part of a family tree with many broken branches. And it is a painful experience. As a mixed-ethnic (black and white) person who grew up in the south, I know only a bit of the things that I am describing; but my family (especially my parents and grandparents) know them far better. My parents had an inter-racial marriage in a time when that was not accepted. As a child, I got in fist fights with kids because my dad was black…I could go on. Now I am grown, and nearly all of that drama is behind me. I have four adopted, ethnically mixed (white and black) kids. I doubt they will experience anything like what I did; and I did not experience anything like what my parents did. But when the world watches something like what happened on May 25th, smoldering embers reignite painful memories from the past, and things we thought just “couldn’t happen” did happen—right in front of our eyes.

So where should people turn for hope and healing in such a context as this? One of the more peculiar dynamics to note in this current narrative is the number of not only white millennials, but white evangelicals that have joined protests and even begun to support movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM). This latter point is the most perplexing, as there are few organizations more committed to an anti-Christian agenda than BLM. A careful study of the organization’s defining documents, history, and
leadership make it abundantly clear that BLM has less in common with the church than Jerusalem does with Athens.

By its own self-description, BLM is decidedly pro-homosexuality of all kinds (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, Transsexual, or LBGQT for short). Not only is the organization pro-homosexuality, it is also decidedly against the Christian definition of the family. Male and female gender distinctions disintegrate into meaningless, traditional ways of thinking in the BLM agenda. But perhaps the greatest offense, however, is that of replacing the true gospel with that of the social gospel. Orthodox theology (creation, the fall, redemption in Christ) are all replaced with Liberation theology at best (or West African spiritualism or atheism at worse). Liberation theology reduces the cross of Christ to a symbol of radical political resistance. As Hawk Newsom, the New York City BLM president said in a June 2020 interview, “Jesus Christ is the most famous black radical revolutionary in history. And He was treated just like Dr. King. He was arrested on occasion and He was also crucified or assassinated. This is what happens to black activists. We are killed by the government.” The gospel, in Liberation Theology is flattened into a social reform program in contrast to the hope Jesus promised in the kingdom of heaven as a result of His own sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection. Our concerns and criticisms of BLM could be furthered, but perhaps more profitable would be to turn to the church and to ask what, by God’s grace, can we do in such turbulent times?

Of first importance, Christians should remember that there is only race: the human race. Every human being, whether black, white or otherwise, is created in the image of God and is beautiful by design. The life of every image-bearer is worthy of dignity, respect and protection. Racism is a sin, and where it exists, it should be repented of. Secondly, no one created by God is outside the scope of the gospel and its claims. Jesus can save anyone, and He saves all kinds of people, from every nation, tribe and tongue. One of the most beautiful things we see in Scripture is the way in which God saves people whom we ourselves might deem unsavable. Jonah had to learn about God’s heart for the nations from the people of Nineveh. The Pharisees had to learn about God’s compassion from the Good Samaritan. The Disciples had to learn about God’s forgiveness from the woman at the well in John 4. And the early Jewish church had to learn how ethnically inclusive the church would be by watching the Gentiles come in droves to sit at the table the Messiah had set for those who would be adopted into the family of Abraham (who was a Gentile before he became a Jew).

Racial stereotypes and ethnic disparagement are about as old as history itself. But God’s eternal plan to redeem a beautiful church for himself, painted with all the colors of humanity is even older the creation. The church is beautiful because of Christ, but His glory is reflected in the many colors with which He has been pleased to infuse creation. God’s compassion for the nations and for the lost ought to ignite in His church a holy fire (not a rebellious one) that longs to see His mercy and grace bestowed upon many who are still outside his kingdom and are being deceived by the world’s promise of hope apart from God and the gospel. Mercy is not simply a feeling of the heart; like love, it is embodied in actions that speak louder than words. God Himself is the “father of the father-less and protector of orphans and widows” (Psalm 68:5). He sent Elijah to a husbandless, gentile mother (1 Kings 17) to demonstrate the compassion of God and preview the hope of the resurrection. God sent Jesus to heal the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman. He sent Philip to evangelize and baptize an Ethiopian Eunuch. And finally, He sent someone to us (preachers, parents…friends) to show us tangible expressions of His love, and to proclaim the gospel to us. When the world is on fire, only the cool waters of the gospel can genuinely bring healing, hope and forgiveness. This world’s offers ofdeliverance cannot avail, because the world cannot change its own heart. But the gospel can.

A final word about prayer. It is undeniable that many who have watched the news in recent months have experienced the raw emotions of horror and frustration. Discussions about these events have become tiring. But there comes a time when we spend less time talking and more time praying. Prayer is an effective means of change. It humbles us. It brings our hearts into conformity with the heart of God. God is pleased to use our prayers as a means of accomplishing all His holy will, and that includes subduing the hearts of His enemies.

God is the great reconciler. He causes wars to cease and storms to be still. He accomplishes what riots, protests and even politics cannot, compelling those who bear his image to love him with all their heart, soul, strength and mind, and even to love their neighbors as themselves. And God works through His church as the church proclaims the gospel, carries out loving deeds of justice and mercy, and as we pray. The world may be on fire, but Jesus is the living water the world so urgently needs.

This article was previously published in the September 2020 issue of The Messenger.