After I expressed my heartfelt condolences on social media for the murder of eight massage parlor employees (six of whom were Asian-American women) in the Atlanta area, I also remarked that "bad theology" (a term the conservative and studied of my fellow Christians tend to use) contributed to the shooter's motive. Within an hour, I got a response from a fellow seminary grad who was also the executive director of a prison ministry. The response? The laughter emoji, and the comment: "It must be great to be woke."
In the ensuing discussion, he continually argued that the attack had nothing to do with race or the shooter's religious teaching. And it was rather a massacre at a likely brothel. And, due to pop culture's elevation of racial minorities, white Christians are the real victims in the U.S. And, lastly, the greatest threats to the Church in America are Critical Race Theory and "wokeness." This individual is certainly not alone with these views.
I tried to explain to the truths of the issues at hand, but it was to no avail. (This individual's behavior became so unprofessional that I had to delete all comments, as this was a message intended to be about grief and self-reflection, not socio-political vitriol). To him, "wokeness" was a shallow trend, a politically-correct obfuscation, used to make false accusations against white people and unnecessarily divide. And, in his unchangeable view, virtue-signaling white Christians like myself, see "wokeness" as a permanent state of enlightenment (to be fair, many fellow white Christians, and even non-Christians of pop culture like Hasan Minhaj, do).
But, Christians, hear me out: being "woke" is not any of those things.
And I'm not going to explain it. Someone else will below.
Like any other leader in multicultural ministry, you need cross-cultural mentorship. I, as a white Christian man, have only had the privilege to lead in multicultural ministry because of the wise, godly, and gracious BIPOC who have taught and invested in me, both in their writings and one-on-one coaching. A fellow white male in multicultural ministerial leadership, Dr. Daniel Hill (pastor of River City Church in Chicago), had "wokeness" explained to him by such a mentor in his recent book, White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us. Dr. Hill was actually told by his BIWOC mentor that the word is dangerous in two ways. Excerpts below:
“Woke was developed in the sixties as a shorthand version of stay woke, and that was an important phrase in my community. It was a collective reminder that we need to remain conscious of the Black struggle against the very real presence of White supremacy. When someone would say, ‘Stay woke,’ to me, I knew exactly what they were saying—that they saw me, that they saw what I was up against, that they saw how real the struggle was. So that is the first reason the word woke is dangerous, particularly when it is used by White people. They are using a word that has a rich history they’re often oblivious to, and they risk co-opting it for their own purposes.
“Just as important as the problem with the word is the motivation behind the word. While I want to trust that most White people who use it mean well, I suspect they don’t realize how revealing it actually is.
“Now I’m not saying we don’t want our White counterparts to move forward in an awakening journey. It goes without saying that we want them to stay teachable and curious—to want to understand race better. But do we want them to be woke? No, at least not in how the word has come to be understood. Once they convince themselves they are woke, they will think they have arrived. They won’t see the need to be challenged anymore or to have blind spots revealed. And that is why woke is so dangerous."
As Christians, we can understand the importance of etymology and exegesis of terms, as well as their tragic butchering. Also, as Christians, we understand that biblical living involves more than just head knowledge. It also involves relational involvement (i.e. compassion). We also understand the notion of striving for a goal until the end of our earthly life (e.g. sanctification).
So why, then, is the notion of actively listening to and acknowledging the struggles of others, humbly staying curious and teachable, and wanting to understand race better, a threat to biblical doctrine and living?
I'll conclude with Thabiti Anyabwile's word on "wokeness":
"In simpler words, our approach to discipleship must simultaneously repair the psychic and social destruction done to the identities/personhood of Black people while recognizing and equipping them to counter the social and political realities that contribute to that destruction in the first place. We have to teach people how to be their ethnic selves in a way that’s consistent with the Bible and how to live fruitfully in contexts that don’t affirm their ethnic selves. Hence, we need a 'woke church.'
"But it’s not just African Americans who need a 'woke church.' All people need it. Even the cursory history sketched above reveals that we 'are tied together in a single garment of destiny,' as Dr. King put it. There’s a mutuality to our existence. The only way for us to lower the necessity for a 'woke church' is for the people and forces making 'wokeness' necessary to wake up to their part in the dynamic. As long as there are racist forces at work in the world, the sufferers of that racism are right to find ways to express and affirm their identity and will need tools (spiritual, cultural, economic, and so on) to fight back against those forces."
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