• Tom Strode

Thoughts on the social justice statement (Part 3)

Memory is vital, and I speak as one whose memory is more fallible than ever before. "The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel" could have brought to remembrance some history and benefited as a result. Instead, it did not, and it lacks historical context on a subject that cries out for it.

First, I acknowledge the format the original signers chose for their statement may not lend itself to calling on specific memories. It's intended to be a theological statement, apparently without reference to a particular society's history. That is a reason this kind of statement falls short in my estimation. Such a document in another form would have been more beneficial to the church of Jesus.

But given the format chosen, it would have been much better if the statement somehow had included an acknowledgment that many Americans who have confessed Christ and have understood and proclaimed His gospel have fallen far short in their perspectives and practices regarding other image bearers of God, notably African Americans and Native Americans.

In its article on the church, the statement says, "We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified." And it often has a "positive effect" on Christians who have previously held racist attitudes and practiced racism. But often in the last 400 years those who have known and believed the gospel have failed to demonstrate it was having a "positive effect" on their treatment of people of other ethnicities.

Some gospel-professing, gospel-proclaiming people owned slaves and contended for slavery's long-term protection as an institution in this country. Some gospel-professing, gospel-proclaiming people embraced segregation and the Jim Crow era of the South that subjugated black Americans. Some gospel-professing, gospel-proclaiming people express little, if any, concern today that people of different ethnicities than their own face different, even unequal, treatment.

And we don't have the luxury of saying these transgressions are limited to Christians who lacked either a biblical understanding of the gospel or a firm grasp on the meaning of Scripture. No, the example of Jonathan Edwards won't let us make that sweeping claim.

Edwards -- considered possibly American history's leading evangelical theologian -- preached and wrote as a pastor in Massachusetts during the Great Awakening in the first half of the 18th Century. He owned several slaves in his lifetime. Although Edwards eventually denounced the African slave trade, evidence points to the likelihood that a teenage girl he bought from a slave ship captain in Newport, R.I., was a product of that trans-Atlantic trafficking. He also went so far as to defend slavery and another slave-owning pastor in Massachusetts against church members' criticism though the pastor opposed the revival in New England of which Edwards was a leading figure. (I am indebted to one of our church's members for guiding me to this information.)

The reality is some Christians who are right on the gospel have been wrong -- and some may be wrong today -- on justice for fellow image bearers based on their ethnicity. A statement on social justice and the gospel would have been wise to acknowledge this truth. Doing so also would have signaled a gracious, humble willingness by the signers to reach out to and to seek to understand those among their brothers and sisters who hold differing viewpoints.


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