Is the Church too ‘woke’?

Some of the Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco; by iconographer Mark Dukes.

by Demi Prentiss

N.T. Wright is an English New Testament scholar, a Pauline theologian, and an Anglican bishop. He recently responded to an article in the British weekly magazine The Spectator, which accused the Church of England of embracing anti-racism as its “new religion.” In The Spectator’s letters, Wright address the question, “Is the Church too “woke”?

“…the ‘anti-racist’ agenda is a secular attempt to plug a long-standing gap in Western Christianity. The answer is to recover the full message, not to bolt on new ideologies….

“The church was the original multicultural project, with Jesus as its only point of identity. It was known, and was for this reason seen as both attractive and dangerous, as a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing, culturally creative, chastity-celebrating, socially responsible fictive kinship group, gender-blind in leadership, generous to the poor and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless.

“If this had been celebrated, taught, and practised, the church would early on have recognised ecclesial racism for what it is…. If it has taken modern secular movements to jolt the church into recognising a long-standing problem, shame on us.

“But the answer is not to capitulate to the current ‘identity agenda’…. The answer is teaching and practicing the whole biblical gospel.”

As Wright reminds us, asking whether the church should or should not be “woke” is missing the point.He asserts that the early Christians in that “attractive and dangerous” community – “multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing….and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless” – knew they were called and commissioned as allies and champions of all those that society drove to the margins. And since that time, racism has played a large part in derailing the church’s commitment to that vision.

Glenn Packiam, commenting on Wright’s letter, adds, “It’s a shame that it took secular theories to diagnose [the church’s] error. But that should not make us reject those theories. We can allow them to wake us up.”

In response to those who urge the church to call out racism, we can most faithfully honor our baptismal promises by holding ourselves and our congregations accountable to that radical, “attractive and dangerous” vision of a scandalously inclusive Body of Christ. May we dare to proclaim the whole gospel and work to build the Body of Christ as a whole, life-giving, embracing community that embodies the good news the world longs to hear.

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