John Brown University investigated the future of Christian participation in politics with a panel of three Christian writers and activists: David French, Jemar Tisby, and Jenny Yang on October 15, 2019.
The speakers spoke about Christian “social justice,” without defining it.
John Brown is a private evangelical Christian college located in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Common threads of each panelist’s talk were the need to be well-informed, follow the Gospel more closely, and seek justice. Panelists called out U.S. Christians for complicity in systemic racism, partisan hatred, and inattention to social justice.
French spoke first. Now with The Dispatch, French was a longtime senior writer for National Review, contributor to Time, founder of The Dispatch, and former major in the U.S. Army Reserve. A long-time outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, French focused his talk on the problem of partisanship and growing hatred for the other side of the aisle. He cited a Pew study finding that Americans now would rather marry outside faith – would rather endanger their soul – than marry outside their political party. As a solution to this hatred, and to the lack of justice, French’s other point, he mentioned his “Golden Rule legal corollary:” fight for the rights of others, as you would have them fight for you.
French finished by exhorting the audience of JBU students and faculty to pursue love.
Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness – A Back Christian Collective, Pass the Mic podcast co-host, and historian, echoed some of French’s points. Tisby discovered that racism is not the most polarizing topic; politics is. As a historian, he looked to the past for a compass needle to point the future. He asserted that the 1970s-era Religious Right did not chiefly grow from opposition to abortion, but to desegregation (hence the simultaneous rise of the private Christian school).
Tying this in to modern times, Tisby worried about where evangelicals are going. Exit polling data shows four out of five white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Tisby argued these evangelicals’ continued support for Trump undermines their own moral credibility: “[President Trump] is thoroughly unfit for the presidency, especially, and in particular, for the ways he has addressed race.” The solution to the 2016 election, “the most harmful event for racial reconciliation in the past thirty years,” is to be a Christian in whatever party we vote. Hold others accountable. Diversify media consumption from multiple outlets. Reckon with racism through godly grief, not white guilt. And do not be afraid to get political: a Christian’s worst action is to not act at all. In this manner, Tisby recalled Martin Luther King, Jr., when he asked white Christians to not stand idly by, but to get involved in the civil rights fight.
Jenny Yang was the final speaker of the panel. As a Vice President of the evangelical development organization World Relief, Yang works on asylum and refugee legal matters. She is a leading Christian activist for more permissive U.S. immigration policies.
Similarly to Tisby, Yang charged that U.S. Christians have been complacent amidst an immigration crisis that affects all groups. Yang insisted separation of children from migrant families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a border crossing deterrent should anger us. Jesus helped the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor, Yang reminded, alleging that U.S. Christians broadly speaking tend to ignore these today in their political activism.
Political engagement, not partisan engagement, Yang argued, is the key to alleviating injustice. She asserted to be partisan is to be “tools of an empire to perpetuate injustice.” “National security,” she added, “is the new prosperity Gospel.” The rule of law can be elevated too high. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It’s seeing that the edifice that produces beggars need restructuring. Steps to achieving a more just society are: a consistent application of the whole Biblical truth, including compassion for the marginalized; spiritual discipline, including fasting, praying, and lamenting; and sharing the Gospel in community.
The panel discussion following the brief talks touched on the practical question of how Christians should pursue social justice. Tisby and Yang had acronyms, ARC (Awareness, Relationships, Commitment) and AAAA (Apathy, Awareness, Action, Advocacy), respectively; French, laughing, regretted he had no acronym.
Awareness is Tisby’s first step: learn about issues. Listen to Yang on policy, he suggested. Panel discussions only make big heads, not strong hands. Following awareness, relationships help to put a human face on injustice. That is not sufficient, however. It is in this category where people who say “some of my best friends are black” stay stuck. The final step is to commit to helping, and ask, “What are the procedures of our republic that allow us to make the necessary changes?” Then, we are pursuing social justice.
Pursuant to social justice, Yang warned against apathy. In order to get out of that category, following justice minded organizations you love is key. Awareness, for Yang, means participating in trips to become aware of local, national, or global problems. Action comes acknowledgement of an existing problem is alleviated by volunteer work at local ministries; advocacy follows after a long period: sometimes years, but in order to reach the fourth step, systemic change must be enacted.
French began with a caveat: be careful about saying, “Here’s the problem; I know how to fix it.” Learning about the best expression of the other side, not their extremists nor loudmouths, is a good way to start. Be bold, but be humble. The key to social justice is in the Bill of Rights and the Civil War Amendments, because injustice is found in violation of those. Fundamental rights of free speech, religious liberty, and especially due process are all key. Micah 6:8 is French’s guiding verse, he says: know what is good, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.