How Would Jesus Respond to ‘Wokeness’?

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People around the globe are discussing the term “wokeness.” There is much talk of whether people are “woke” or not. For those who need clarification, to be woke is “to be alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice” (Oxford English Dictionary). It’s an awakening and a movement that is penetrating many corners of our public life. 

Defining precisely what wokeness means is complex. Lacking a founder figure, a manifesto, or a governing body—and varying greatly from country to country—wokeness is fluid and can mean different things to different people.

Equally, there are shades of wokeness; some people are merely “woke-tinged,” while others are so deeply “woke” that it penetrates every aspect of their lives.

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That said, here are a few observations about wokeness.

I believe there are significant positive aspects of the woke movement. “Stay woke” has been a watchword for African-Americans as they encourage one another to stay awake to the deceptions and dangers of this world. Being alert or awake to threat could make the difference between life or death in the struggle for racial justice.

At the heart of wokeness lies a genuine concern about things I’m deeply committed to as a follower of Jesus: namely, justice and dignity for all human beings.

Jesus, the visible God on Earth, ushered into His kingdom principles of justice for all people, which were diametrically opposed to the unjust rulers of the day. 

Jesus began His ministry with a direct commitment to justice. In His first speech, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

There’s a lot of “Christian moral DNA” in wokeness. Such Christian leaders as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. rooted their struggle against racism in the teachings of Jesus. 

So I support the dedication to justice—and also how wokeness speaks out against the celebration of individuals in history who were racists. Racism is a grievous sin that contravenes the Judeo-Christian tenet of Imago Dei (all human beings are made in the image of God). We all need to repent for the times that we have gotten this wrong. We should honestly re-evaluate the past and, where appropriate, admit the wrongs of historic figures and repent of historic injustices. 

Yet I also have words of caution about wokeness. Many thinkers whom I know and respect feel there are deep-seated and threatening problems within wokeness; and while they may well be right, here are my own concerns with it.

FIRST: I caution against the current “tone” of wokeness. Particularly troubling is that too often today, people are defined as either “woke” or “not woke” in a way that extends far beyond a concern for racial justice. This labeling of individuals shuts down dialogue and the possibility of growing in awareness of other justice issues. 

Jesus did a lot of listening in His day, especially to people who disagreed with His teachings. He asked questions to help people get to the root of their beliefs. He challenged people with truth, but it was done in a posture of love and compassion, and with the hope that the person’s eyes and heart would be opened.

The posture of today’s woke movement leaves no room for discussion. Either you are woke or you are not—and the discussion ends there. This is when cancel culture—an effort to shame, silence, and sideline an individual or institution because of beliefs or opinions deemed socially unacceptable—intersects with wokeness, which is a whole new form of vindictive exclusion.

The divisive tone of wokeness actually can work against the hope that all will be woke.

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People should be awakened to injustice and racism in society—and that often involves patience, dialogue, and deep listening. 

SECOND: I have concerns about the current “attitudes” of wokeness. I see a troubling naivete within the movement, given its apparent view that sexism only occurs with men and that racism only occurs among white people.

The sad reality is that all human beings have a tendency to be unjust toward others. As the Bible says plainly, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

All of us love others inadequately in some way. Studies show that all human beings hold some form of conscious or unconscious bias. It is part of the fallen and broken world that goes against God’s original design of perfect love for all.

We need to acknowledge that division and bias runs through the human heart. As I have often said, at the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

THIRD: I worry about the “motives” of wokeness. Within the woke movement, there seems to be a bitter mindset that delights in finding breaches of its moral code. The fuel for wokeness often seems to be anger, something that we’ve seen not just in violent demonstrations, but in the hunting of and the pursuit of offenders.

Journalists, executives, celebrities, and even preachers increasingly find themselves carefully checking what they write or say, lest those committed to a woke ideology slander them on social media and then at their door. People are tagged as “woke” or “unwoke,” and are not seen as whole, complex human beings with moral and immoral biases. This kind of generalization about a person is the very posture wokeness decries.

With some justification, wokeness has been criticized as consisting of mere terminology—and not action. The truth is that all of us must work together in unison for a more just society. We need to repent the sins of the past—and then work for a more just society. Followers of Jesus should be on the front lines of speaking out against racism, disparity, and oppression. 

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All people within society should treat every human being with love, dignity, and justice, which we know is not happening across the board. Yet a reconciling message lies at the very heart of God—and is exemplified in the person of Jesus.

In this sense, we all should be awakened—and we need to acknowledge that significant aspects of this are missing within the woke movement. The final prayer of Jesus was that His followers would all be one—one human race, one human family, one church. This requires speaking the truth in love—and with an abundance of patience and grace.  

ULTIMATELY, I believe that wokeness needs to be greeted with wariness—and that the Christian message is far more preferable.Although there is much good to be found in wokeness, at its heart lies an aching void.

The concept of “being woke” is an attempt to create moral boundaries—but without God. It offers only a bleak and hopeless world in which a stern and constantly shifting morality subjects all to a judgment from which there can be no redemption or restoration.

Much more preferable is the Christian message—which, while it points out our deepest moral failings, offers us, through Christ, both pardon and a changed life. We need real grace and true forgiveness. Only God can give us that.

For all its focus on the problems of injustice, wokeness offers no solution.

But supposing there is a solution? Supposing there was a perfect being, a man, perhaps, who—utterly undeserving of any judgment—willingly became the Victim of Injustice and was subject to mockery, torture, brutality, and ultimately death so that, having taken injustice on Himself, He might offer forgiveness to all who sought it?

Is it possible that, at the very deepest level, wokeness points us to the cross of Jesus Christ?

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J.John has been an evangelist for 40 years. He has spoken at conferences, at universities, and in towns and cities across 69 countries on six continents. In 2017, he launched JustOne at the Arsenal Emirates Stadium in London; today, JustOne events are held throughout the U.K. Evangelist, minister, speaker, broadcaster and writer, he communicates the Christian faith in a practical way. Among his books are the “Theology For Little People” series, which helps children understand biblical truth. He lives near London.

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