Dear Covenant College Students: Jesus Can Set You Free from the Yoke of Being Woke

A PCA pastor’s concern about the effect on students at our denominational college of a Reformation Day lecture at Covenant College.

I would like to offer Covenant College students something far better than what was conveyed to them in Mr. Tisby’s lecture, something that is much closer to the heart of what Reformation Day is all about.  Instead of tying up heavy burdens and laying those burdens on their shoulders, I want to point them to the gracious offer of Jesus Christ when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”

 

I am writing in response to some of the things that were said by Mr. Jemar Tisby in one of the Reformation Day lectures that he gave at Covenant College this fall.  As a PCA pastor, I am concerned about the effect that these things might have upon students at our denominational college, many of whom are members of PCA churches.  In one of his lectures, Mr. Tisby modified[1] the words of woe that Jesus pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 in order to apply them to the church in America, saying:

Woe to you, racists and racial moderates, hypocrites!  For you hold events to commemorate Civil Rights activists and read books about the martyrs of anti-racism, saying ‘if we had lived during the Civil Rights movement we would not have taken part with the racists in shedding the blood of the protesters.’  Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons and daughters of those who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr.  Fill up then the measure of your slave holding and segregationist fathers and mothers.  You racists and racial moderates, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?  Therefore I send you social justice warriors and community organizers and activists, some of whom you will put in jail and some you will call Marxist in your churches and troll on social media so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth from the blood of the righteous Medgar Evers to the blood of Emmett Till who you lynched in Mississippi.  Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon Millennial and GenZ generations.”

I would venture to say that the vast majority of contemporary Christians would recognize the sinfulness of American slavery, racial segregation, unequal treatment under the law due to race, participating in white supremacist organizations, denying that black people are divine image-bearers, lynching black people, murdering Civil Rights leaders, and claiming that the Bible prohibits interracial marriage.  Nevertheless, Mr. Tisby says that contemporary Christians are guilty of these very sins.   That is a heavy burden to bear.  How does Mr. Tisby suggest that we deal with this burden?  He says that we need to be engaged in civil rights activism and the pursuit of racial justice.  In other words, we need to be sufficiently “woke.”

On the surface, it sounds reasonable to be supportive of justice.  After all, what Christian would want to make a case for being supportive of injustice?  But this is where we need to pay careful attention to the meaning of terms.  What is justice?  In the Bible, justice is not about equality of outcome, but about equal treatment under the law.[2]  As things presently stand in our nation, people of all races do receive equal treatment under the law.  If there is an instance in which a person does not receive equal treatment under the law, then we should certainly advocate for justice in that particular situation.  Mr. Tisby obviously means something other than this when he speaks of promoting justice.  For him, it is not only those who commit racist actions or hold racist attitudes who are guilty of racial injustice.  Instead, the fact that we belong to a society in which there is significant social inequality along racial lines makes us all inherently guilty of marginalizing and oppressing racial minorities.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it simplistically assigns blame for a complex societal condition in order to instill a sense of guilt and cause people to submit to a definition of justice that goes beyond Scripture in binding the conscience.  There is no biblical support for the notion that under the new covenant God holds his people morally responsible for the ills of a society simply because they are members of that society.

While Mr. Tisby does offer a way for his hearers to cope with the burden of the guilt that he places upon them, he does not offer them a way to be set free from that heavy yoke.  He purposely avoids getting into specifics when it comes to what it looks like to be a racial activist and simply implores his hearers to pursue justice (as it is implicitly defined by him).  In effect, he sets up a penitential system in which people can keep making satisfaction for their intrinsically racist condition by living as “extremists for love.”  Those who engage in this system of penance are promised special blessings, especially if their zeal for the cause provokes opposition and earns them labels like “Marxists” or “social justice warriors.”

I would like to offer Covenant College students something far better than what was conveyed to them in Mr. Tisby’s lecture, something that is much closer to the heart of what Reformation Day is all about.  Instead of tying up heavy burdens and laying those burdens on their shoulders, I want to point them to the gracious offer of Jesus Christ when he said,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28–30)

If you are guilty of specific racial sins, then by all means repent of them and look to Jesus for forgiveness and for the power to walk in newness of life.  If you have committed racial sins against specific individuals, go to those individuals and ask for their forgiveness.  But never let anyone take this glorious truth away from you:  If you trust in Christ as he is offered to you in the gospel, the guilt of your sins is entirely removed and you are no longer under any burdensome yoke.  To be sure, being a Christian does involve a lifetime of faithful and fruitful service under Christ’s light and easy yoke.  You are to live under the rule of God’s moral law, not in hopes of making satisfaction for your sins or meriting God’s favor, but as one whom Christ has graciously subdued to himself and has renewed after his own image.  It is true that living under Christ’s yoke includes the call to strive, as best as you can, to extend comfort to those who are distressed, to defend those who are vulnerable, and to further the outward estate of others.  But living under Christ’s yoke also means being liberated from every manmade yoke, even the yoke of being woke.

Andy Wilson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the pastor of Grace PCA in Laconia, New Hampshire.

[1] This in itself is a matter of significant concern.  Mr. Tisby is altering the text of Scripture in order to make it align with his social and political agenda.

[2] See the helpful analysis of the Bible’s teaching on justice in What Is the Mission of the Church?:  Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, especially chapters 6 and 7.