To be ‘woke’ is to be aware of the social and racial injustices in our society. To be ‘woke’ also implies that one will support certain activist movements in their efforts to bring about positive changes to the institutions, organizations and traditions that are apparently guilty of perpetuating systemic injustice, even if that means replacing the system from top to bottom.
Jesus had a clear message about social activism. He described his followers as those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite strangers in, give clothes to the naked, attend to the sick and visit those in prison (Matthew 25:34-36).
Jesus practiced what he preached. He demonstrated compassion for people in need. He healed the sick. He fed the five thousand. Jesus made people’s lives better.
But Jesus also told his disciples that the poor will always be with us (John 12:8). Poverty will never be eradicated in this age, according to the Lord. Isn’t that a bit pessimistic? Perhaps, but he spoke those words nearly two thousand years ago and the poor are still among us.
Social activists have been promising for generations that they will erase poverty and hardship. They have all the answers, so they say. Yet, by their own admission, things are worse. After all their efforts to bring about positive social change, they still condemn our society as if zero progress has been made. Aren’t they condemning their own efforts?
Back to Jesus. How do we reconcile his concern for the poor on the one hand, and his pessimistic outlook on the other hand? His prediction about perpetual poverty is not an excuse for inaction. Jesus acted. Yet Jesus knows that our world is broken because of rebellion against God. Social injustice and human need are only part of the sad results.
Jesus was not paralyzed by his realism. He knew that godly love inspires us to help those in need, despite the thorny conditions of society. According to Jesus, we don’t have to wait for radical institutional change to do something positive in the lives of those who have needs.
After Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand, a group decided to make him king, by force if necessary. Jesus declined. He withdrew from them (John 6:15). Why? Think of the people he could’ve helped as king! He could have enacted some real positive social change in the broken institutions and governments of his day!
Instead of seeking political power to make positive social change through the mechanisms of government, Jesus helped people in person, one-on-one, face-to-face. Jesus ‘rolled up his shirtsleeves’ and ‘got his hands dirty’ doing the vital work of helping real people with real problems. He didn’t use up his time and resources blaming the leaders by protesting in the streets.
Jesus knew that political power and institutional change do not always result in real help for those who have real needs. The struggle for power is endless, both to acquire it and to protect it. Today’s emancipator frequently becomes tomorrow’s oppressor. Even the best leaders often create programs and policies that are abused by their successors, or they simply become ineffective due to constantly evolving circumstances.
Jesus focused his time and effort not on acquiring political influence, but on helping people.
The help Jesus offered was not limited to physical needs. Jesus knew that people also have spiritual needs. We are spiritual beings with longings for the invisible and eternal realities.
Jesus healed those who have physical ailments, but he also brought healing for spiritual illness. He brought freedom not just from the chains of oppression and slavery in this fading world, but he brought freedom for eternity in the presence of Almighty God.
Social activists often reduce the human experience to a struggle between classes in ‘the here and now.’ Various groups fight for limited power and resources. Someone must make sure things are equal. They nominate themselves. Helping people with eternal issues is not part of their program.
Jesus was spiritually awake. He recognized the inherent weaknesses in human governments and social systems. He also realized the need to save and strengthen the spirit in addition to the body. He acted.
Like Jesus, Christians must be awake to both the physical and spiritual needs of people. In addition, believers must be aware of the limits that keep worldly organizations from solving our deepest problems. As Christ’s disciples, we can bless people now and bear fruit for eternity.
Our success does not depend on gaining and maintaining political power or influence. Our success depends on our faithfulness to the mission Jesus has given us, a mission that he promises to empower by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. Let’s be awake and act like Jesus.
May our Lord fill us with both compassion and discernment, awareness and action,
Brother Richard Foster