Is the Church Too "Woke"? A Letter from N. T. Wright
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Earlier this week, N. T. Wright wrote a letter to The Spectator, a paper in the UK, in response to an essay from an associate editor who had complained that the Church of England (C of E) had given in to the agenda of ‘anti-racist’ movements. (Special thanks to Andrew Wilson for tweeting it.) I want to quote Wright’s letter in full with my commentary interspersed (with Tom’s permission and minor editorial suggestions for my remarks!). It is not, of course, an exhaustive discussion on the topic, but does provide an outline of some of the questions and concerns that many have— and a solution to match.
Sir: Douglas Murray complains that the C of E has embraced the ‘new religion’ of anti-racism (‘The C of E’s new religion’, 20 March).
The objection from Mr. Murray resonates with many who have astutely observed that anti-racism (a specific set of ideas and principles) functions like a religion. It has a moral standard, a chief sin, and a way to obtain the high ground. But what it misses, as many have noted, is any form of redemption, to say nothing of transformation. We are left to be “not that” but not quite sure of what we are to become or how to become it.
Wright sees it as a secular attempt to reach a Christian ideal:
But the truth, which neither he nor the church seems to have realised, is that 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.
So, what was the Christian vision of community? Wright draws on New Testament texts, summing it up this way:
The earliest Christian writings insist that in the Messiah ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’. The book of Revelation envisages Jesus’s followers as an uncountable family from every nation, tribe, people, and language. At the climax of his greatest letter, St. Paul urges Christians to ‘welcome one another’ across all social and ethnic barriers, insisting that the church will thereby function as the advance sign of God’s coming renewal of all creation.
Here the point must be made plain. Many see these things in Scripture but accuse preachers of majoring on the minors, or capitulating to cultural tides by preaching about the radical nature of Christian unity. “Let’s just preach the gospel,” they say— by which they mean, “How people can go to heaven when they die.” Wright has spent a lifetime reclaiming the sweeping vision of the gospel that the early church proclaimed. He— and loads of other scholars with him— have shown the crux of Israel’s expectation in the first century was the return of YHWH to His people to vanquish their enemies, renew His covenant with them, and dwell with them in a restored temple. All this happened in Jesus but in a reconfigured way.
The gospel is the good news announcement that God has become king at last, but He is the king who died to reconcile his enemies— which include not just the pagans but the covenant people themselves. He is the suffering, saving, and sovereign king. The result is a reconstituted people of God— a new covenant family in Jesus the Messiah.
In this short letter, Wright says it one punchy paragraph:
This is the three-dimensional meaning of ‘justification by faith’: all those who believe in Jesus, rescued by his cross and resurrection and enlivened by his Spirit, are part of the new family. This was and is central, not peripheral. 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.
This is the vision of the New Testament for the people of God. The church is what the gospel produces by the Spirit’s power. But splitting apart “ethics” from “theology” and separating “ecclesiology” from “soteriology” is what led to the church lose its way. That's what made it possible to preach the forgiveness of sins while ignoring racism (at best) or endorsing it (at worst). Christians have fallen short of their own calling.
If this had been celebrated, taught and practised, the church would early on have recognised ecclesial racism for what it is: the ugly side-effect of spitting the church into language-groups and thence into national ‘churches’, preparing the way for, and disarming the church against, the self-serving ‘racial’ theories of social Darwinism. If it has taken modern secular movements to jolt the church into recognising a long-standing problem, shame on us.
It’s a shame that it took secular theories to diagnose our error. But that should not make us reject those theories. We can allow them to wake us up.
When we start accusing a church of succumbing to “wokeness” because it cares about racial justice and radical unity, we are off on the wrong foot for at least two reasons. For one, we’re missing the high calling that is ours to be the “set right” people who “set right” things in the world that are broken. Justice is done by the justified. Working to tear down walls is gospel work, and it is the church’s birthright.
Secondly, when we cry foul at every sermon or article on racism because we fear Critical Race Theory or "cultural marxism", we are alienating those who have dealt with centuries of pain and trauma, for whom these cultural tides have brought some relief in the form of awareness. Their pain has been named. Even if these theories cannot be the cure, they can at least help with a partial diagnoses.
But sooner or later, we must go to the source itself. Water from a muddy river can bring relief to a parched land, but not if you drink it. The secularized attempts at unity and love are not bad, but they are far from good enough. They are a blunt instrument trying to do delicate work. It may help; but it may create more damage along the way.
But the answer is not to capitulate to the current ‘identity agenda’, and then to enforce it with breast-beating, finger-wagging neo-moralism. Douglas Murray doesn’t like that and neither do I. The answer is teaching and practicing the whole biblical gospel.
The answer is to return indeed to the gospel, but not the truncated one that got us here in the first place. Rather than decrying imperfect theories, we must devote ourselves to the preaching of the whole gospel, which includes the community it is meant to create. We can’t be oblique. We have to make it plain— as Paul was— about what faith in Christ means for divisions between ethnicity, class, and gender.