Sunday, June 28, 2020

Yes, I Want Justice (A post about white evangelicals and #BlackLivesMatter)

A protest sign that says "No justice no peace." Image source.

I just noticed something about the way the Black Lives Matter movement uses the word "justice", and how it's COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than the definition of "justice" I learned in church.

For the past few weeks, protesters have been demanding "Justice for George Floyd" and "Justice for Breonna Taylor" and for other black people killed by police and/or white supremacists. So, what do we mean by "justice" here? What do we want? Basically, we want the killers to be arrested, tried, convicted, and punished (and I don't mean a "slap on the wrist", I mean a punishment that's reasonable for the crime of murder). Also we want to change the system so this does not happen again.

In other words, justice for a victim means the murderer is punished and society does not allow similar murders to happen in the future.

But in church I was taught "you don't want justice." Yes, those exact words. "You don't want justice."

See, for evangelicals, "justice" means everyone goes to hell. Because we are all sinners and we don't deserve anything good ever. If the world was "just", then everyone would just immediately die and go to hell. Oh thank God that the world is not just! Thank God that people are able to live happy lives, and people who believe the correct things about Jesus can go to heaven. None of that is just, I was taught. Any time you've ever been happy, that was unjust. You don't deserve to be happy, ever. You deserve to go to hell. 

I was taught that God's mercy pushes back against God's justice. God's mercy means we don't get the punishment we deserve. Even though all people deserve to just die right now and go to hell, mercy doesn't allow that to happen.

Under this white evangelical definition of "justice", demands for "Justice for George Floyd" make no sense. Oh god, it's horrible to put this into words, but the "you don't want justice" ideology says that Floyd already got better than he deserved. Look, we all deserve to be tortured in hell. We don't deserve to ever experience any happiness at all. If Floyd ever experienced any happiness, well that's already better than he deserved. Oh my god what a terrible thing to believe. I feel gross just putting it into words here.

That's what we really believed though. This ideology can excuse any kind of injustice or atrocity. It's awful.

But now I believe in the biblical definition of justice. (My use of the term "biblical definition" is a bit tongue-in-cheek; I'm making fun of the Christians who apparently believe the bible is a dictionary and there's such a thing as "the biblical definition of marriage.) Here it is, in Luke 1:52-53. "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty."

My understanding of justice has 3 parts:
  1. Punish the people who did wrong
  2. Help the victims
  3. Prevent similar things from happening again
But in church I learned that justice is only the punishment part. And that we all deserve it. We all deserve the same punishment, which is being tortured in hell forever. In this ideology, the idea of "helping the victims" makes no sense- the so-called victims are sinners too and deserve to go to hell just as much as those who hurt them.

What a terrible, terrible thing to believe. (I used to believe it with all my heart.)

The Black Lives Matter movement is about creating a world where people of all races truly are equal. Where society provides help to people who are doing something frowned-upon- like using drugs or being homeless- rather than criminalizing it. Where nobody posts hot takes on the internet about "this person deserved to be shot down in the street because they were suspected of a minor non-violent crime." Where black lives matter.

And I agree with the demands for justice. Yes, yes I want justice. 


On the subject of the incompatibility between white evangelical ideology and Black Lives Matter, I'd like to share a few excerpts here from posts I've written in the past:

Read the Old Testament, and it seems like God's always killing people. And for Christians who have been taught that we must believe that everything the God said or did (according to the writers of the bible) was perfect and right and good and just, this means coming up with baseless embellishments to make God's victims sound especially evil.

Take the story of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), for example. All it says is they "offered unauthorized fire." So uh, what does that even mean? WELL WE DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS BUT WE KNOW IT MUST HAVE BEEN BAD. I mean, of course when God kills someone, they deserve to die, we know that with 100% certainty, right? So in all the sermons or bible studies about this passage, people add to the story with creative fan fiction to help us understand why Nadab and Abihu had to die. OH CLEARLY the reason they did it was deliberate rebellion against God. OH CLEARLY they were selfish and thought they knew better than God did- so this story teaches us that when God gives rules, God is dead serious. OR PERHAPS this was not an isolated event; those guys must have had a history of being sinful and abusing their power as priests, and God finally put a stop to it.

And we sit there speechless, with our bibles open to Leviticus, and someone reassures us, don't worry, they were bad people. It's okay. Move on.


In every example, we can find (or imagine) some kind of mistake or sin that the victim made, before God zapped them. Usually it's a small sin and doesn't seem worthy of death. But we believe everything the bible says God did is just, so we have to believe it was worthy of death.

Hey what's it called when we pick apart someone's life and choices and search for some small sins or things they could have done differently, and point to these as proof that they deserved whatever violence happened to them, and therefore declare the case closed and justice done...?

What's that called? Blaming the victim.


An unarmed black man was shot? Well I mean, he did get arrested for doing drugs that one time. Sounds like he was a bad person and there's no need to fight for justice here.

Someone was killed by God in the Old Testament? Oh come on, God CLEARLY told everyone what the laws were. He should have known. This is what justice looks like. Yep, what a nice and tidy bible story that teaches us the importance of obedience.

Or perhaps I should have given those examples in the opposite order. Perhaps placing blame on God's victims in the bible trains us to blame the victims when violence happens in our own society.
Seriously, I am SO NOT HERE for this biblical victim-blaming crap. "Oh, surely this person that God killed for some seemingly illogical reason MUST HAVE BEEN terribly sinful and bad, somehow, even though the bible doesn't really say how, because we KNOW that SURELY God could not have done something BAD." We learn in church to do apologetics this way, and then we go out and argue on facebook "Oh surely this unarmed black man must have been dangerous and threatening somehow, because surely a police officer wouldn't have just murdered him for no good reason, here let's search through his past and invent reasons that he was a bad person." It's the same damn thing. How are white Christians going to believe #BlackLivesMatter when they believe it was right for God to kill Uzzah for touching the damn ark? How can we recognize police brutality for the injustice that it is when we're taught from childhood to excuse divine brutality?
And if you believe God speaks to you and guides you every day, but God has never said anything about how you benefit from centuries of white supremacy and you need to repent... well then, it must not matter to God, huh? Must not be true.

And if you ask all your friends to pray about your job interview, and then you credit God with getting you the job, then how can you acknowledge the reality of employment discrimination- that people with black-sounding names are significantly less likely to get called for job interviews? You believe God helped you get the job as part of his perfect plan- that God controlled every part of the process and blessed you with a new job. If you believe that, you can't believe in systemic racism, can you?

Overall, white evangelicalism's obsession with "having a personal relationship with God" is a convenient way to ignore our sinful complicity in society-wide injustice. It's all about your own relationship with God. Everyone is equal spiritually- and that's all that matters. Sin is bad because it breaks your own personal relationship with God. Maybe your sin hurts people too, but that's not really the point. Completely absent is the idea that the sins of the privileged disproportionately affect those in marginalized groups.

And then somebody comes along and says, American culture trains white people to have subconscious racial biases. It's not white people's fault, but they have the responsibility to fight back against the casual racism and to challenge their own prejudices. And when a white evangelical hears this for the first time, it doesn't sound anything like what they've been taught about sin. "No, that's not what sin is. How can it be a sin if it's not my fault? How can it be a sin if I've never felt guilty about it? How can it be a sin if I've never noticed it causing damage to my personal relationship with God?"

In that context, of course it would be baffling that InterVarsity would take a stand in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Of course Christians would be confused about the connection between racial justice in this world- right here, right now- and the gospel.
They said the bible was good and perfect and inerrant and inspired by God. Then I went and read the bible and there were a lot of foreskins and God killing people and graphic scary prophecies about war and destruction. And I had to believe that was all fine and didn't in any way affect the bible's status as good and perfect. As a good church kid who read the bible a lot, I developed the habit of not noticing or questioning those things. Or, I did notice them, but I saw them as fun bits of trivia that would show off my bible knowledge. I trusted God so much, so I was sure there was a good reason he did all those shady genocidal things. In fact, I was so confident, I would laugh about the atrocities God committed in the bible.

They said the United States is a Christian nation, the best country in the world, and that the founders were good Christians who prayed and were guided by God to write the Constitution. Then I went to history class and learned about slavery and segregation and violence. And just as I had trained myself to read about the Canaanite genocide without ever thinking "hey, maybe this was a bad thing that God commanded here", I read about the kidnapping, sale, torture, beating, and murder of African people without ever thinking "hey, maybe it's actually NOT true that this country was founded on principles of liberty and justice for all." Sure, those things were awful, and there were times that I cried when I read about families being split up when they were sold into slavery. But I saw these horrific events as exceptions that didn't have any bearing on the United States's identity as "a Christian nation, the greatest nation in the world because we have freedom." It was just an isolated thing, a bad thing some racist white people did back then. Just like God can command an army to "kill everything that breathes" and still be perfectly good and worthy of worship.

So I learned all the facts about racism in US history, but I wasn't able to really *get* it. There was no way I could get it, when all the adults said "this is the greatest nation in the world." And I read the bible from cover to cover and believed it all really happened, but the thought that maybe God is a monster never crossed my mind. There was no way I could get it.

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