Peter G. Heltzel. Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. 288 pages. $25.44 hardcover (Amazon). Click here or on the image to purchase Jesus and Justice from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
For many years, American discourse on race has focused solely on the oppression caused by racial discrimination and even the racial categories themselves. Then, Americans began looking toward the future, hoping for a “post-racial” America. But here lies the rub: one must apprehend the genealogy of the idea of race and the effects thereof in order to develop creative ways for ending racial oppression. Perhaps being post-racial is the wrong approach to racial reconciliation. Perhaps a better approach is for Americans to learn to appreciate differences of identity and experience. Americans cannot gloss over their racial and racist history, nor can they pretend that experiences of racial embodiment do not affect people’s lives. Thus, our goal should not be to ignore racial differences but to affirm these differences for the betterment of humanity.
But what role can Christians, particularly those adhering to evangelicalism, contribute to ending racial oppression? How have evangelicals acquired so much political power and to what extent has this power been wielded in order to end racial oppression?
Peter Goodwin Heltzel answers these questions in Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics. In the first four chapters, he encourages contemporary evangelicals to understand their inherited legacy of social justice from Martin Luther King Jr. and Carl F. H. Henry. Furthermore, he suggests that it would behoove American Christians to give a theological account of race and discern the various ways in which Christianity must preach a full gospel that includes ameliorating the suffering caused by racial discrimination. He says we must prescribe those actions that are life-affirming, rather than life-denying. “As a new generation of evangelical activists embraces King’s vision for racial equality and reconciliation, and as evangelicals in the Henry tradition seek to live into his call to justice and reform,” according to Heltzel, “a growing intercultural evangelical coalition is embodying a prophetic politics of hope” (xxiii).
One would expect the Christian community to be the last place where racism, implicit or explicit, would still linger. Unfortunately, as Heltzel points out, “The convergence of the black and white evangelical traditions in the third millennium is still plagued by the problem of white supremacy, the moral contradiction on which America was built. From slavery to segregation, America’s tragic past demands a robust evangelical theological accounting” (4). Jesus is understood differently contingent upon one’s historical-cultural situatedness. For example, the Jesus of Harriet Jacobs and many black Christians is a Jesus who suffers alongside us. This Jesus knows what it means to be oppressed, to be poor, to be cursed, to be beaten, and to be tortured. In contrast, white Christians have mainly focused on the victory and glorification of Jesus. This Jesus is triumphant. Although both understandings can be said to accurately describe Jesus, both do not warrant the same response to social injustices. Heltzel, following a certain line of thinking espoused by J. Kameron Carter, emphasizes the importance of Jesus’s Jewish flesh. He sees a connection between the suffering flesh of Jesus and the wounded flesh of many black Americans, and in order to better answer the call for justice, he argues that Christians must take seriously Jesus’s humanly flesh rather than his glorified body.
Various movements for social justice by evangelicals should be recognized in light of the cultural interaction among white and black Christianity. The two groups, since the founding of America, have lived among one another, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in collaboration. Heltzel’s chapter “Revival, Race, and Reform” provides a genealogy of evangelicalism in America that focuses on its emergence out of the Second Great Awakening. While highlighting key points of intersection between black and white Christians, Heltzel also demonstrates how racial separation aided the status quo of white privilege. During the nineteenth century, whites had many resources and opportunities granted to them that were refused to blacks. Even though blacks and whites often worshipped together at revival meetings, the structures of society and the issue of slavery kept the two groups in a kind of dialectical relationship. The social structure of America also led to a rift between proslavery and abolitionist white evangelicals. Furthermore, a second divide was found among the abolitionists who stressed personal transformation and the abolitionists who pleaded for systemic change.
This divide continued well into the twentieth century and remains with us even today. In continuing his genealogy, Heltzel focuses on two important religious leaders for evangelical Christianity: King and Henry. He claims that “King’s vision [is] a blended theology shaped by three streams: the black church, liberal theology, and evangelical theology” (46). The social experience of the black church contributed significantly to King’s theology. For King, the suffering of Jesus’s flesh was resonant within the slave songs and spirituals of the black church. Heltzel insightfully discusses how the influence of liberal theology, as found in Rauschenbusch for example, came from King’s years as a student. He also acknowledges King’s reception of personalism, a school of liberal theology that emphasizes the role of personality as the foundation for social ethics. As King’s own theology developed, he began using the logic of evangelicalism, a logic that is Christocentric, cruciform, and rooted in personal faith in a personal deity.
Then Heltzel describes five characteristics of King’s evangelical theology. First, salvation begins through one’s personal conversion to faith in Jesus. This salvation occurs in the context of the world and the church and manifests itself in the believer’s life through the pursuit of righteousness, truth, and justice. This pursuit also includes striving for the social transformations necessary for justice to be elevated.
Second, King was committed to a kind of Biblicism. Biblical authority allowed him to find many parallels between the traditions of the black church and the biblical narratives of God’s redeeming grace for his people. Based on scripture, his theology stressed the humanity of Jesus and his solidarity with the marginalized. Likewise, many biblical stories were an encouragement to King, particularly as they spoke of the struggle for justice. He would lead, like Moses and Jesus, those who are oppressed out of their suffering.
Third, evangelicalism was a source for King’s civil rights activism. His activism was directed toward both evangelism and social justice. King thought “that sin, both personal and social, is humanity’s fundamental problem” (62). He saw a need not only to “save souls” but also to transform a nation.
Fourth, according to Heltzel, King’s Christocentric theology was rooted in an appreciation that “Christ [was] the Son of God who suffered and died so that we could live as prophetic witnesses, redeemed and ready to work tirelessly for the reformation of the world” (60). On the one hand, Jesus suffered with the oppressed. Following Jesus, King refused to respond to persecution with violence. On the other hand, the prophetic quality of Jesus was seen in his confrontation of both personal and societal sin. In pursuing justice by caring for the least among us, King believed that Christians must be willing, like Jesus, to lose their own lives. Such seems to be the fate of King himself.
Fifth, King’s evangelicalism implied participation in a transdenominational populist movement. Because his theology was incarnational and socioethical, King grasped that all people could be redeemed, that all could be free, and that all could be beneficiaries of justice. On this point, as he often does throughout the book, Heltzel explains the aforementioned rift within evangelical Christianity and describes King’s own complex relationships with other contemporary religious leaders. It is often shocking just how many evangelicals, for example, Bob Jones Sr. and Jerry Falwell, rejected King’s ministry. Heltzel also emphasizes that some evangelicals, like Frank Gaebelein, whole-heartedly supported the civil rights movement. This tension seems to grow out of two distinct perspectives on the cross and the need for justice: “The cross, as King understands it, is the cross of the freedom struggle, while many white Christians see their cross as a struggle for individual moral purity. For King, following Jesus means taking up your cross to live a life dedicated to love and justice in personal and political life” (67).
Next to King, Henry, a theology professor at Fuller Seminary and the editor of Christianity Today, was perhaps the most influential figure in twentieth-century evangelicalism. Henry rigorously defended evangelical theology while also proclaiming the need for social transformation. He perceived a growing but disappointing trend within the evangelical community: the neglect of much-needed social reform. This led him to vigorously rebuke evangelicalism’s tendency for social isolation and to challenge evangelicals to reignite their fervor for social justice. Today, Henry’s legacy has become one by which evangelicals can justify their participation in political life. However, as Heltzel keenly notes, Henry failed to develop a thorough theological response to the systemic racism within American society.
Henry’s theology of the Kingdom of God urges Christians to reconcile themselves with their fellow human persons while also confronting many social injustices. It is clear from Henry’s corpus that he was greatly influenced by both the Reformed and prophetic Baptist traditions. He understood that God was present in the world alongside those who suffer and that individuals require religious freedom. Heltzel claims, “As Baptist theologians, King and Henry shared a common commitment to the intrinsic value and dignity of every human person who is made in the image of God” (76).
Yet too often, the emphasis on individuality can lead to the neglect of social ethics. Henry, borrowing from the revivalist tradition, was sensitive to this tendency and sought to develop a wider notion of social reform. Nevertheless, he thought the transformation of society would flow out of the spiritual transformation of individuals. His Kingdom of God theology attempted to bring together these two emphases.
Henry did not merely desire a social gospel that “reduced Christianity to the performance of good works in society instead of seeing positive human social action as expressing the gracious, loving activity of the triune God” (78). Redeeming individuals was the work of divine action, which was both God’s sovereign action and the work of the church. Stressing the nuances of Henry’s theology, Heltzel reminds us that the Kingdom of God is never synonymous with any temporal state or the church itself. Rather, the church must mimic God’s Kingdom in so far as it should be the earthly expression of human flourishing. Furthermore, Henry’s theology privileged the “already but not-yet” aspect of the Kingdom.
Despite his appeal to social justice, Henry never adequately confronted racism on an institutional level. He continued to see racism as a result of personal sinfulness. Consequently, he was not able to challenge the normative whiteness that plagued the evangelical community. Heltzel’s book is timely precisely because this plague remains with us today.
The theological contributions and legacies of King and Henry present the two sides of contemporary evangelicalism. As King wanted to reform the institutions of American society, Henry sought to promote reconciliation between individuals. King encouraged an affirmative activism that Christians could (and should) embrace. Henry demonstrated that Christians could participate actively in political discourse.
The second half of Heltzel’s exploration of evangelicalism and race is devoted to a discussion of the contemporary social movements and organizations that have emerged out of the King/Henry tradition. In these chapters, Heltzel aligns Focus on the Family and the National Association of Evangelicals with Henry’s legacy and the Christian Community Development Association and Sojourners with King’s legacy. These chapters are insightful for three reasons. First, Heltzel draws out the historical connections between each group and their influences. Second, he describes their respective historical developments throughout the last few decades. And third, he suggests the pros and cons of each organization. No doubt, all human organizations promoting social justice must be always open to critique and challenges to do more on behalf of those who are oppressed.
Heltzel concludes with his own suggestion of an evangelical politics. Throughout the book, he continually stresses that racial reconciliation should be understood in light of the suffering Jewish flesh of Jesus. Furthermore, he claims that “the maturation of evangelical public theology is cast in a shade of blue green. The long tragedy of black suffering is pitched in blue; against that backdrop, an emergent holism within evangelicalism is saturated in green” (203). He stands as a witness to an anti-racist, intercultural, and interdisciplinary evangelical political theology that has grown out of the evangelical legacies of both King and Henry. A Christology that illuminates the suffering humanity of Jesus is what is needed in a theological response to racism. Jesus’s own flesh indeed may act as the key to unlocking the possibility of racial reconciliation in America. “Evangelicalism,” Heltzel concludes, “is searching for itself, a self that was buried in an ancient, painful past. Evangelicalism is looking to Jesus, looking to his Jewish flesh, broken and blue, bowing before the neighbor and the good, green creation, learning to discern the divine presence in all things and to see glimpses of the earthing of the Kingdom of God” (218). Following in King’s footsteps, we must continue the task of embracing human diversity in a way similar to valuing all the colors on a canvas that becomes a great work of art. God’s kingdom is one of diverse beauty and illuminated differences. Hence, we must affirm human difference for the betterment of all humanity.