Originally published 5/31/2016
To be woke is to be aware of the social conditions of our world and the myriad of ways that our minds are conditioned to privilege dominant narratives and in such disenfranchise others.
Jesus has always been about deconstructing systems and cultural norms that rob people of their humanity- we are the ones often asleep to that reality. From the the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he makes it clear what he intends to be about:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4 :18-19)
We would expect Jesus’ first mission statement be about saving souls, but it isn’t. He shows up talking about overturning systems of classism, ethnocentrism, disease, and evil, all while connecting it to a proclamation of good news. The people in Jesus’ day lived religious and devout lives that were hyper spiritual and consequently disconnected from the social realities that marginalized the people around them, the gospel wasn’t simply about that. Jesus was trying to reorient people who had traded justice for vague religiosity as a holistic picture of the gospel he was brining.
Our spirituality is no different in the West. We are obsessed with an intangible Jesus that mysteriously subsides in our non-literal hearts, we are focused on individual salvation to go to a place that we know nothing about after we die, and we consequently live unjust lives as though life on earth and the ways we interact with the oppressed in society do not matter.
He didn’t claim to care about people’s souls or spiritual lives while actively ignoring the conditions and lived experiences that directly impact the health of their souls. Holistic health and healing isn’t spiritual, it is holistic, and western Christianity, in contrast to Jesus, has become a master of isolated soul care while neglecting the body and mind. The latter two are deemed “too political” because they are connected to racist, classist, patriarchal, ableist, and heteronormative structures that many of us benefit from.
Jesus wasn’t ignorant of the culture he lived in in order to focus on saving souls- he was deeply critical of it and insisted that justice is at the center of the gospel. He knew the basic and complex levels of oppression happening in his community and invited his disciples to recognize their environment, ask questions about it, and respond to create a different world.
Jesus was woke.
To be woke is to know the theoretical in’s and out’s of our world and recognize that the stories we have been told about reality are not the whole picture. In a world dominated by stories, knowledge, activity, and cultural norms of cis gendered, heterosexual white men, we must ask the question: “What are the everyday impacts of this narrative both historically and presently?”
Jesus asked questions like this, he saw oppression and held people and systems responsible. He invited his disciples to unlearn their cultural norms and wake up both to the spiritual and the physical realities around them. He often repeated the phrase “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” to help his disciples dismantle the oppressive cultural messages they had received that were inconsistent with his Kingdom. And if the disciples of Jesus who spent everyday in the physical presence of the incarnate God didn’t get it, we ought to be slow in assuming that Jesus doesn’t have some unlearning for us to do about our society. If Jesus invited people in his day to check their own privilege (even as occupied people), we are not above taking a closer look at our privilege, ego and perspectives to ask how Jesus might want to wake us up to how our society functions. Being woke means being aware of the apparatuses of the white cisheteropatriarchy, and responding to create equity and elevate human dignity.
“Getting woke” isn’t easy. A phrase like “you have heard it said, but I say to you…” implies that the things that we know, live, practice, and believe deeply may either be untrue or may not be the whole story. It is much easier to stay as we are.
We believe and perpetuate oppression in our lives, but Jesus has a better way. Getting woke means takings a real look at our world and actively working against both our own ignorance and the fighting systems of oppression that marginalize people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability.
As we consider how we better understand the realities of our world and our own ways of knowing it, there are 4 key components to getting woke:
Being woke requires us to learn and to do the work to decolonize our minds. That is to say that much of the history, philosophy, theology, etc. that we learn in Western spaces inherently comes from the perspective of White, Cis-Male, heterosexual, wealthy people and if our knowledge is almost always coming from the people who hold power, it is key that we learn from historically marginalized voices who have different stories, interpretations, and experiences to ensure that we don’t continue to simply default to problematic ideologies.
We must learn about how systems work to oppress some and privilege others. We must ask how the history that we learn is only one perspective of a larger narrative. We need to learn about people’s experiences who are not like our own. We must learn that our experience differs depending on our social identities. We are responsible for educating ourselves. I always say that you are one google search away from sounding really ignorant or traumatizing a marginalized person with your question. Marginalized people are not guinea pigs who must relive their trauma for your education. My grandmother has recently been engaging in this decolonizing work of gaining knowledge by unlearning the history she was taught and taking initiative to learn from non-dominant voices (she is currently working through The New Jim Crow). If she can do it, so can you.
Being woke is useless if we don’t care about other people. Our learning to empathize with people who have differing experiences to our own is key if we are to actually love them. Learning to empathize means taking the moments where we feel as though someone else’s story is invalid and saying “this experience isn’t like mine, but isn’t less real, tell me more.” If we are unmoved by the suffering of others, we may need to dramatically rethink whether we are actually following Jesus.
We can be empathetic to others stories and highly knowledgeable, but if we have no self awareness, we aren’t really woke. If we do not understand the ramifications of how we enter spaces, how we are viewed, and how lives and experiences differ from those around us, we will often become self important, caring more for knowledge, less for people, and harm people by being our lack of awareness. It is also of the utmost importance for our own health that we know the complexities of our own minds, internalized values, and hatred, as well as the things that both excite and trigger us. The work of getting woke is hard so self-awareness and self care are key if we are to live in such a way that makes space for the complexity of others experiences. Let’s avoid the wrecking ball effect and just be aware of ourselves before we cause damage.
In the same way faith without works is dead, so is knowledge without activism. Activism is the external work of transforming or overthrowing the systems we critique. It is one thing to be woke in your mind and online, but another thing completely to fight for justice in your everyday life, neighborhood, and relationships. There is nothing worse than the person who has a claimed value for justice, but never seeks to interrupt unjust experiences in their day-to-day lives. If we are unwilling to call out a family member or friend on their racist comment, do we really believe what we call out when there is no cost?
Getting woke is a revolutionary act of resistance against systems and structures that would strip humans of their inherent value. It is a journey we take with others to join Jesus in the holistic healing of the world. It is the real work of the cross of Jesus- to see that which is broken restored and that which is evil defeated and buried.