If the myriad of tragic events over the last few years has done anything for Americans, it’s shown us the stark need for justice in the world. Because at the heart of the Christian message is justice itself. And that means, according to Lisa Sharon Harper, the only hope the world has for justice is the message of the gospel.
We spoke talked with Harper, who is the chief church engagement officer at Sojourners, about the deep connection between the gospel and justice, her new book The Very Good Gospel and why it starts with understanding the message of Genesis.
I love the title Very Good Gospel. Can you tell me for our audience that may not be familiar with the concept, can you talk about the concept of the book and why you landed on that title in particular?
The book came out of 13 years of exploration of Genesis, particularly Genesis 1-3 and that came out of a journey I took in 2003 called the Pilgrimage for Reconciliation. And I was just really struck at the end of that journey. For the first two weeks we retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Then, over the second half, we retraced the African experience in America from slavery through Civil Rights.
I have to say, my understanding of the good news of the Gospel was really wrapped up in the Four Spiritual laws. The reality is that when it came down to it my understanding at that point of the good news of the Gospel was God loves me, but I’m sinful and Jesus died for my sins and if I pray this prayer then I get to go to Heaven. It was also a very legal construct: It’s very linear in its thinking and very simple.
But I imagine myself sharing that understanding of the Gospel with my own ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears and who had been enslaved in the South and I asked myself at the end of that journey: “Would my understanding of the Gospel make them jump up and down and holler because it was so darn good?” and I realized I could not share that Gospel with them. It had nothing to say about the lives they were living or the oppression they were experiencing.
And I realized if my Gospel is muted in the face of the worst stuff that has ever happened on our land then maybe it’s not so good. Maybe the news is not so good or maybe it’s just not good enough.
All parts of creation were created in interconnected relationship and those relationships are what God declared very good at the end of the sixth day. That is what we were created for—that kind of connectedness to all things, including God.
But our understanding of the Gospel, especially in the 20th century, got reduced down to simply our relationship with God. And sin got reduced to our imperfection within ourselves. But what I came to understand is if the very goodness that God was talking about in the very beginning was located between things then sin is anything that breaks any of those relationships that God declared very good in the very beginning. It’s not about necessarily our being imperfect.
It’s interesting because when you look at the things in the Old Testament that angered God it wasn’t so much just what we think of as immorality in terms of failures of the flesh or weaknesses, it was being unkind to refugees or being inhospitable. It was like you said, what really made God angrier than anything, at least in the Old Testament context, seemed to be that breakdown of relationships between people.
It doesn’t actually stop there. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but in our modern, American church, our understanding of the Gospel really reduced Jesus down to being a moralist, but Jesus actually really wasn’t. His whole life was spent breaking down barriers between people and creating connections that were not supposed to be. Between men and women; affluent and poor people. Jesus actually coming down from Heaven to Earth is the building of a bridge. It’s the connecting of humanity to God.
And then with the cross, He becomes all of these things—the sick one, the one who was oppressed by the government, a prisoner and as a result he becomes separated from all things. I think the triumph of the resurrection is the triumph over that ultimate separation which is death and he comes back to life. Because if Jesus can beat death, Jesus can certainly beat economic disparity and oppression. Jesus can certainly beat sexism and patriarchy. In fact, we saw Him do it while Jesus was alive.
The practical implications of looking at the Gospel as primarily post-death are pretty profound. Do you think the church has been too focused on that and has a misunderstanding? Do you feel like it’s accurate that a lot of the church has misrepresented the Gospel as not something that is for the now but for later?
A person’s social perspective—their location, approach and position—mostly dictates what they can see. So I think that the perspective of those who handed us our understanding of the Gospel was actually very affluent—it was literally the perspective of governments and nations that oppressed others.
And that was, and is, the social perspective of the American church. And I think the reason why we are so disconnected from the Scripture is because every single word, letter, book and writer in the Scripture was a person whose perspective was on the underside of oppression. Every single person who wrote the Scriptures was oppressed.
I think that’s part of why the Body of Christ needs us all in order to interpret the Scripture well—to see what needs to be seen in Scripture. I think when we have looked at Scripture for the last century, in particular in the American church, we have seen the Scripture from the position of one who lives on top of systems and structures that actually are oppressing people.
This is why all of this stuff that happened by hands who claimed faith in Jesus and often used their version of the Bible to justify what they were doing, because they’re not seeing the Scripture through the eyes of the oppressed. They’re seeing the scripture through the eyes of the oppressors. So they pick and choose what they want to see, what justifies their actions.
They’ve taken Jesus out. They’ve literally lifted Him out of the context of the whole story.
So there’s a disconnection from the text itself and we know from scripture that the text is God.
The text is Jesus. John said of Jesus, “The Word came and lived among us and The Word was flesh.”
So much of it comes down to, as you were mentioning this, lack of perspective from only seeing your view. What are some practical steps for people who may have been raised in a position of privilege, and maybe not even be aware of their own lack of perspective, so that they can gain it?
It goes right back to Genesis 1 for me. At the beginning of the 6th day, that’s when God creates humanity in His image. In the Babylonian empire their understanding of the image of God was that it was only held by royalty. But the priests who were exiting 70 years of oppression do something that is absolutely revolutionary: They democratize power. Because what they say is all humanity is created in the image of God. And then they do something even more radical they say “and let them, all humanity, have dominion.”
So it’s really about maintaining the boundaries and wellness of the relationships that God has created in this new creation and so all humanity was given the call and created with the capacity to steward the world. But what we have been given in our world is a hierarchy, several hierarchies of human values and human dignity to exercise dominion. But those hierarchies are a lie. They are not from God. Because what God says is that all humanity was created to steward the world.
So I think the first step quite honestly is to learn to see the image of God and that call and that capacity to exercise dominion behind every set of eyes that you encounter in your life. You literally do what Paul said to do: Take every thought captive. And when you realize that you’re thinking of this person as just the Uber driver, just the homeless person who’s always on that corner or just your mentally ill cousin—whenever you feel that “just” part come up in your head, take that thought captive and if you can see them, look into their eyes and look for the image of God behind their eyes.
So it’s not actually enough, according to the research, for us to have a black friend or have a poor friend or to have a woman friend if you’re a bunch of men like to actually have a woman who’s a friend.
But it’s really the process of being immersed that actually challenges our unconscious biases because we’re confronted by them all the time when we’re immersed and we can’t just explain them away when we’re immersed.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.