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Dr. Derwin Gray on Racial Justice and Why White Christians Need to Stop Weaponizing ‘Woke’

Dr. Derwin Gray on Racial Justice and Why White Christians Need to Stop Weaponizing ‘Woke’

As a pastor and an author, Dr. Derwin Gray has been observing the deep racial divides in this country fester for most of his life, both inside the Church and outside of it. He believes the Church should be leading the conversation, but is all too often sitting it out or even holding it back. With How to Heal Our Racial Divide: What the Bible Says, and the First Christians Knew, about Racial Reconciliation, he’s hoping to help American Christians reclaim their true heritage as justice advocates and bridge builders. In this conversation, we talked about making our theology the cornerstone of seeking racial justice, his frustration with the weaponization of the word “woke” and why he thinks the CRT Panic is a bogeyman.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This is a conversation with a lot of writing around it. What do you think your book brings to the conversation you haven’t seen written about elsewhere?

That is a great question. I actually haven’t had that question. The idea of tackling this topic has to come from a life experience. After George Floyd, I’m looking at that and I’m having a flashback to 1992 as a senior in college. That’s when the Rodney King video came out. Back then, they didn’t have smartphones at that time. Me and my Black college teammates were saying, ‘Man. Now the world is gonna believe us. Now the world’s gonna hear us.” And all these years later — a little bit over 30 years later — it’s the same exact thing. 

Police brutality and injustice is only a fraction. It’s only the tip of the iceberg. So that got me to the point where, man, I’m just tired. I’m glad that White brothers and sisters are waking up to this topic. But I was disappointed to see them going to sociological instead of theological tools. It’s almost like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah. Jesus died for sins, he rose again. But for this problem of racism we need sociological tools. 

I’m here to say as a pastor and as a theologian as a new testament scholar, no. Jesus of Nazareth came to defeat all sin, including racism and racial injustice. What I want to do is give people a new theological imagination surrounded through the redemptive work of Jesus.

God’s power can form us into the people who love each other through the demonic barriers of racism and racial injustice. But we have to be prepared because this takes a lot of courage to be able to walk into a space that has been so cluttered by racial issues throughout the history of our country.

But Jesus is a cleaner. He’s a fixer and he’s looking for people who want to learn to be his hands and his feet and who have a courageous love to break down these barriers because it matters to him.

Tell me more about the distinction between sociological and theological solutions to racial injustice.

I’m not hating on sociology. All truth is God’s truth and all theological truth has sociological implications. Sociology deals with how people gather. A sociologist can tell you: Here are the trends of racial injustice, here are the trends of prejudice. That’s a good thing. But if I only point out the problem and don’t have a solution, I’m still stuck with the problem. 

So what I want to present is a blood-soaked, spirit empowered, Gospel centered solution to the problem that creates sociological harmony. 

When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he’s like OK, here’s the sociological problem. Jews and Samaritans had a 700-year ethnic feud. Jesus stepped into an ethnic feud he did not create, just like us, but he says, ‘I want to create a solution to the problem.’ 

And he tells this story about a Jewish man who’s been bloodied and beaten and robbed. And a Jewish priest and a Levite walks past them, but a Samaritan is the one to give care, concern and love, and pay a cost to see this Jewish man heal. 

If I could tell one story my whole life about how the gospel reconciles humanity and destroys racism and prejudice it’s that one. 

So, I’m all for sociology. It’s a good practice. It can tell us a lot. But it cannot heal. Only the Gospel heals. So we want to have strong theology and we all want to understand sociology. 

Whenever we at RELEVANT get into this issue of racism, what we hear from people is: Why are we talking about this? They’d say, “I’m not a racist. I’m not a white supremacist There are people in our church of every race and and we’re doing great. Why do we have to keep focusing on this issue of racism?” How do you respond to somebody who brings that up?

I would just patiently say: Why do we have to keep talking about abortion? Why do we have to keep talking about pornography? Why do we have to keep talking about greed? Last I checked, all forms of sin are offensive to God. 

Secondly, no one in the Church has complete sanctification. We’re all in the process of growing. Statistics show that the most segregated institution in America is Jesus’s Church.

I’ll give you an illustration. Oftentimes, when people say ‘I’m not a racist,’ I begin to probe and ask some questions. “So what, to you, is racism? And inevitably it’s: Well you have a Nazi swastika, you’re part of a hate group, you wear a hood on on your head. 

Those types of racism are easy to fight. I’m not even worried about that. The ones that I’m trying to reach are your brothers and your sisters and your uncles and your aunts that when you’re having dinner at Christmas, they say things like: “Can you believe those Black players are taking a knee during the National Anthem? They should just feel lucky they’re in this country. They could be in Africa!” 

I’m concerned about those subtle forms of racism that say: ‘Well, you can be my brother in Christ but you can’t be my brother in law.’ I’m concerned about the racism that says, ‘Black people don’t experience injustice.’ 

Let me give an example. I was in a conversation with a friend of mine. They’re White and they love the Lord and they would say things like, “I just couldn’t believe NFL players kneeled and protested the flag. and I would go, ‘Well, they didn’t protest the flag. They were protesting injustice. The flag stands for liberty and justice for all.’ 

Then they would say ‘Well, my great granddad fought in World War II. What do you have to be upset about?’ 

And I’ll say, ‘Well, first of all, I honor your great grandfather for fighting in the war. That’s awesome. I love my country. But did you know that 1.2 million Black GIs went to Nazi Germany and fought against Nazi racists there, only to come back to American racism at home? Second class citizens. 1.2 million Black GIs didn’t get the GI Bill, which created the modern day suburban movement, which created billions and trillions of dollars of home equity wealth that Blacks didn’t get. 

The great Jesse Owens defeated the Nazis in Germany. FDR didn’t even give him a call. He couldn’t even go through the front door of hotels where he was getting awards. 

So next time you look at the American flag, don’t just think White folks died for the American flag. Black folks died too. For me, this is really personal. My fourth great grandfather Moses Davis fought in  the Civil War for the Virginia Colored Cavalry against the Confederacy, so within my blood is patriotism for the United States of America. Not just White people died for this flag. There were Asian people who built the railroads in the West. There were Native Americans who taught Europeans how to farm the land. There were enslaved people that built some of the great institutions in this country, like the University of North Carolina. There are so many people that have made this country what it is. It’s a form of white supremacy to think that this is White people’s country.

No, this belongs to God and God’s people should be the ones to recognize liberty and justice for all flows from the Bible. Liberty and justice for all. Not just for some. Not just for people that look like you, think like you, act like you and vote like you. 

As Christians, we should all desire a heart that says if my God can come to earth to suffer for sins He didn’t commit, maybe I can be more humble to look at life through other people’s perspectives. 

Here’s what happens when we begin to see life from other people’s perspective: Our vision of humanity increases. That’s a good thing. That’s a God thing.

Some people are scared of engaging this conversation because they don’t want to be painted as social justice warriors or “woke” or whatever. 

We need to put down our idolatrous idols of politics. That doesn’t mean not to vote. What it does mean is that as you do vote, know that your primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God not a political party.

Let me just pause here and say this. I want my frustration to come across from a holy place. As a Black man, I am really sick and tired of Black language being weaponized. Marcus Garvey, way back in the 1920s, started the term woke. It simply means “be aware to injustice.”

It makes me angry that many White brothers and sisters who say they believe in Jesus have taken a Black word, appropriated it and made it a weapon. We used to say ‘stay woke’ all the time. It had nothing to do with this late night news media propaganda nonsense. 

Let me specifically talk to my White brothers and sisters right now: The whole CRT issue—  the whole woke issue — is a bogeyman to keep you afraid. In the 1950s and 1960s, White people were scared. They would say ‘race mixing is Marxism, it’s socialist, Dr. King is a Communist.’

They take these words and use them to create fear. So let me just hit you with this: 1 John 4:18 says ‘Perfect love casts out all fear.’ 

And let me talk about CRT real quick. Critical Race Theory — I say this respectfully, I say this lovingly — most people are not smart enough to understand Critical RaceTheory. It’s used in law school for advanced law students. It is a theory of law that says within the government are legal systems, and in the United States of America, racism has played a part in the creation of those systems. Do we not agree with that? Think about it. That’s basic. 

That’s why when people go, ‘What do you think about CRT?’ I go, ‘I don’t!’ Let’s talk about the Gospel. I don’t need CRT to tell me about Jim Crow segregation, redlining, that Wells Fargo recently directed Blacks and Latinos in the subprime lending fiasco to take these awful loans, When you look  at the justice system, it’s all there to see. 

What I want to do is, I want to draw people back to the Gospel, to apply it to the culture with love. Donald Trump ain’t gonna save you. Biden ain’t gonna save you. A Jewish carpenter who claimed to be the Son of God is going to save you, and His kingdom ethics are different.

The United States of America is a great country. But when I read the end of the book of Revelation, I don’t see no America. I see every nation, tribe and tongue surrounded by King Jesus. It’s his values. It’s his kingdom that I’m calling people to move towards. 

Why do you think the White Church has been so susceptible to these fearmongering campaigns?

It is a dark demonic delusion. Paul talks in Ephesians 6:10-22, put on the full armor of God. There’s spiritual warfare. If the devil can’t take your salvation, he can disrupt it, distract it, destroy it. 

Often throughout the history of the United States of America, White Christians have benefited from injustice. When your pockets are being lined oftentimes, we don’t see when something is out of line. The color green blinds us to the red color of his blood.

How to Heal Our Racial Divide: What the Bible Says, and the First Christians Knew, about Racial Reconciliation is available now.

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