Every ten years or so, the American Church picks another bogeyman to square up against. This villain might be real or imagined, but the important thing is that they are set up as the final boss of the culture war. Christians of a certain age may remember characters as varied as the Soviet Union, postmodernism, secular humanism and even the nebulous “the world.” Whatever actual threat level posed by these entities, the important thing is that Christians at the time were goaded into thinking they were the Thanos of their time.
These days, the bad guys have different names. Critical Race Theory. Cultural Marxism. Globalism. Deconstruction. But they all fall under a big umbrella called “WOKENESS.”
The word “woke” makes for a convenient bad guy, because it’s just nebulous enough to adjust to any need. Broadly speaking, “woke” refers to certain attitudes and beliefs about racial, gender and, increasingly, scientific issues.
But it’s hard to say what exactly those attitudes and beliefs are. On social media, Christian cultural warriors have used “woke” to brand people and institutions as different as President Joe Biden, Lecrae, Tim Keller, Beth Moore, Russell Moore and this very media outlet. No matter how ideologically diverse these entities actually are, they are all perceived as being on the other side of an unspoken line, and that line is woke.
As we’ve written before, this is a pretty big deviation from what woke used to mean. The word sprung from the Black community in the U.S., where it has been used for almost a century to refer to racial awareness. But certain culture warriors adapted it from a positive call to action into an insult and sometimes even a slur. It’s getting to the point where “woke” is used against any Christian who tries to apply their biblical beliefs to emerging cultural issues. Criminal justice reform? Woke. Climate change? Woke. Structural racism in the U.S? Extra woke.
And that’s going to be a problem, because from its very founding, Christian history is riddled with men and women who were on the front lines of the social justice issues of their time. It’s true, they often took a great deal of criticism from their contemporaries for their efforts. It’s only later, through the eyes of history, that they were recognized as pioneers, heroes and innovative expressions of God’s love for humanity. Here are a just a few giants of Christian history who fell to their era’s version of wokeness.
Martin Luther: Lived in FEAR of the PANDEMIC
Back in 1527, the Father of Reformation came face to face with his era’s pandemic: the Black Plague. Medical professionals in Wittenberg (such as they were) didn’t understand much about infectious diseases at the time, but they knew enough to offer some guidelines for staying safe and reducing transmission. In a letter to a friend, Luther advised Christians to follow these guidelines.
“Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?”
Luther also wrote that if his neighbor needed help during the Plague then he wouldn’t hesitate, writing that Christianity “is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
This is still good advice today, even though “shunning” people and places has met with a lot of resistance from certain Christians who suggest such actions amounts to “living in fear.” But Luther didn’t see it that way. He thought of it like everyone doing their part to help put out a fire.
Mother Teresa: DECONSTRUCTED Her FAITH
Mother Teresa may be a modern icon of love and charity who fully lived out the biblical teaching that to serve the poor and needy was to serve Jesus himself, but she privately wrestled with seasons of enormous spiritual doubt and, as she called it, “dryness.” In letters that were released after her death, Mother Teresa wrote from depths of deep spiritual loneliness. “Where is my faith?” she wrote in her journal. “Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. … If there be God – please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”
She would wrestle this “long darkness: that strange suffering” on and off through most of her life. Such seasons are well documented in both Catholic and Protestant theology (Teresa’s namesake Thérèse of Lisieux referred to them as “nights of nothingness”) and these times, while extremely lonely and challenging for believers, can often lead to new and even more robust seasons of faith.
Deconstruction can mean a lot of things. Sometimes, it’s just an intense season of doubt and loneliness. Sometimes it ends up being a conversion, a theological shift or even a “deconversion.” With Mother Teresa, it was a private and evidently very solitary struggle, but not one that deterred her from her passion for the poor.
Abraham Lincoln: FLIRTED With the MARXIST AGENDA
As the famed Christian, first Republican President and probably the best overall Commander in Chief in U.S. history, Honest Abe is an unlikely mark for Marxism. But surprisingly enough, Karl Marx and Lincoln were friendly, read each other’s work, exchanged letters and even influenced each other’s writing. Marx deplored American slavery and congratulated Lincoln on his victory, telling him that “as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working class.”
Lincoln responded warmly to Marx’s letter, sending a message saying he hoped that he “may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.”
The men disagreed on many important points. Marx was not a religious man. Lincoln was not a socialist. Lincoln proposed serious reforms to the American system of wage labor, but stopped sort of Marx’s vision of a workers’ revolution. However, Lincoln saw socialists as “allies,” according to political author John Nichols, united in common cause of uplifting the status of the laborer. As Lincoln would say in his first annual address, “labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Sojourner Truth: Called for an END to the DEATH PENALTY
Few Americans were more ahead of their time than the woman born Isabella Baumfree. Though she came into the world a slave, she escaped with her daughter in her 20s and then successfully sued for her son’s freedom — becoming the first Black woman to win a case like that. After she became free, she moved in with a couple who introduced her to Christianity, and she would be a fervent believer for the rest of her life.
Taking the name Sojourner Truth, she became a tireless advocate for abolition, women’s suffrage and property rights. Though few of the causes she championed were realized in her lifetime, her efforts laid the groundwork for a vast array of social changes long after her death. One such change was capital punishment, which she urged the Michigan state legislature to abolish. “I’ve heard that you are going to have hanging again in this state,” she cried. “Where is the man or woman who can sanction such a thing as that? We are the makers of murderers if we do it.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Wanted to Study Under Gandhi, a RELIGIOUS PLURALIST
Bonhoeffer’s shadow looms large over modern Christianity, with many modern Christians trying to claim him as their own. But Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who became a thorn in the side of the Third Reich, frustratingly avoids easy identification with simplistic labels. Case in point, recently unearthed letters show he sought to study under Indian activist and pacifist icon Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s.
“From all I know about you and your work after having studied your books and your movement for a few years, I feel we Western Christians should try to learn from you, what realization of faith means, what a life devoted to political and racial peace can attain. I know, of course, you are not a baptized Christian. But the people whose faith Jesus praised mostly did not belong to the official Church at that time either.”
Gandhi’s own religious identification evolved throughout his life. Though he declared himself to be an Advaitist Hindu, he was also influenced by Christian, Islam and Buddhist thought — along with writers like Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin. Gandhi championed religious pluralism throughout his life, much to his critics’ consternation.
Gandhi responded, saying he would be delighted to host Bonhoeffer, but it was not meant to be. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and was eventually executed for plotting against Hitler. Gandhi himself was assassinated just a few years later.
Lottie Moon: A FEMINIST Icon
Few Southern Baptists need an introduction to Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist missionary to China whose life and work set the bar for foreign missions work. However, the struggle for control of her legacy has been fierce, as Moon did not and does not fit the mold of the quiet, subservient Christian lady. Instead, she decried the limited work offered to women — especially single women — in church circles. “Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure, that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever broadening activities that she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls?” she wrote in 1883.
Ten years later in 1893, she wrote from China that “what women have a right to demand is perfect equality,” and she boldly defied the men in her life — even deliberately moving her work in China outside the reach of male leadership. She urged her fellow Southern Baptist women back in the U.S. to start their own women-led missions board.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: DISRESPECTED the POLICE
Modern movements for racial justice are often called to mirror the actions of Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was famous for his non-violent protests. But “non-violent” doesn’t mean “passive” and some people use the King’s example to call for things he himself would not have agreed with and did not champion. To take just one example, King was a harsh critic of the police departments of his time — something which caused a great deal of controversy even among King’s white allies.
“Armies of officials are clothed in uniform, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence and death and conditioned to believe that they can intimidate, maim or kill Negroes with the same recklessness that once motivated the slaveowner,” he wrote in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait. Later, writing for The Nation, he called on white Americans to acknowledge that police brutality extended beyond the South, arguing that “For many white Americans in the North, there is little comprehension of the grossness of police behavior and its wide practice.”
The point of all of this isn’t that you need to agree with everything the people in this list said or did. They certainly wouldn’t have all agreed with each other. But it should be a reminder to be cautious about where we draw lines about who is in and who is out of our modern circles. People who took a lot of heat for certain outside positions in their era end up looking pretty brave and wise by future generations. We should all hold our positions with a humble, open hand.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.