Earlier this month, author and pastor David Platt addressed his congregation in Washington D.C.’s McLean Bible Church about what he called an attempt to hijack an elder vote. According to Platt, a small group of people from both inside and outside the church had started spreading absurd and even offensive disinformation about three elder candidates in an attempt to sabotage the vote. In response to the alleged meddling, the church held a second vote a few weeks later in which all three elder candidates were confirmed with a large majority of the congregation’s approval. However, the saga isn’t over yet.
Five McLean members have filed a complaint, alleging that church leadership illegally barred them from voting in the election, and that the follow-up vote was a violation of the church constitution. These church members are part of a small group of McLean current and former members who say their church has become too “woke,” as dozens of posts from the “Save McLean Bible Church” Facebook group allege. The Capstone Report, which has posted numerous articles critical of Platt’s handling of racial justice issues, dubbed him “Woke David Platt” and hopes to send “a message to Woke Social Justice pastors across America” … No longer are the Woke able to evade accountability for dividing our churches along racial lines.”
It’s hard to say exactly when “woke” became a pejorative used by Christians to cudgel their fellow believers into line and smear ideologies, but it’s been an ugly evolution. It was not all that long ago that the word was mostly used to describe a certain social awareness, often around racial issues. These days, it’s a derisive and amorphous term that used to bully anyone perceived to be more socially or politically liberal than you are. That’s made “woke” an extremely popular insult, but also an insultingly brainless one. It’s a huge label that can be easily slapped on anything the user just doesn’t want to intellectually or critically engage. Conversations around race and gender are complicated and require compassion, study and empathy to be effective. But I don’t have to do that if I can just label you “woke.” I can put you in that box and not have to think about you or the substance of what you actually think.
That’s why we need to retire “woke” from the church lexicon of put-downs. As an insult, the word has become so broad that it’s useless and so mean-spirited that no helpful conversation can spring from its well. It’s especially tragic when you consider the revolutionary origins of the word among Black Americans.
“Woke” really entered the mainstream public consciousness around 2014 during the protests against Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO, but the idea of “wokeness” predates the Black Lives Matter movement by almost a century. Vox points to Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey, who called on Black people around the world to a greater sense of political consciousness by writing “wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” In 1938, Blues icon Lead Belly wrote a protest song called “Scottsboro Boys” in which “stay woke” featured near the end. The song is about the true story of nine Black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Arkansas. “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there,” Lead Belly says on the recording. “Best stay woke.”
That idea — of “staying woke” meaning to be aware of racial injustice — was how the phrase has been used almost ever since, until the last few years. In 2008, Erykah Badu released an updated version of funk singer Georgia Anne Muldrow’s song “Master Teacher” in which “stay woke” factored prominently, and “wokeness” started to enter a new stage of popularity that exploded during the Ferguson protests. Childish Gambino dropped “stay woke” into his hit “Redbone” and Jordan Peele used that song to kick off Get Out.
“Woke” also got appropriated by a more broadly liberal movement, shedding some of its racial justice connotations for more general aims, and this is where the trouble really begins. “Woke” started popping up in signs at the Women’s March and protests of former President Donald Trump, a liberal callsign that flattened its edges and ripened it to be appropriated by bullies who would use it just as broadly, but to different ends. “In my conservative Southern Baptist community, the term has become an insult that is used against anyone who is concerned about justice and racism,” Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Vox in 2020.
Other communities may still find uses for “woke” that don’t denote exhaustion, as “woke” will continue to evolve. But using “woke” as an insult is utterly backwards for Christians. At absolute best, it’s a lazy way of dismissing people perceived as being “too liberal.” At worst, it’s an attempt to defend the status quo and silence anyone striving towards racial justice. In any case, its Christians appropriating an empowering, important word from Black culture and twisting it into a weapon. Such behavior is inexcusable and lamentable.
Christians should be able to talk about these things seriously, charitably and honestly. That often means elevating our language above the easiest, broadest vocabulary to find something more exact, specific and true. The next time you’re tempted to accuse someone of being “woke,” take a minute to figure out what your actual issue with them is. Not only will this lead to a more profitable discussion, it might challenge you to reconsider some of your own disagreements.
“Woke” is hardly the only word to suffer this fate. It’s not even the only word lifted from Black vernacular. “Cancel culture,” “Critical Race Theory” and even “liberal” itself have all become bludgeons used to box people up, label them and dismiss them out of our consideration. If your goal is effective conversation leading to more unity, it’s hard to imagine a worse way of going about it. But if you’re just looking to claim victory in a culture war, well, it’s not a bad strategy. But when you win a culture war, that’s all you win.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.