Who Will Be A Witness? Igniting Activism for God's Justice, Love, and Deliverance

This fall we invite small groups and individuals to read and discuss Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance by Drew G. I. Hart. This eight-week class will include videos with John Franke and Drew Hart, notes on the book, and questions for discussion—all of which will be available on the church website. This class is available at any time and provides a perfect opportunity for groups and individuals to engage in the work of discipleship and advocacy in keeping with the commitment of Second Presbyterian Church to be a Matthew 25 community. Consider forming a new group to grow in your understanding of, and participation in, God’s love, justice, and deliverance for the people of Indianapolis and the world. 

For more information, contact John Franke.

Reading and Class Schedule

  • Week 1: Introduction
  • Week 2: Chapters 1-2, "Trouble Won't Always Last" and "Liberating Barabbas"
  • Week 3: Chapters 3-4, "Supremacist Captivity of the Church" and "Talking Back, Talking Black"
  • Week 4: Chapter 5, "The Politics of the Church"
  • Week 5: Chapter 6, "Justice and the Worshipping Community"
  • Week 6: Chapter 7, "Economic Injustice and the Church"
  • Week 7: Chapter 8, "The Things that Make for Peace"
  • Week 8: Chapter 9, "The Politics of Love"

Week 1: Introduction

In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference attempted to galvanize Project C and the freedom movement in Birmingham, AL. Project C stood for confrontation and represented a significant development in King’s understanding of nonviolent struggle. This confrontational approach sought to apply direct pressure at strategic targets in the struggle for civil rights and required the participants to accept the consequences of their actions.

By this confrontation through mass civil disobedience, King and his collaborators were intending to expose the hidden injustices that shaped the realities of everyday life in Birmingham. As they gathered, some believed the time had come to move forward while others thought it was not wise to risk arrest. And since it was Good Friday, some argued that they should not risk detainment because they needed to be in church on Easter Sunday. After listening quietly for a time, King got up without a word and went into his room to change. When he returned he was dressed not in a coat and tie, but in a blue work shirt, with his sleeves rolled up, and a pair of blue jeans.

When his collaborators saw him, they knew what it meant. It was time to get to work and do the real labor of confronting the injustice that had long shaped life in Birmingham, knowing full well that this would mean ending up in jail.

“And by putting on his blue jeans to engage in civil disobedience over Passover and Easter weekend, Dr. King also revealed something about his understanding of the deeper meaning of the holiday, of Christianity in general, and of the significance of Jesus’ revolutionary action on that first Good Friday.”

“The response to Jesus’ clash with the establishment and his willingness to lay down his life should lead to more than just worshipping and celebrating him for what he did—it should also ignite a revolutionary, grassroots, Jesus-shaped witness in society. Those who follow Jesus should love their neighbors to such a degree that we are willing to accept the consequences that come from struggling for shalom and true justice in the public square.”

This book, and this class, intends to ignite and mobilize the church into faithful and revolutionary participation in the Jesus-shaped work of liberation and justice for all people.

“Every Sunday, people gather and proclaim that they have put their faith in Jesus, yet our domesticated discipleship fails to produce followers who embody, as Jesus modeled, a faithful witness in our society. This book suggests that restoring our public witness requires us to return to the root of our faith, the gospel of Jesus, to take responsibility for our legacy of a mangled Christianity, and to discover methods that are faithful and conducive to local churches seeking God’s justice and deliverance in their neighborhoods.”

White Man’s Religion and the Mangled Witness of the Church

The claim that Christianity is a white man’s religion is a common critique of the tradition, especially among those who are not adherents. It may be surprising to some that this criticism has also been made by committed Christians, particularly people of color. It may also be surprising that this claim is not limited to those in the liberal Protestantism. In 1989, black evangelical theologians William and Ruth Bentley made the following statement at a major gathering focused on defining this more conservative movement:

“We need a theology which will enable us as Black Americans to deal with our total experience here. We are not calling for a new Bible, or a new Christ, or a different Almighty God. For all of us who so believe, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical revelation given to us through the Holy Spirit are in every way sufficient; but western theology has notoriously failed Black people and virtually all non-European-based people by [regarding] them functionally lesser peoples. In so doing it tends to afford a certain aid and comfort to political, economic, and racial oppression. As the religion of western man, western theology has either preceded him, joined him, or followed him in all missions of world colonization or conquest. It has singularly been unable to wean western man from his white tribalism or nationalism. There is a real sense in which Christianity (not Christ) is a white man’s religion.”—William H. Bentley and Ruth Lewis Bentley, “Reflections on the Scope and Function of a Black Evangelical Theology” in Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, eds. Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 311-314.

Hart’s response to this claim makes two major points. First, Christianity is not indigenous to Western Europe, but rather it emerged from regions we now identify as Asia and Africa. Indeed, Western theology is particularly indebted to the leaders of African Christianity. Indeed, significant expressions of global Christianity continue to emerge that reject the assumptions and assertions of the Western European theological tradition.

Second, he also agrees that Christianity has at times become the religion of and for white men. “It is an undeniable fact that Christianity has been weaponized by Europeans to justify their conquest of land and plundering of resources, as well as their enslaving, physically brutalizing, and subjugating black and Indigenous people’s bodies all around the globe…Christianity has too often been manipulated and weaponized against black people and used as a religion that bolsters white supremacy.” This is simply a fact of history.

“The core question for [Hart] is whether the Christianity that was practiced in these contexts was genuinely the way of Jesus, or if the religion of white Christians was distorted on behalf of their own social mission, one contrary to the vocation of the Messiah.”

“When someone asks me whether Christianity is the white man’s religion, I respond in both the affirmative and the negative. Just as some enslaved Africans dared to distinguish between true Christianity and the religion of this land, so I too recognize that Christianity has been weaponized, but I reject any claim that its weaponized form is a faithful witness to the way of Jesus.”

“Of course, God will be the final arbiter of which ways of living align with the way of Jesus and which do not. For now, I simply invite us all to read Scripture together, to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus, which is the culmination of our sacred Scripture, and to understand our lives within the context of church history and its traditions. I believe doing so will provide a lens for the church to discover its liberative and justice-oriented vocation in society.”

“My hope is that the church will move beyond the spiritual platitudes and hypocritical religiosity that have become so common since Christendom began its reign and birthed white supremacy in our world. Now is the time for us to experience God’s deliverance and to participate in God’s justice. When Dr. King and his friends in Birmingham went out wearing their blue jeans, they signified to a watching world that they were going to be included among God’s witnesses. It is time that churches everywhere discern and decide that they too are ready to put on their blue jeans.”

This book is intended as “an invitation to ignite Christian activism and put on our blue jeans in the public square in the way of Jesus, and proposes that we can do so by embodying the good news of Jesus through radical grassroots action as local congregations.”

Discussion Questions

  • What is your response to the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his collaborators “putting on their blue jeans” as an act of Christian faith and witness? Do you understand their decision? Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
  • What do you think about the idea that Christianity is a “white man’s religion”? Have you ever thought about this before? After reading the chapter and watching the video, does this make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • How do you respond to the complicity of the church in the colonization, conquest, enslavement, and extermination of so many people in the name of Christianity? Why do you think this happened? Is this still a concern today? Why or why not?
  • How do you think the church should respond to the history and of its “mangled witness to the gospel”? Is this still a problem today? How should the church be accountable for this history? How should it change?
  • How do you respond to the invitation to “put on your blue jeans in the public square in the way of Jesus”? Do you see it as a core element of discipleship? Are you ready to do this? What will this mean for you if you are?

Week 2: Chapters 1-2, 
"Trouble Won’t Always Last" and "Liberating Barabbas"

“How long, O Lord, will oppressors prosper? How long will empires crush vulnerable people? How much longer will transnational corporations exploit the poor? How long must we wait, O God, until military powers no longer destroy civilians and create orphans to fend for themselves?”

Hart writes, “If the writer of Psalm 13 lived in North America today, their prayer might sound something like this.”

“When we check in on the world news we are overwhelmed by the suffering around the world, with ongoing reports of ecological devastation and disparities in health, education, and housing, as well as a lack of access to healthy food and livable wages for so many of God’s beloved. These things seem like fixtures in our world. Sometimes people respond and claim that all these things are appalling, but that’s just the way the world is, which suggests we ought to occupy our minds with other things. So is there no hope?”

The gospel accounts in the New Testament testify that an anointed One was born in the midst of an empire that believed itself to be permanent. It claimed to be the promise of peace and security in the world as it conquered territory after territory. It was in the midst of this Roman empire that Jesus was born to announce good news in the midst of these circumstances. He and his followers in solidarity with him, launched a revolutionary movement that announced the coming reign of God and a new social order that flipped everything upside down.

The call to follow Jesus in this revolutionary activity, is captured in the gospels and their invitation to live our everyday lives in the way of Jesus. Though it is more than clear that Christian faith demands that we become Jesus’ disciples, many of us evade Jesus at every opportunity. In place of following Jesus we have developed a domesticated Christianity in which we are committed to worshipping Jesus rather than living lives committed to following him.

The gospels are revolutionary and subversive documents which bear witness to an alternative social order at odds with the intuitions and assumptions of the Empire in which they were written. They bear witness to the radical nature of discipleship and the promise that God will indeed turn the world around.

They invite readers to bet on God’s delivering presence by joining the Messiah’s revolutionary movement. To trust that although it may be dark, God is going to turn things around. To bet on Gods justice and righteousness and on the fact that the empires and powers that continue to dominate our world are temporary rather than eternal.

Although we will face hardships and trials, trust in God’s promise is that the empires, centers of power, and coercive institutions are not permanent. As we follow the strategic and revolutionary way of Jesus and struggle against the ways of injustice and exploitation, we are reminded of the promise of God and the wisdom of the ancients who remind us that trouble won’t always last.

“Next to Jesus, Barabbas might be the most misunderstood person in the Bible. Readers of Scripture frequently sever both Barabbas and Jesus from their first-century sociopolitical context, which distorts their meaning and challenge for the church today. Mainstream Christianity continues to convert Jesus into a status quo religious mascot who provides no hope to people suffering from oppression or seeking God’s liberating intervention. This Jesus has been westernized, whitened, and domesticated, particularly when compared to the first-century poor Palestinian Jew who preached good news to the poor and came to ‘let the oppressed go free’ while living under Roman occupation (Luke 4:18-19).”

“For many people raised in mainstream American Christian communities, the idea of a liberative Jesus not only is strange but also feels misguided. For some, such an idea has nothing to do with Christianity. In American evangelicalism, salvation is often personal and individualistic, is spiritual with few social implications, and is primarily focused on its adherents escaping hell and going to heaven. However, the mainstream American Christian portrait of Jesus is often inconsistent with the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The American church must carefully reexamine Jesus in the biblical accounts, which provide the most authoritative witness to the person and character of our resurrected Messiah.”

In chapter 2 Hart reexamines one dimension of Jesus’ story through reconsidering the story of Barabbas and demonstrating that his inclusion in the gospel narrative provides an important sociopolitical context for the mission of Jesus. This fresh look at Barabbas reveals Jesus as “a nonviolent liberator responding to earthly conditions of poor and oppressed people. Participating in the delivering presence of this living Messiah leads disciples of Jesus into empathetic joining and intimate presence with the oppressed, while committed to struggling for liberation and the things that make for peace in the way of Jesus.”

“The contrast between Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah leaves us with a choice between two revolutionaries, offering two paths to liberation. Both Barabbas and Jesus committed to changing the social order through revolution. But, unlike Barabbas, Jesus revolution did not justify violence. “His path meant enduring suffering as the faithful consequence that comes with accepting God’s intervening liberation. The visible manifestation of Jesus’ way is demonstrated in the reality that he would sooner be crucified than crucify his enemies.”

Jesus is also a revolutionary in the Hebrew tradition, committed to changing the social order. But in his life and teachings, he reveals the revolutionary things that make for peace. “Jesus is liberation and is the way of liberation. And his way includes empathetic solidarity that intimately joins oppressed and vulnerable people in liberative struggle against that which comes to steal, kill, and destroy life. We are invited to participate in the liberative things that make for peace.”

This revolutionary Messiah saves us from captivity to the powers of this world and invites each of us to join the Jesus-shaped struggle for God’s shalom.

Questions for Discussion

1. Hart writes that Jesus did not come to find “fans filled with religious sentimentality” but “followers committed in solidarity to a revolutionary movement” (p. 45). What prevents so many professing Christians from moving beyond shallow fanship and into radical discipleship?

2. There is a tendency to depoliticize the first century witness of Jesus in many faith communities. What struck you most about Hart’s insistence that we come to see Jesus as a political subversive?

3. Prayerful discernment and disruptive protest are often seen as being diametrically opposed. How does Jesus’ strategic wedding of the two provide us with a blueprint for faith-rooted justice work?

4. Hart asserts that, next to Jesus, Barabbas may be the most misunderstood figure in scripture. How was your view of Barabbas challenged by this chapter?

5. Hart tells us that both Jesus and Barabbas are caught up in the “whirlwinds of the establishment” (p. 91). How does Jesus uniquely embody what it looks like for our struggle to be shaped and animated by God’s liberating presence?

Week 3: Chapters 3-4,
"The Supremacist Captivity of the Church" and "Talking Back, Talking Black"

“Christian supremacy birthed white supremacy into our world and corrupted our discipleship to Jesus.”

Two college chapel experiences pulled the curtain back for Hart on the ways in which the church was captive to the socialization of supremacy, “which often means holding racialized and nationalistic commitments above clinging to the life of Jesus.”

Experiences: Chapel with John Dear and the Culture Shock Chapel

Chapter three introduces the rise of Christendom in the Roman Empire and two shifts that occurred in the church through the legacies of Constantine and Columbus. Hart makes it clear that he does not believe that Constantine and Columbus are, as individuals, primarily responsible for these shifts in the church. He does, however, thinks that these figures are symbols of these shifts that “aided and facilitated new trajectories for the church, further and further from the way of Jesus.”

With the emergence of Constantinian Christianity and Christendom, “a community committed to following the anti-lording-over-others way of Jesus eventually morphed into a powerful institution that practiced top-down supremacy over its society. The age of Western Christendom has fractured and declined since those days, but the church still wields enormous social and political power in many places around the world. Maybe even more significant for our contemporary concerns is that even where Western Christianity no longer controls the laws and culture of society as it used to, there remains a desire and political imagination among many of its adherent to return to those so-called ‘good old days.’ We can call this a Christendom mindset and imagination for society.”

“We must grapple with how Christendom, by which I mean, Christian supremacy over society, emerged and how it lives on in our sense of vocation as the church…To different degrees, Constantinianism sees either Constantine or the church falling or shifting from its Jesus-shaped vocation during the fourth century. A more nuanced reading of history must acknowledge events before Constantine and continuing many centuries after him during which the shift climaxed.”

In considering the rise of Christendom, we must wrestle with what it means to think in a Jesus-shaped way about the history of the church. “We must measure the witness of the church against scriptural wisdom fulfilled by the rule of Christ. It is then and only then that we are positioned to confess the church’s seemingly strange wisdom expressed through weakness” and critique the history of the church for “encompassing within its own life the ancient practice of hoarding political, economic, and military power over others. The world has seen this way of life before. The hypocrisy of claiming to follow Jesus while dominating others is particularly self-incriminating.”

Constantine, the Church, and the Rise of Christendom

“White supremacy was birthed in the womb of late medieval Christendom. To grasp how colonialism reshaped the interaction of people groups all around the globe and our ongoing ways of perceiving, categorizing, and creating racist policies for different people groups, we must tell the story of how the church directly promoted the conquest of non-European people in different continents. The figure who stands at the heart of this narrative is Christopher Columbus. Slowly, the truth about his violence and oppression of Indigenous people is becoming more publically known. He perpetuated the violent conquest, pillaging, slavery, and rape of Indigenous people. However, he did not single-handedly cause Western Europe’s colonial conquest.” Rather, Columbus embodies and exemplifies this colonialism that came to function in the midst of the church. This colonization directly produced that white supremacy we see exemplified in the world today.

Columbus, the Church, and Colonialism

White supremacy is “the practice of organizing all of life around the lie of racial hierarchy so that white people, and especially white men, dominate and control society. This is a “mangled social and political imagination from which people concoct policies, rules, and customs to create their vision for ‘law and order’ in society. Until we grapple with how Christian supremacy morphed into white supremacy and then took on a life of its own, this racial inertia will continue to keep the church and broader society captive from God’s dream of humanity and all creation flourishing together.”

White supremacy has decisively shaped the history of the United States and its ideology become “a vital part of the theological frameworks of most white mainstream Christians, although certainly to different degrees for different communities.”

If the church wants deliverance from our nationalist ideology, we need to unveil the sins of the United States. “We cannot act righteously if we define national sin as national greatness. Human sinfulness is a matter of fact according to Christian teaching. It runs through every person, community, and institution, and this includes nations and the people that govern them.

Hart believes “that the black American prophetic tradition provides an opportunity for the United States to hold a mirror up to its own face. Our nation must see itself, rather than only the branded image and stories of exceptionalism it has concocted. Hart contends that any effort to salvage American civil religion without a radical revolution of values, Jesus-shaped repentance, and social transformation will fail to embrace “the invitation of God’s deliverance that is available in this land.”

“For mainstream Christians there is a need to first hear black prophetic voices that are willing to truthfully say, ‘Not God bless America’ and instead offer the more truthful word, which is that ‘God damns’ those who build their lives on the backs, necks, and heads of vulnerable people…May we have the courage to talk back and invite those in society to undergo a radical revolution of values, repentance, and rebirth so that we may begin to experience a taste of the beloved community in this land.”

Questions for Discussion

  • If western Christendom birthed the legacy of white supremacy, how do we recover a Christian witness rooted in solidarity and mutuality?
  • What connections do you see between the Constantinian Christianity of the fourth century to our current moment?
  • How do we hold fast to our allegiance to Jesus as Lord of all creation, while not falling prey to both notions of Christian supremacy in the public square?
  • What does deliverance from the legacy of Christian colonization look like? How do we practice a decolonized and liberating faith?
  • The Black prophetic tradition calls us to read US history from the margins, not from the seat of power. What possibilities does this practice open up for us?
  • What are practical ways that Christians and churches can begin reorienting their witness to the liberating mission of Jesus?

Week 4: Chapter 5, "The Politics of the Church"

“The church is called to be a counter-witness in society. When hierarchy, domination, institutional and communal bias, violence, greed, and inequity run rampant in society, the church ought to be a community that has adopted Jesus-shaped practices that renounce and resist those social evils in its members own lives. Jesus should reign so that the lure to lord over others as humans can be rejected. Unfortunately, congregations are known more often for organizing their life around supremacist social norms than for being a visible hope that another world is possible. We must repent of the incongruities of our practice and proclamation if we dare speak to the broader society on its injustices.”

Standing on the Table: Decentering

The process of decentralization moves us toward affirming the inherent value and shared humanity of all people. Radical reorganizing of our lives toward a gathering that flattens hierarchy will likely feel disorienting and unsettling for those who had the most advantages by virtue of the traditional arrangements. The gospel calls on us to reorganize our lives toward mutuality and solidarity.

Hart’s concern isn’t really so much how we gather around a table as it is to shed light on the need for the church to find deliverance from its mangled politics of belonging and practice of power as we gather together. Once this light is shed and our current practices are exposed, we need to be willing to reform our social practices in conformity with the gospel.

“I am calling for the church to be righteous in our ecclesial gathering so we can have a prophetic witness of integrity in our social scattering. Often it seems the church is hypocritically calling on the broader society to administer justice in ways that it is unwilling to do within the body of Christ…To often churches are unwilling to radically restructure their own lives to become the beloved community.”

“In Acts, God takes the church on a journey full of growing pains, unanticipated communal challenges, and headfirst into a new belonging in Christ that has room for more and more people. The book [Acts] helps reveal God’s love for all people while remaining attentive to those most vulnerable, which has already been seen in the life of Jesus.”

Acts exemplifies the Spirit’s continuity with Jesus in the narrative of Pentecost. “The Spirit descends on the disciples of Jesus while dispersed Jews from around the world are present. There is a miracle of speaking and hearing. The disciples speak, and God accomplishes an intercultural miracle in which everyone hears the words in their own native language. God broke boundaries of culture and region in an intimate way by meeting people through the intimacy of their own home language. This is the opposite of colonizing behavior. God made no demands for cultural assimilation but instead affirmed each of their languages as worthy vehicles for meeting God.”

Acts 6:1-7: Overlookers and the Overlooked Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. “Here are some questions all congregations can grapple with while evaluating their willingness to opening up a space of belonging for others within their institutional and communal life: Where is God’s deliverance and justices being stifled in the church? Are there people in the community who have raised concerns about the way the community organizes itself? What would a first-order change look like? What voices would need to be present and listened to to discern what changes are needed? What impact would it have on the people in the community? What behaviors or perspectives would change? What are possible second-order changes? What anti-oppression or intercultural changes could result from implementing it? Are some people present more as guests than as people who have full belonging? Who is considered for leadership and decision making? Is the congregation open to surface change as well as radical restructuring of its policies, expectations, and practices? What discipleship must happen to join with the Spirit’s radical movement among us in our world?

“We must radically reorganize our lives so that we not only welcome others but also create communities of belonging through restructuring our lives according to the rule of Christ…We must practice prophetic intervention, allowing ourselves to become a mouthpiece for God in status quo situations. And we need to move from naiveté to maturity in Christ in the face of power dynamics in our community. Becoming Jesus-shaped as a community requires that we participate in Jesus’ delivering presence among us…Our gatherings in Christ should make visible that Christ is preeminent in our lives as we struggle for God’s dream for us.”

Questions for Discussion

In this chapter, Hart pushes churches to not only call for justice on the macro level of broader society, but to also practice this justice institutionally on the micro level. Why is it important that churches organize themselves to be micro-expressions of the delivering presence of Jesus?

What kind of institutional posture is needed to cultivate communities of deep belonging in the face of oppressive and divisive forces?

Hart describes “first-order” changes as dealing with the surface level and symptomatic, and “second-order” changes as dealing with deeper systemic issues (p. 187). What are some dangers present in both of these steps towards authentic beloved community?

In the first paragraph of page 191, Hart poses a series of piercing questions that can help a church evaluate its commitment to “opening up space for belonging to others.” Honestly answer and wrestle with those questions. Discuss what prayerful and concrete actions can be taken to create radical institutional change.

Why is it important that we name the power dynamics within our churches? How does this often-uncomfortable practice help refine our witness and re-form our practice of life together?

Week 5: Chapter 6, 
"Justice and the Worshipping Community"

“The church ought to be a people of justice because we have encountered the God of justice. God is a Mother to the motherless, a Father to the fatherless, and a Friend to the lonely. God is the Waymaker for those who have their backs against the wall and to the poor and oppressed God is also known as a Deliverer. Throughout Scripture, we find the God of Israel to be committed to justice, righteousness, and peace, and habitually expressing solidarity and concern for the most vulnerable in society.

“If our worship declares the magnificence and faithfulness of the Most High God, then it must be bound to God’s own revealed character and activity. Therefore, there ought to be a direct relationship between worshipping God and being formed as people of justice. If we worship in spirit and in truth, the God described in Scripture instead of our own generic projections of what we want for a god, we will be formed to join God’s work of doing justice and setting the oppressed free.”

“That Social Justice Stuff”

“Discipleship to Jesus invites us to discover God’s commitment to ‘that social justice stuff.’ Jesus preached ‘that social justice stuff’ throughout his ministry, always prioritizing the least and last of society in his parables, sermons, and conversations. Jesus lived ‘that social justice stuff’ when he healed the sick, restored the socially ostracized, prophetically challenged the wealthy, and confronted the Jerusalem establishment for ‘devouring widows’ homes.’” And his promise of a coming reign is overflowing with ‘that social justice stuff’ rooted in Israel’s story and the prophetic vision of shalom grounded in divine justice and righteousness. Ultimately, the God in the Old Testament that is described as doing ‘that social justice stuff’ is the one and same God revealed in Jesus Christ.”

“It is a tragedy that ‘social justice’ in some Christian communities is so stigmatized. How did the church, which is called to do justice (and had, for most of church history, internalized a sense of vocation for justice, even if it wasn’t always done well), get to the point where it is problematic to discuss it during worship?” It is sad beyond measure and deeply concerning that in the current cultural and political situation in North America and much of the Western world, “very basic Christian teaching and practice is rare in congregational life and is often demeaned in the name of Jesus.”

Hart maintains that “if we were to ground ourselves in the way of Jesus as his disciples, and in the character of the God revealed to Israel in our worship, we would rediscover that the church, if it is to be faithful, must seek justice concretely.”

Worship and the Formation of the Church

“Worship is a formative experience. When we gather as disciples of Jesus in community to praise our Creator and Deliverer, to remember the faithfulness of God, to recall the incarnation of Jesus, and seek to join the Spirit’s ongoing activity, it shapes who we are as a people. God is not only justice, God is love, peace, and truth, as well as many other things. However, is something is central to God’s character, we as Christians ought to pursue getting to know God as such…Therefore, encountering the sacred commitment to justice ought to be a seamless part of what it means to worship the God of Israel.”

Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.”

“American Christians gather frequently, but it is not always clear who exactly is being worshiped when we do. Is the focus of our worship awakening our awareness of the One who delivers people from slavery and who intimately hears the pain and suffering of the poor, oppressed, foreigner, orphan, and widow? Or have many of us been worshipping the American god of our own projections, who cares only about our interior struggles and first-world problems, and who wants us to focus on seeking the best for our families and waiting for the afterlife while remaining apathetic to the suffering of others?”

The Worshipping Community

“If God is a God of justice, then worshipping communities that radically reorganize their lives to the reality of the Most High God will increasingly, and inevitably, begin participating in the revolutionary vocation of the church. When that isn’t happening, it would be appropriate to question whether the one we worship is actually the God revealed to Abraham and Sarah and made flesh in Jesus, and to grapple with the degree to which our perceptions of the divine are distorted.

“Comfortable mainstream religion is primed to support the status quo. The gods of insatiable consumerism, coercive domination, and hierarchical denigration invite people to adore the beauty of their ‘exceptional’ nation…comfortable mainstream Christians opt to ignore the passage calling for justice (which suggest we would have to order our lives differently) for the less inconvenient act of charity. Nothing is more praised in status quo communities than abhorrently wealthy people donating proportionately small amounts out of their abundance while remaining committed to never changing the broader conditions and systems that make such charity necessary in the first place.”

“The character of our community’s discipleship needs to be prayerfully diagnosed. What kind of lives, in the most holistic sense, do people who regularly gather for worship live? Are we a community that makes manifest the delivering presence of God in our neighborhood? What formative practices do we lead our people through that would help them know and join the justice of God in their everyday routines?”

“Are you a chaplain to the Empire or a prophet of the Resistance?”—Michael-Ray Mathews

Questions for Discussion

  • In this chapter Hart writes of the “schism between escapist worship communities and … justice-oriented disciples” (p. 213). Have you experienced this tragic divide? What are some healthy ways for justice-oriented disciples to navigate this painful reality while remaining faithfully rooted in the church?
  • The exodus story reveals God as a just and holy deliverer from oppression who should be hallowed above all others. Why would a worshipping community’s lack of commitment to justice be a tell-tale sign of idolatry?
  • In your own experience within the church, how has conversion been understood? How can we reclaim the early church’s insistence that conversion is a radical commitment to a new way of being rooted in God’s vision of a new society?
  • Hart clearly affirms the role of the preached word in shaping justice-seeking congregations. Yet, he urges us to create participatory, dialogical space where the Spirit can speak through whosoever. How do our current structures of church subvert the priesthood of all believers? How does the practice of our collective priesthood spur along the work of justice?


Week 6: Chapter 7, 
"Economic Injustice and the Church"

“At the heart of our faith is the ethical vocation to bring life rather than death to the poorest among us. This simple, clear, and straightforward teaching culminates in Jesus. Yet it is frequently ignored, dismissed, or explained away. Ignoring such ethics does not change God’s commitment to those crushed by the inequities and unjust economic systems designed to advantage the greed of the wealthy and powerful.”

“Jesus was known for providing for the poor as he went town by town preaching the coming of God’s new society. However, there was no single miracle that ended all poverty…Instead, Jesus intervenes…with a prophetic presence while discipling people into his new society.”

“The church ought to participate in God’s deliverance for the poor, helping them not only to survive but thrive by creating new economic currents not bound by our current economic reasoning, and concretely seeking the flourishing of all people in our society.”

While Hart doesn’t believe “that most local churches blatantly teach the prosperity gospel” he sees a difference between “what is taught and what is caught.” He observes that “most mainstream Christians are functionally prosperity gospel adherents." By this he means that they espouse traditional Christian beliefs but “live the logics of the prosperity gospel more than Jesus’ radical ethics about money and wealth.”

Hart imagines that it would be “nearly impossible to distinguish the economic and consumer practices of most American Christians from those who explicitly adhere to the prosperity gospel. If you observed what homes, cars, and products people bought, how they budgeted, or how their money was used” it would be difficult to discern much difference from those who explicitly espouse the prosperity gospel.

The teaching of Jesus defines idea of blessings. He pronounces blessing on the poor and woes on the rich. However, most comfortable Christians seem to do the opposite. “Anytime they increase their wealth they claim God did it. When they talk about their big homes, those homes are assumed to be a blessing. Our economic reasoning is frequently the opposite of Jesus’ teachings.”

“Since large numbers of comfortable Christians have internalized and given sacred approval to the economic forces and currents of their society, it becomes hard to pronounce and embody good news for the poor. Even among so-called liberal and progressive Christians, poverty is frequently an inconsequential reality. It is one thing to support a presidential candidate who advocates for the working class, but when one’s own life remains fully congruent with the economic machinery, that reveals what lies beneath the thin veneer. Our habits are fairly predictable and too often are based on our socioeconomic status, revealing a failure in our economic discipleship.”

“Few comfortable Christian leaders are willing to even consider how economic ethics in Scripture ought to shape our everyday discipleship. Our commitments to consumerism, maximizing profits, increasing capacity to generate wealth, private ownership, and a general belief in the good of unregulated markets are makers of our derailed economic reasoning in the church. Contrast the silence on scriptural reasoning on wealth with the current obsession over contemporary sexual ethics, which is barely touched on in Scripture but is nonetheless dividing the church in the United States, and you begin to see how much Christian ethics are determined by culture wars rather than formed from ethical wisdom and inspiration from biblical texts.”

Early Christian teaching about wealth began with the idea that nothing belonged solely to individuals to do with as they pleased. “Everything was from God and was to be shared with all humanity. With this reasoning, they frequently suggested that people who hoard wealth and then give to the poor are not actually engaging in charity.

“For early Christians, the practice of giving alms to the poor was taught with an eye toward redistribution and not merely comfortable charity.”

Ambrose of Milan: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all. You have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only the rich.”

Basil of Caesarea: “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

The teachings of the Bible and the early Christian community on money and wealth “ought to at least cause some self-examination around our own economic reasoning. Our goal is not to merely to mimic everything the early church did and said, but to have our lives seized by the economic revolution of God. We ought to participate in the new thing God is doing, and it cannot exclude our economic discipleship and our relationship to wealth and poverty.”

“There is significant dissonance between the American church and the thrust of biblical teaching on wealth and poverty, especially when we see that scriptural wisdom climaxes in the life and teachings of Jesus. We will not find a faithful way of participating in God’s economy until we are converted from our internalized thinking, which is apathetic to poverty and triggered by any form of redistribution of resources.”

The practice of Jubilee: Every fifty years the Israelites were to practice Jubilee, in which deliverance would be experienced throughout the land and among all its inhabitants. Leviticus 25:10: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” In other words, ancestral lands will be back in the family, so no matter how bad things got, families would never be permanently landless. “At its heart, Jubilee is a divine call to hit the restart button that liberates those shackled by compounding inequality and bondage.”

This powerful vision of renewal is rooted in God’s character as the liberator of Israel. However, in its Hebrew context it is not without moral gaps, since it was a provision only for the Israelites. In this way the call for Jubilee is only partly liberative because it does not include all people. While it opens up our imagination for what is possible, it is only in conversation with the rest of the Bible and the teaching of Jesus that we arrive at a vision for the deliverance of all people.

Financial Apartheid: MLK “decried that there were two Americas, one flowing in prosperity, and the other in poverty and dilapidated housing. The existence of two Americas, in view of our racial history, is not because of market forces. Instead it exists because elites designed and structured society so that the majority of poor people, and especially black people, would not have access to the same capital as everyone else…Intergenerational black poverty was imposed through laws and policies that excluded the black community from fill participation in the mainstream economy.”

Contrast between the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-25 and Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10

“Until the church renounces its false economic gospel and accepts Jesus’ reign, its story will continue to look more like that of the rich ruler than that of Zacchaeus. Most days it seems impossible that the mainstream church will ever seek the flourishing of all economically or make reparations for past and ongoing harm. The good news is that all things are possible with God.”

Questions for Discussion

  • Why is it important for disciples of Jesus to develop class-consciousness and analysis? How do Jesus’ actions surrounding the story of the widow’s mite in Mark’s Gospel demonstrate his own attention to unjust economic realities?
  • In this chapter, Hart presses us to think about how even those of us who reject the prosperity gospel are functional adherents of it, in terms of how we view and interact with money. What challenge does the economically just gospel of Jesus raise to our consumer market-animated practice of Christianity?
  • Hart asserts that the early church’s relationship to wealth was radically different from ours. He says that their practice of giving to the poor was “with an eye towards redistribution and not merely comfortable charity” (p. 250). What is the difference between comfortable charity and wealth redistribution? Where do we see radical calls for redistribution in Jesus’ ministry?
  • What would it mean for your life, as Hart puts it, to be “seized by the economic revolution of God” (p. 250)? How can we participate in the spirit of the Jubilee tradition as individuals and churches?
  • How can white churches actively and holistically disrupt the living legacy of “financial apartheid” (p. 259)?

Week 7: Chapter 8, 
"The Things that Make for Peace"

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This chapter addresses the means by which the church can participate in the work of social change through nonviolent action that challenges “the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted morality.”

“Now is the time to explicitly turn our focus toward some introductory strategies and tactics that are faithful to the way of Jesus and are also conducive to doing justice and peacemaking within our troubled republic.”

“In Luke 19, m Jesus mourns Jerusalem’s impending destruction by the Roman Empire. He wishes that they had only known ‘the things that make for peace’ (v. 42). What is missed in this is that Jesus seems to imply that there are some things that make for shalom (wholeness, well-being, and the presence of justice), and there are some things that do not. Said another way, there are social change strategies that are effective, pragmatic, and faithful for setting things right, and there are some that are not. There are some social change strategies and tactics that align with God’s deliverance and peacemaking, while others require abandoning our faith in God and core ethical convictions.”

This chapter explores some approaches that are “conducive for the church because they do not require abandoning the way of Jesus. Jesus was a revolutionary peacemaker who subversively ushered in God’s reign as a grassroots movement under the Empire’s rule, and he did so while recognizing the dignity of the poor and vulnerable rather than centralizing coercive power over society.”

A core strategy for the church to employ in the pursuit of social justice is that of nonviolent resistance and struggle. This is a broad umbrella category that overlaps with other methods. “This biblical trajectory takes unequivocal sides in view of Jesus’ witness to peacemaking, enemy love, and directly confronting the Jerusalem establishment. Jesus accepted the backlash of disrupting the status quo and the economic flow of money in the temple, which inevitable led to his own death instead of taking the lives of those in power. His life portrays what we might call a nonviolent Messiah engaging in revolutionary speech and action, but of a different [nonviolent and compassionate] variety than most revolutionaries. As such, nonviolent resistance and struggle as a strategy aligns well with the very witness of Jesus’ peacemaking.”

Following the peacemaking of Jesus requires a particular way of life that shapes the church’s pursuit of justice:

First, “we must affirm the dignity, sacredness, and value of each and every life. This is true of the violated as well as the violator. Jesus does this through his attentiveness to the vulnerable and stigmatized while still refusing to take the life of those who do harm to others.”

Second, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. “The test for loving our enemies should be discerned by our ability to treat our enemy as we would treat someone we care about deeply if they were in the same situation.”

Third, “Jesus engaged in prophetic witness that confronted evil practices and teachings in society that harmed vulnerable people, and he did so knowing there would be an inevitable backlash from those in power…Christian discipleship has always required accepting risks through courageous and costly action.”

Six principles of nonviolence described by Martin Luther King Jr.:

#1 “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spirituality, mentally and emotionally.”

#2 “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.”

#3 “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”

#4 “Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.”

#5 “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.

#6 “Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.”

Other strategies involve social movement protest and organizing people power. One of the strengths of protest movements is their ability to mobilize masses of people while tapping into the cultural and social momentum that exists. One of the defining characteristics of protest movements is their willingness to be disruptive and to seek social change outside the formal channels that have been established by society. This is especially helpful for groups that do not hold social power. One of the challenges of protest movements is that they can disappear quickly, often because many (most) of the people who participate have no ongoing commitment to change.

Community organizing works toward the sustainability of social change by seeking to empower and give voice directly to the people affected so they can change their communities through ongoing campaigns. Organizations. Justice work through this model is done through official and formal. With an emphasis on membership and commitment, organizations are able to struggle for justice over the long haul. “Deeply integrated into the philosophy of organizing is the belief that real change requires long ongoing struggle. Organizations are usually not seeking any quick fix or shortcuts.”

Of course, the struggle for change also includes electoral politics. “If we are going to participate in the things that make for peace and justice, it is necessary that we think deeply and carefully about our Christian relationship to voting. If we desire to join God’s delivering presence in the world, we must think about even our voting habits, and what it means for the church to live within the complexity of our flawed political system.”

“There are convincing pros and cons to voting as Christians. There is no question that electoral politics is about representation, power, and the organization of our society. Whether or not one votes, it should be clear that followers of Jesus care about how our society is governed precisely because we care about the impact that it has on individuals and neighborhoods. For that reason, all faithful Christians are necessarily political if they are following Jesus through our world and walking in his way.”

“The church is called to participate in the things that make for peace and justice in our world. But different historical contexts open up the need for reimagining how we do that faithfully as followers of Jesus.” For Hart, no one approach is sufficient since there are many ways that we can work for justice. What we need to cultivate is deep awareness of the ways of Jesus and the stories of oppressed people as we creatively and wisely plan our next steps in doing justice.

Questions for Discussion

  • Non-violent struggle and resistance are often understood as passive. How do both the peacemaking ministry of Jesus and MLK’s philosophy of non-violence push back on that notion?
  • How does the church’s call to affirm the dignity of human life, to practice enemy love, and to bear the cross uniquely position it to contribute to broader movements for social change?
  • Hart suggests that churches can play various roles in protest movements. How can the church meaningfully contribute to such movements without falling prey to a “savior complex” (p. 301)? How would exhibiting an authentic willingness to follow movement leadership, versus trying to assume the role of leading, be an expression of the wisdom and love of Jesus in our current moment?
  • Hart writes, “Community organizing seeks to empower and give voice directly to the people affected so they can change their communities” (p. 302-303). Where do you see this ministry of empowerment and giving voice to the most vulnerable in the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels?
  • In your personal experience, how have communities of faith engaged electoral politics? What landmines are inherent in the work of electoral politics and how can Jesus-followers navigate around them?

Week 8: Chapter 9,
"The Politics of Love"

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In his work, On Christian Doctrine, the influential theologian Augustine of Hippo writes concerning the interpretation of the Bible: “Whoever, therefore, thinks that they understand the divine scriptures or any part of them so that they do not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand them at all.”


Here Augustine “is articulating the heart of Jesus’ own teaching in which the summation of the law is described in terms of loving God with every aspect of our being and loving our neighbors as we would our own selves.”

“It is vital for Augustine that people find the well-worn path that leads to loving God and loving others. It is the summary, goal, and destination of our faith in Jesus. Through Jesus’ faithfulness, and our following after him, we have a road back to this life of love. How might our world look different if we read Scripture through the lens of loving God and loving our neighbor, and we were not satisfied with any other interpretation that lacked the capacity to ignite genuine love for others?”

Hart writes in his experiences speaking and teaching at churches across the country, he has seen the visceral discomfort, shock, and cognitive dissonance in response to his sharing “the most deeply Christian imaginable, the call of laboring in love in response to their political enemies.”

For all the important efforts working for social change and the development of new social policies, “something more is needed for deeper social transformation that policy can’t accomplish…we must reorient our discipleship back to the heart of the gospel of Jesus, which requires loving our neighbors and enemies concretely.”

“In Christianity, one indisputable commandment holds special honor as the greatest and most important. When all things fall away, what remains is the commandment to love. Here in this simple four-letter word, love, everything hangs in the balance. It is what grounds the Christian life. You can achieve everything else, but if you have not grasped hold of love, your life is empty and you really have nothing. How many self-professed Christians go on and on about faith, with sophisticated nuance and distinction, expressing all the theological complexities and ethical ambiguities involved, but are still found wanting in the practice of love?”

“The gospel of John contends that people will know the disciples of Jesus by their love for one another (John 13:34-35). Disciples of Jesus love their neighbor. For John, this is not about whether followers of Jesus should love their neighbors. This is what disciples of Jesus do; they love. It is their defining characteristic. They are a community of love. The give, receive, and share love. Love grounds their lives. They practice love and are good at it. They show people the way to live by embodying love. They persevere through challenges with it. It is their lasting mark and eternal legacy.”

“For too long self-professed Christians have convinced themselves they were loving God while centuries of oppression and exploitation took place in this land. They sand their songs of devotion, prayed with passion, and were moved during deep contemplation. But is it precisely at this moment that Jesus’ greatest commandment pulls back the curtain on the whole circus and exposes the hypocrisy and emptiness grounded in disobedience to the great commandment and our disdain for our fellow creatures living before the Creator.”

“Gustavo Gutiérrez explains it this way, ‘It is not enough to say that the love of God is inseparable from the love of one’s neighbor. It must be added that love for God is unavoidably expressed through love of one’s neighbor.’ If he is right, then there have been many attempts to worship God among church folk that have lacked genuine love for God.”

“When some oppressed people hear Christians talk about love, they shudder in fear because their “love” often results in more harm. The meaning of love has been so domesticated and manipulated and is frequently weaponized. We don’t know what love is. We don’t know what love looks like. Just about anything can pass as love in Christian circles today.”

“One of the most popular ways that love is domesticated is by equating it with sentimentality. That is, those in power like to pass it off as a mushy feeling. When comfortable people are having their feels, they will suggest that is their evidence of love [for others]…Unfortunately, for many sentimentality results in no action. No effort is made to change the situation.”

Thankfully, Jesus models Christian love for us, allowing us to clear the table of all the poor imitations. In the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, radical and sacrificial love is embodied on humanity’s behalf…Jesus takes on the responsibility for the well-being of those who suffer, those in need, and those captive to the evil forces of sin and death that have entrapped humanity.

The love of Jesus “is embodied and therefore costly. It is costly because love takes risks for others. The truthfulness of his love is expressed through action. Jesus’ actions become for Christians the model and measurement for whether love is genuine or fake.”

1 John 3:16-18 explains it this way: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

“In short, love pursues the well-being of others concretely in action. The truth of love is embodied rather than spoken. This is a truth that can only be lived to find its perfection. No words, not even these reflections on this page, can capture the fullness of love. They can only gesture and point you toward the Christian action that embodies God’s truth that Jesus laid down his life for us and that we now participate in that very life in Christ.”

“Loving our enemies isn’t about “liking” our enemies or looking the other way in response to real harm caused. Love affirms that they too are made in the image of God and have inherent value, worth, and dignity. Love sees their personhood and complexity and has compassion that they too are in captivity to evil and are in need of God’s deliverance. And finally, love refuses to destroy them. This however, does not take off the table the need for truth-telling, accountability, and ultimately, the responsibility for oppressors to make right the wrongs they have committed.”

“I believe that anger is sometimes too quickly aligned with hatred and bitterness. This is a mistake...two general categories [of anger], if not more, ought to be distinguished…there is an uncontrolled and unleashed anger that easily morphs into hatred. This kind of anger is a destructive force that will eat you up from the inside out.”

“However, that is not the only kind of anger that exists. Not all anger turns into bitterness and hatred. For example, Scripture frequently portrays God as angered by all the injustice and harm that humans have done to one another. Typically, Christians have called this righteous indignation…For this type of anger not to break down into a destructive force, it must be embraced with love so that it can be channeled in creative and constructive ways. Righteous indignation combined with love produces a passion that aligns with God’s own responses to injustice and harm.”

Questions for Discussion

  • The call to love God and neighbor is the central command of scripture. Yet, in many communities of faith, this radical call is peripheral. How does keeping love at the center sustain our witness to God’s delivering power?
  • Hart writes that “love of God is manifested through our love of our fellow humans” (p. 336). What does he mean by this? Why is this notion so important?
  • How does the sentimentalization of agape love uphold the status quo of oppression?
  • How do the life, death, and resurrection Jesus demonstrate an ethic of love that seeks to overcome every barrier to community, liberation, and human flourishing?
  • In the closing of this book, Hart writes that love “remains the most powerful instrument for creating the possibility of radical deliverance of even oppressors instead of perpetuating cycles of violence and harm” (p. 363). What are some cycles of harm that the love-rooted pursuit of justice could heal and interrupt in your local context?