While discussing Black Lives Matter protests, several beloved Christian friends tell me, “Protests won’t change people’s hearts. Laws and policy can’t fix the sin of racism. We just need to tell people about Jesus and pray—we need Him to change us!”
I understand where my friends are coming from. But I think racism requires action, not just prayer.
When my 2-year-old throws a spectacular punch at her older sister, the deep, underlying truth is that my child needs Jesus. But I’d be an irresponsible mom if I prayed, read some Bible stories, and waited for Jesus to transform her heart. There is a lot I need to do to bring Jesus’ justice and love into my home! Even though my responses are flawed, I need to stop the toddler blood-bath.
This analogy is imperfect—white Christians fighting for racial justice definitely shouldn’t think of themselves as parents swooping in to take charge. My point is that prayer, sermons, and evangelism alone aren’t solutions to brokenness here on earth, and we are commanded to do more.
Jesus cares about every part of our lives, not just “spiritual stuff.” He fed the hungry, healed bodies, and condemned exploitation in the Temple. In Matthew 25, He tells us to care for the sick and visit prisoners. It’s not a question of whether to care about eternal life or people’s lives on earth–it’s both. As Christians, we must share the Gospel and fight for justice now.
Yes, we need to tell people about Jesus. But because we are sinful, we need laws and systemic changes, too. Here’s why:
Justice is good, in and of itself. God loves justice! The 13th Amendment probably didn’t change the hearts of anyone who owned slaves. But ending slavery was still a good thing. Would you tell an enslaved person that being freed wouldn’t “solve the sin problem,” and to wait until slave-owners are convicted of their sin? Addressing systemic injustice won’t end all racism, but would be fundamentally good.
Christians have hard hearts, too. George Whitefield and Jonathon Edwards were two of the most incredible Christian preachers ever, and they owned slaves. When I read their sermons, I’m convinced that they loved Jesus deeply–but they still hardened their hearts towards Black people. Robert E. Lee was a devout Christian and particularly vicious to his slaves.
Some Christians believe that slave-owners weren’t really “saved,” but I think it’s more complicated than that. Christians can quench the Holy Spirit. My own life is proof that someone can love Jesus and still be a pretty messed-up sinner (or total idiot, depending on who you ask). Therefore, increased evangelism is good–but it won’t end racism. We need to oppose racist systems, structures and norms so that justice doesn’t depend on how well Christians are following Jesus that particular day.
Just laws can change hearts over time. In 1967, my mom’s 10th grade social studies class discussed interracial marriage. Out of 30 students, only 3 of them were in favor of legalized interracial marriages: my mom, her best friend, and a boy who had a crush on her. And this was a class full of church-goers in the relatively progressive state of Minnesota!
Interracial marriages became increasinlgy common after the 1967 Supreme Court ruling, and our hearts (and churches) have gradually changed for the better as a result. Just policies today would likewise push hearts in the right direction.
Christians fought for justice in the past. Throughout history, Christians didn’t just pray for justice–they did something achieve it. Some examples are William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Corrie ten Boom, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Their stories should inspire us to take action today.
Jesus commands us to take action. Guided by the Spirit, we are Jesus’ hands and feet on earth–and we should not be idle in the fight against racism. What can you do right now? Start a weekly Bible study to read and discuss Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice. His first book is also a great place to start: The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.