Do We Need Hope to Fight for Justice? Ta-Nehisi Interrogates Christian Resistance

Ta-Nehisi tweeted a few pointed questions about Christianity and moral resistance.

His main point:

In short, Coates is saying that Christians fight for justice because of the outcome (meek will inherit the earth), and Coates wants to fight for justice simply because it is right and inherently worthy of our sacrifice. When you fight because of the outcome, your attention is oriented towards the future; when you fight because of the principle, then you are suspended in the present, careless of what the future holds.

But it seems to me that a “Christian framework” is concerned about both the future and present, about both outcome and process.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the first Christians that come to mind when we think of role models for resistance. A bright, young German pastor and theologian who initially went to America to escape the rising Nazi regime, he quickly returned to Germany because he felt that he had to "share the trials of this time with my people." He was later imprisoned in 1943 for conspiring to rescue Jews, and executed in a concentration camp a few weeks before the Allies liberate it.

This is what he writes, while in prison, about who will stand fast in the face of evil:

“Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue....”

It is not that Bonhoeffer is against moral principles. On account of them, he condemned Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, America’s treatment of African-Americans, and so on. For Christians, moral principles matter a lot, for they are not the abstract creations of humans, but the very structure that, by the Creator’s design, undergirds the world. But Bonhoeffer led a complicated life in Germany: he had to lie and deceive almost everyone in his life to play his part as a double agent in a larger conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. So for him, his resistance went beyond standard moral principles.

He concludes that passage by saying the only man who will stand firm is "the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God."

So he fought and resisted because he felt called to do so.  

We have a name for this type of resistance: “faithfulness.” One might be responsible to a principle or to an outcome, but one is ultimately faithful to a Person, who is the source of all that is good. And sometimes He calls us to resist. And when we do so, we do it because it is good and important to do so, but, more importantly, because we are accountable to the One who calls us, whose voice doggedly persists even in our most humanly isolated moments. There is no neutral, distanced response to the voice; we either love or hate it. Resistance, then, possesses a relational dynamic. 

Does this “relationship” lens change much of anything? After all, yes, in the future, cosmic sense, all that Coates said about Christianity is true: God will overcome, bring the meek along with him, and usher in justice. But this eschatological future is ultimately God’s business. Our business is Now.

Oliver O’Donovan, an Anglican theologian and scholar known for his work in Christian ethics, warns in Self, World and Time that while the Kingdom of God is a real promise, "we must not think that we can reach out and grab it… I may hope for, but cannot plan to bring about, the coming of the Kingdom of God." Even the Son of God, Donovan notes, does not know the date and time in which the Kingdom will come.

What then do we focus on? "The possibility that lies open to our action… The price of agency is to know the future only indirectly, that we may venture on it as an open possibility."

So we faithfully act within our present sphere of responsibility, and let God handle what consequences may come. This is, ultimately, a freeing thing. You become fearless, for you know that whatever he calls you to is worth it, even if you fail.

I think of Bree Newsome, reciting these verses as she climbed up a flagpole to take down the Confederate flag:

"You come against me with hatred and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today… The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Whom shall I be afraid?"

Coates writes that he suspects “process is underrated. The value of the fight, itself, is underrated.” For Christians, process is actually invaluable; it is the means by which God shapes and transforms us. For God cares not just about what we do, but who we are. Think of the transformation that Moses or Mary, biblical characters, personally experienced in their own lives as they followed His call. 

“Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.”  

- Os Guinness, author and social critic  

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Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she writes regularly here and elsewhere on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.