By the Rev. Dr. Karyn Carlo
In August of this year and then again in October, Tiki torch-carrying white nationalist protesters — including both self-avowed neo-Nazis and Klansmen — marched on Charlottesville, Va., chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Instead of disavowing this blatant, racist attack on the stated core values of our nation, President Donald J. Trump said that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” As Christians, we are taught to see the best in others and to love even our enemies. But, when it comes to matters of fundamental social justice, there is no “both sides.” We are called to take a stand.
Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call Savior, took such a stand. As a Jew living under Roman occupation, he knew what it was like to suffer racial, religious and economic oppression, both at the hands of the Roman rulers and those religious authorities who sided with them. While preaching love for all, he sided with the “last and the least” and called their oppressors to repent.
Now, more than 2,000 years later, what began as a movement among marginalized people longing for dignity is now an established world religion that, sadly, has often failed to stand up for equality among persons. In the United States, we have seen the name of Jesus used to justify the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of Native Americans, the oppression of women and more. Today the alt-right also largely identifies as “Christian” while attacking the most vulnerable of our citizens. At such a historical moment, the language of “both sides” and “unity” is dangerous. It is, as the prophet Jeremiah said, “saying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11).
Yes, Jesus loved everyone, but he sided with the poor and the oppressed against the dehumanization of the empire. He was crucified for a reason; it wasn’t only to atone for personal sin as if there were only one cross and it was an apolitical transaction between two parts of the trinity with no connection to context. Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans because he preached a gospel that empowered powerless people and threatened an oppressive world order. This gospel was not only abstract good news for everyone. It was and is good news for the poor. It was not good news for those who profited from the misery of the poor. For those who profited, it was and is a call to repentance.
Sure God loves everyone, but God does not love all the same way. God loves us when we are oppressed by standing with us as we struggle to be free. God loves us when we are oppressors by calling us to repent and make reparations to those we have harmed. God’s love is based on justice — not just the kind of justice implied by God’s need to punish personal sin but social justice that speaks to our involvement in structural sin and demands a political and social response. This is true in all nations and generations. What it means to be a Christian may differ according to the particular historical contexts in which we live, but the basic principles remain the same. Loving Jesus means loving justice.
Those who insist on perpetuating white supremacy in Jesus’ name are committing blasphemy. Missing the point are those who play into this blasphemy with platitudes about how “Jesus loves everyone,” “Jesus doesn’t take sides” or “The gospel isn’t political.” Also missing the point are those who try to shame ministers of the gospel who engage in social activism by labeling us as “hateful,” saying that we are “not being Christian” or that we are “being divisive” and insisting that we “stick to preaching on Sunday” and expecting that preaching to be equally soothing to all, regardless of where they stand at this critical time in our history.
There is a season for reconciliation and unity. We are not in such a season. We are in a season in which everyone must choose where they stand, either with Jesus or with those who crucified him and many like him. There is no middle ground. We may love our enemies and we may pray for persecutors, but if we love Jesus, we don’t join them. When we ignore justice, the “peace” of which we speak is no peace at all.
The Rev. Dr. Karyn Carlo is a retired New York City police captain who became a preacher, teacher and theologian. She currently serves as a volunteer theological educator with American Baptist International Ministries and as chair of the Public Mission Committee of American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.