“Woke” is a common insult thrown around by those who oppose the pursuit of justice as a Christian mandate. When they are upset at the stands that other conservative Christians take on racial issues, on sexual abuse issues, on political matters, when some refuse to acquiesce to GOP/conservative orthodoxy, they resort to dismissive name-calling. Derogations such as liberal, “social justice warriors,” or the ubiquitous “woke” are common. In certain circles, woke is synonymous with liberal, denying the Scriptures, or at least ignoring the primacy of the Gospel. I’ve objected to the insult because it is both offensive and inaccurate, and its intent is not to be descriptive but insulting.
I wonder if the proper response to being called “woke” should be a hearty thank you?
A friend told me something recently, which I tried to research and found plausible, if not verified beyond question. He said that the term was originally a compliment given within the Black community to those who “got it,” those in the White community whose eyes had been opened to the evils of racism, of segregation, and of the cruelty inflicted on Black people in America. When the blinders of racism were removed and a person began to see things clearly, he or she was “woke.”
If that is true, I would consider it a privilege to be called woke.
It is, in fact, an apt description of my journey in racial issues. I want to share my “testimony” on these issues (that’s the Baptist version of “my story”) and explain how a hardcore conservative Baptist preacher like me ended up getting regularly called woke, a liberal, a Democrat (though I’ve only voted for one Democrat in my life, and he switched parties within a few months after the election) and several other names. I share this because, if people are going to call me woke I might as well tell the story of my awakening.
Before I share that journey, I would affirm that some things have not changed in 40 years of ministry.
Things that have NOT changed
Since my first sermon in 1977, these convictions have not changed.
- I subscribed to the BF&M then, and I do today.
- I believed in salvation by grace through faith alone, the blood atonement, the Trinity, the exclusivity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, and a long list of other key doctrines. I may have refined my understanding of some of these, but I hold them as passionately today as I did then.
- I believed in inerrancy then, and I do today.
- I was a committed Baptist then, and I am today.
- I was a complementarian then and am now.
How I “Woke”
When I began my ministry, I had one view on racial issues, and today my views are very different and what happened to me feels an awful lot like waking up. Let me share some steps in that process, my experience, my story.
- I read a book called “Blinded by Might” by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. I’d been a loyal Republican all my life, Moral Majority adherent, a reliable right-wing vote. When I read that book, it opened my eyes to some things. The thesis of that book, to oversimplify, is that there is a natural conflict between politics and Christianity. We are about truth – the Truth. We proclaim Christ whether people respond or not. Politics is about gaining and maintaining power and doing whatever you have to toward that end. When the church engages too deeply in politics, there will be a constant danger that it will compromise truth to gain and maintain power. I began to see the involvement of the church in politics differently as I worked through that concept.
- I got involved in blogging and in the world of SBC politics, and at the 2010 convention, I met a man named Dwight McKissic and had a great conversation. I’d heard him preach and loved it. He’d read some of my posts at the now-defunct sbcIMPACT and was very kind. Later that day, he argued for a resolution or motion relating to racial issues (can’t remember specifics) and it went down to defeat. I decided to go talk to him and offer some encouragement – AND THAT WAS THE MOMENT I WOKE UP!
- I offered some tepid support to Dwight – the fight isn’t over, we’ll continue advocating for it on the blogs, and after all, these things take time. Change in the SBC is slow. That is when my new friend BLEW MY MIND. He said, “Dave, do you realize that this entire convention there has been nothing but white men at the microphone?” I felt those words like a dagger. We were (I believe) unintentionally excluding people of color from the convention’s leadership and I DID NOT EVEN NOTICE. I was blind. Yes, I was asleep. And Dwight McKissic slapped me across the face and woke me up, with soft, gentle words.
- I told Dwight that day that I would spend the rest of my ministry using whatever influence I have as a pastor, as a blogger, and in any other way I could to promote the cause of racial harmony (or whatever term is right – reconciliation, inclusion) in the SBC. I have tried to do that. That day, in Orlando, was the day I became “woke.” My sleeping eyes were opened to the fact that my friend Dwight saw the SBC with very different eyes than I did.
- Back in Sioux City, I spent some time with an elderly Black man, a former deacon in our church, who told me stories about what he’d been through during his life. Grady was a true man of God, a man who held a doctorate, who’d never been unkind or cruel to anyone. He told me stories that made me want to cry. This wasn’t happening in Birmingham or Macon, but in Sioux City, Iowa. It broke my heart. Racism is real and it is evil and it is not just a past sin.
- As I began to write on the topic of race here, I encountered troubling attitudes and words. When a pastor was fired for inviting black children to VBS, our comment streams were filled with people DEFENDING the church and ATTACKING the pastor. No matter what has been suggested in the SBC to promote racial inclusion and reconciliation, people have opposed it – every single time. Confederate flag. Greater representation of minorities on nominations and appointments. Advocacy of a minority entity president. Every single effort in the SBC has been opposed. It becomes more clear every day that the SBC’s problems with race are not just ancient history.
Maybe I will do a follow-up with my opinions on some of these issues, but for now, I have a simple point. You guys use the term “woke” as an insult. I get it. But that is exactly what it felt like to me. When I spoke to Dwight, and to my deacon friend, and when I began to see that my lifelong party did not have the corner on truth, it was like waking up. That was my experience. I woke up.
So, yeah, call me woke if you want. It’s better than being asleep, isn’t it?