I was listening to a podcast the other day where the speaker made a statement that really caught my attention. It was an interview with a pastor who leads a multicultural church in the States, that is known for its multiracial culture and ministry. The speaker talked about how the white church in America has been historically silent on the issue of social justice, especially where it concerns racism, prejudice and segregation. My ears perked up when he said that he found it ironic that even someone like D.L. Moody was silent on the subject over his whole lifetime.
You've probably heard of D.L. Moody. He’s one of the 19th Century towers of evangelicalism. Moody founded a church, a bible institute and a publishing house! His was a leading voice in American Christianity during one of America’s most difficult periods. He lived, and preached, through the time of the American Civil War (1860-1865), and through some of the most important events associated with the abolition of slavery. These included the Nat Turner Revolt (1831), the Dred Scott Case (1857), John Brown’s Raid (1859), and the Emancipation Act itself (1863). After the war, the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing voting rights to Black citizens, and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan (1877).
Moody was also a contemporary (in time anyway) of some of America’s leading abolitionists, including Fredrick Douglas and Williams Lloyd Garrison. Moody and Garrison even lived in the same neighborhood!
Yet on this issue, Moody said nothing? How could he have been silent throughout this whole incredible struggle for racial justice?
It was a different time of course, and I’m certainly in no position to pass judgement on a legend like D.L. Moody. I haven’t read his anthology for myself, but I’m startled to think that it could be true that he remained silent during such a momentous time in history. Really? I mean, think about that.
It actually shouldn’t come as such a surprise to me. Our black brothers and sisters, both in the States and here in Canada, have been sharing that one of their greatest frustrations has been the historical silence of the white church to issues of systemic racism and racial injustice. And after the killing of George Floyd last year - “Enough is enough! Come on white church – say something!” I hope they've been heard.
This came home to me again recently in my devotions. I was reading Luke 11 and the section where Jesus scolds the Pharisees and Experts in the Law really struck me (verses 37-52). These were the religious folk of his day, and Jesus rebukes them because their religion is really just a pious outward show. Inside they are still a self-serving bunch. They’ve got their religious rituals and doctrines all lined up, but they have no heart for love, compassion, service or justice.
In his rebuke, Jesus calls them fools because inside they’re still wicked and greedy. He tells them that religion of the heart leads to compassion and generosity to the poor. He tells them that all their law-keeping didn’t excuse them from caring about justice and showing love to others.
39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
After his scolding of the Pharisees, the teachers in the crowd said, “Hey Jesus, you’re starting to make us look bad.” Jesus turned to them and leveled them with the accusation that they were no better. They were happy to lay obedience on people’s backs like a sack of stone, but they weren’t willing to lift a finger to help people in need. His summation was that their religion was only good for one thing – judgment.
There’s a lesson in this for us. Any religion that doesn’t lead a person to greater expressions of love, compassion and justice, isn’t an authentic religion (see James 1:27). I take from Jesus’ dressing down of the religious of his day that we need to be sure that our zeal for personal righteousness includes love, compassion, justice and action to help those who need it. And I think a good place to start is by speaking up and not staying silent in the face of injustice.