‘To woke or not to woke? that is the question’
by Ian Geary
“Having a form of godliness but denying its power….” 2 Timothy 3v5.
“In a world bereft of the power of revealed religion, we have to face up to the fact that no-one knows how to live.”
What is the good life? What is human flourishing?
One might argue that at the heart of political debate is a deep, searching existential question: what is the good life? What are the conditions for human flourishing? I doubt that everyone involved in politics would argue it this way. They might infer it is left v right, about abstract notions like fairness or the sovereignty of the nation or focus on procedure or constitutional matters. Fair enough. Yet, it is a clear and profound question that if posed is difficult to provide a glib answer to or if your answer is glib this will be immediately apparent.
Stanley Hauerwas in summarising the English Shephard James Rebanks’ memoire ‘The Shepherds Life’ comes accurately close to identifying the centrality of the debate and more pertinently, the contemporary crisis about what is the good life? It is worth quoting extensively to dig down into this powerful vignette:
“In the last paragraphs of The Shepherd’s Life, Rebanks, who has now been a shepherd many years, reports on a moment in his busy life. It is in the late spring, and he is in the process of returning his flock to the craggy hills. These sheep had been bred to fend for themselves in a rocky terrain. He enjoys watching the sheep find their way in the rough fields because they are evidently happy to be “home.” Rebanks imitates his flock’s sense that all is as it should be by lying down in the grass to drink sweet and pure water from the nearby stream. He rolls on his back and watches the clouds racing by. His well-trained sheep dogs, Floss and Tan, who had never seen him so relaxed, come and lay next to him. He breathes in the cool mountain air; he listens to the ewes calling to the lambs to follow them through the rocky crags, and he thinks, “This is my life. I want no other.”
“This is my life. I want no other” is an extraordinary declaration that one rarely hears today. As odd as it may seem, I want to suggest that the loss of our ability to have such lives, the absence of the conditions that make such a declaration possible in contemporary life, is a clue for understanding our current cultural moment and corresponding politic.”
What happens when the culture and its politics loses its roots and ‘Telos’? When it becomes divisive, agonistic, and ultimately unproductive? More specifically, what happens when politics becomes a space populated by disparate campaigns and causes that appear well meaning but are disconnected with a deep and rational sense of the good and serve to become a negative phenomenon?
I submit that the ‘Woke’ phenomenon is a feature of that seemingly inability to articulate the vision of the good life in an agreeable manner.
Although perhaps deployed as a ‘pejorative’ term we are witnessing an increasingly heightened attachment to a shallow form of social justice, that does not result in social betterment or in many cases justice. As Christians we should be discerning about this trend, not fall into to reactive name calling but reclaim a robust, deep and gospel rooted advocacy of social justice and renewal.
It is highly important and would be remiss not to point out that the term ‘Woke’ has an honourable root. In its original use by African Americans, it was associated with resisting racism and oppression. Yet as Abas Mirzaei points out, the meaning, over time has altered.
‘Being woke was originally associated with black Americans fighting racism but has been appropriated by other activist groups – taking it from awareness and blackness to a colourless and timeless phenomenon.’
In his reflection Mirzaei identifies the popularisation of the meme ‘Stay Woke’ during the growth in salience of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the mid 2010’s. Of note, corporate Capitalism stepped in and appropriated or misappropriated it, giving it a wider meaning.
‘Woke’: admittedly, this is a word that had a noble origin, but it has now been re-deployed and signifies a kind of maladjusted hyper-liberalism. In fact, as former US President Obama – hardly a reactionary – pointed out, it can be reflective of a simplistic, self-righteous politics.
Yet, along with critique must come some measure of corrective. Unfortunately, the word ‘Woke’ can be used to silence people, even a ‘prophetic voice’ and sadly this is a tendency in contemporary political discourse on the left and the right. It is after all a pejorative term. We would do well to listen to opinions with which we disagree (a practice of community organising) and learn to ‘disagree well.’
It is not a healthy or happy situation when anyone who acts with social compassion and sincerity is immediately labelled ‘Woke’ as a put down or being placed in a pigeonhole. Just as in the past someone might have been dismissed as a ‘leftie’ or ‘bleeding heart liberal.’ I say this out of fairness and balance yet that does not mean I think the ‘Woke’ movement is healthy. Rather, juvenile name calling is not good and does not enhance our public discourse. Yet, being ‘Woke’ is inseparable from the name calling culture and collectively this negative dialogue is harmful to the common good and search for a peaceful politics.
To some, ‘Woke’ is indicative of the latest phase of the cultural left’s attempt to assert itself. As former Australian Labor leader, now a re-elected MP Mark Latham said in his maiden speech:
‘The Leftist project, then and now, is about control. Having, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, lost the struggle for economic control, the Left got smarter.
It shifted from the Cold War to a culture war. It moved from pursuing economic Marxism to pushing cultural Marxism.’
There may be warnings from recent history. In the 1960s a moderate trade union leader Bill Sirs warned the movement what would happen if good virtuous standards were replaced by aggressive and self-referential orientations.
‘Somehow, we must capture the imagination of the British People all over again…We have to let the public see the better side of trade unionism – all the millions of man hours of voluntary work that trade unionists do up and down the country, week in, week out. The way in which we care for our sick and elderly workers, our pensioners; the way in which we support communities, welfare centres, social clubs and all the sort of facilities for young people; the way in which we help to run our town councils, sit on the bench of the nation’s magistrates’ courts, and play a part in the cultural, artistic and religious life of the nation.’
‘The vast majority of trade unionists, like the rest of the British people are hard-working, loyal and patriotic. Yet this is not the image the public has of a trade unionist. They only see the bawling, yelling, sloganizing ranter, the work-shy, idle card-playing shop floor worker or striker.’
‘The false images have to be removed before it is too late, and we must use every technique in the book to bring about a change in the public’s perception of who we are and what we do….to see the day when Britain’s trade unionists are more influential than before – not because of the power they employ – but because of the contribution they make to the life of the nation.’
Although specific to the trade union movement it shows a difference between a politics of quiet service that accords with the common good and an unappealing politics located in the same institutional form. To paraphrase Bananarama ‘It ain’t only what you do but the way that you do it. ‘
A certain approach to politics can in the long run achieve the aims you seek; another is more limiting. It is more fruitful to advocate a politics that meets peoples needs than one of purely posturing positions.
All this suggest that in our politics, we need greater civility, reflection, depth and not shallow ‘name calling.’ We can do much better.
A matter of debate
It is a delicate and complicated issue, but Christians need to be humbly engaged as our faith has a social dimension but not a social dimension alone. There seems to be some conflict or even confusion amongst Christians as to how to respond to ‘Woke.’ To call it out or have more empathy, witness the concerns of US Roman Catholic Archbishop Gomez, conveyed in a speech in November 2021 likening the ‘Woke’ movement to a form of religion and saying:
“With the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the rise of secularism, political belief systems based on social justice or personal identity have come to fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied. “
“Whatever we call these movements — “social justice,” “wokeness,” “identity politics,” “intersectionality,” “successor ideology” — they claim to offer what religion provides.”
However, in contrast another US Roman Catholic voice suggests there needs to be more thought and empathy.
“Issues like climate change and systemic racism are labeled pejoratively by the political right as part of a “woke” agenda, but those concerned about such things have identified real and present threats. There is overwhelming evidence that climate change is human-induced and must be curtailed. Huge majorities of Black and Indigenous Americans tell us that systemic racism corrupts our institutions, and statistical data reflects this. If the woke are overly concerned with perception, the “unwoke” have failed to perceive at all.”
It’s a complex and contested space.
Yet so much attached to the Woke agenda is actually opposed to Christian faith and practice and where not targeting faith, freedom of speech, which we should all be concerned about
I offer up the following examples:
- The slow and steady watering down of Christmas
- Cancel Culture. There are many examples of people and institutions being barred from the public square, notionally in the name of tolerance but ironically proving ‘intolerant.’ It is not uncommon for them to entail elite reactions to orthodox Christianity.
- The harassment of UK academic Kathleen Stock for expressing feminist views on gender and the fixed nature of biological sex.
Deep social justice and social responsibility and shallow social justice – a distinction
It is a reasonably well attested truism that if something is counterfeit, fake or a forgery then that indicates the existence of something authentic, true and genuine. There are alternatives.
A reflective response to the ‘Woke movement’ would at least require an objective thinker not to tar all good work for the common good and social justice with the same brush. I passionately believe in social justice and there seems to be a tendency for some, notably the political right to dismiss this term and deride it by deploying the ‘Woke’ label. This is to be challenged. Social justice needs to be re-claimed not jettisoned.
However, I would submit that the key point to make is that this phenomenon is a wake-up call that the world needs to authentic manifestation of the love, power and justice of the Kingdom of God.
In my view there is deep, true, liberating compassion in the Christian gospel exemplified in the Old Testament prophets, (Amos, Micah, Isaiah), Matthew 25vv31-46, James 2 and in Catholic Social Teaching in particular the preferential option for the poor. This is a central aspect of the Christian faith, it is historic and stands the test of time, by a country mile.
In fact, the term social justice was coined by Roman Catholics in the 19th Century. Deep social justice gives glory to God, witnesses to the gospel, is a fruit of its word and is a corollary of the Kingdom but not an end in itself.
It is fundamentally important to balance Christian compassion and correlative programmes of action with equally Christian sensibilities of the limits of human capacity and our proclivity to folly and debasement. We need to remember we live in a sin filled world not utopia, any good achievement can be corrupted by the power of sin and turned into an idol.
In contrast, the ‘Woke movement’, associated with the cultural left, latched onto authentic themes such as racial justice, human rights, and environmentalism, and turns them into a shallow creed. Associated with a shrill politics, twitter mobs, self-righteous posturing, and rigid positions this is unappealing and counterproductive. It can be adopted by people who disdain Christianity and demonises opponents rather than seeking to broker a politics of the common good. We are called to be radical but not extreme.
It is the sundering of social concerns from a Christian spirituality, then set into orbit that is the root of the problem. In fact, is this humanism devoid of a spiritual root what Solzhenitsyn warned the West about?
“If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.”
In fact, it might be the case that as GK Chesterton reflected:
‘The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.’
‘Woke’ seeks to assert a position and does so stridently and publicly, not quietly and not letting the ‘left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ We witness a lot of noise with no human betterment achieved at all, rather and ironically an act of dominance achieved.
As NT Wright suggests in response to criticisms that the Church of England had adopted a ‘Woke’ agenda on race:
“But the truth….is that the ‘anti-racist’ agenda is a secular attempt to plug a long-standing gap in Western Christianity.
The answer is to recover the full message, not to bolt on new ideologies.”
So, if gaps in the Church’s witness are filled with secular energies, then the answer is the full gospel, not sitting back and judging society’s attempts to establish justice.
Woke as anti-tradition
As Christian history attests the long history of social concern is embedded within Church history, the Old Testament prophets, Acts 2vv42-47, St Francis, the social concern of early Methodism, Wilberforce, the early non-conformist trade unionists, Martin Luther King and more recently Jubilee 2000. I name but a few, these examples have a genealogy. Yet, to my mind contemporary ‘Wokeism’ doesn’t fit in this tradition nor even respect it.
Make no mistake, to critique ‘Woke’ is not to be reactionary, defend the status quo or disavow a passion for justice. I would submit that the key is to articulate and to contextualise for each generation gospel rooted Christian social concern in a clear and embodied way.
Karl Barth was emphatic:
“The Church must stand for social justice in the political sphere.”
Indeed, in her classic or what will be a classic ‘The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,’ Fleming Rutledge underlines how dynamic conceptions of God’s righteousness have powerful implications for justice.
“…The righteousness of God is God’s powerful activity of making right what is wrong in the world. When we read in both Old and New Testaments, that God is righteous, we are to understand that God is at work in his creation doing right. He is overcoming evil, delivering the oppressed, raising the poor from the dust, vindicating the voiceless victims who have no one to defend them.”
Justice is from God and Godward, ‘Woke’ is, too often, bound up in man’s agenda and man’s ways. Yet, we have no option to participate with God in his righteous quest for justice. However, this affirmation of the Church’s social role needs gently and unequivocal delineation from other social trends that articulate in a different register.
As Christians we need to beware the latest fad and trend that grips society and can impinge on the Church. Liberal idealism and progressive Christianity and the now less mentioned ‘emerging church’ movement spring to mind. What can be ‘THE’ issue today and feel immanent and all consuming may appear different in ten years’ time. Hence the security of a living tradition.
The Human Redemptive Priority…
For Christians there is a clear danger to the ‘Woke’ trend that has nothing to do with the issues being championed or the way they are addressed. It is that Woke as a form of religion can be an alternative to the Church (a false empty one for sure) and if it infects the Church, it can displace the gospel.
JM Comer the US Church leader and voice of reason has reflected that ‘Progressive Christianity’ which is not too far from ‘Wokeism’ can inhibit discipleship and is in effect a means of people exiting the Church.
As someone said to me, you go from the gospel to social gospel to no gospel. This is a tragically observable trend. Or as another friend reflected ‘If it isn’t the gospel, then it is ghastly.’
If Churches adopt political and social stances imported from the world it becomes another gospel and distracts from the primary focus of the church. We need to keep the main thing the main thing.
Please don’t hear what I am not saying. This is not a plea for no social action or no political advocacy. Yet, it needs to be social action rooted in the gospel and subservient to the gospel. The best articulation of this important distinction I have read is this paper ‘The Human Redemptive Priority.’ The gospel must come first, and then other acts of advocacy and service can follow, but never replace the central message.
I fear I have trod where angels fear to tread. The scope for caricature and misunderstanding on this matter is significant.
For Christians we need to be focussed on Christ not culture, yes, we need to engage in culture intelligently yet when Paul engaged with the Athenians in Acts 17, he was cognisant of their culture, yet he did so to point to the living God and the resurrected Christ who will judge one day.
For sure, ‘Woke’ is perhaps a rebuke to Christians, when we don’t engage, we get liberalism on steroids. Perhaps. If so, we have to ask ourselves, has it emerged in a vacuum in the public square we created?
As Peter Leithart has reflected on Rod Dreher’s warnings about the anticipated trajectory of progressivism:
‘Dreher warns that progressivism will become a global ideology, leaving Christians and other moral conservatives with no place to go. If he turns out to be right, we Americans have only ourselves to blame.’
After all, if we had done our job properly on justice, racial justice, the environment and care for the marginalized there would be no need for ‘Woke’, nor any space for it. In one sense we should honour a passion for justice but not abandon discernment.
We have a better story to tell. That is the point. Not to judge the ‘Woke’ movement outright, but with empathy and discernment narrate the true gospel. This requires the ‘The whole counsel of God.’ as Paul refers to in Acts 20v27.
Yet, there is hope, Australian Christian leader and cultural observer, Mark Sayers, brilliantly diagnoses the times we live in and calls for a reliance on the word of God and the Holy Spirit to navigate these times.
As Christians our call is not to mirror the latest show in town. It is to love God, seek his Kingdom, fulfil the Great Commission, make disciples, and plant churches, serve society in Christ’s name, and speak truth to power. When we lose this focus and fail to be regulated by our true vocation, we become dominated by other agendas. The Bible calls them idols. When we focus on things other than the Kingdom and the Church we might get trapped in unhealthy pre-occupations and causes that are less than God’s best. If this happens on a mass scale, seemingly from ‘Ground Zero’ where there is no Christian root you get ‘Woke’.
If on the other hand we model biblically rooted, prayer fuelled, loving political engagement and activism for the common good we can hold onto the good and model beautiful alternatives to foster divisive approaches to politics. There is a difference. This is not about ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ and rejecting justice and transformation in favour of reactionary modes. As the previous article I referred to earlier within the US Catholic context states:
‘Issues like climate change and systemic racism are labelled pejoratively by the political right as part of a “woke” agenda, but those concerned about such things have identified real and present threats.’
It is about connecting ‘justification’ and ‘justice’. This is a challenge to reflect upon and not outrightly dismiss what we see in the world, informed by our faith and seeking the common good. This is about empathy and confidence in our faith, not withdrawal from the world and name calling. In respect of this issue, it calls for discernment. If you like a ‘deep’ rather than a ‘shallow’ liberalism, a distinction set out by Mark Garnett.
The twin dangers of not engaging and/or engaging in line with the world’s agenda are both equally perilous. After all, we were warned of the current scenario by a zealous courageous British, Christian leader of the 19th Century who lived for the gospel and the poor, in a real full-blooded sense not in a shallow world of twitter protest, name calling and strident dogmas. In a speech he said:
“The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”
― William Booth
One possible take on the ‘Woke’ phenomenon might be that liberal modernity simply cannot sustain the common good. You end up with a shallow, rigid, posturing liberalism and a name calling, reactionary response. Indeed, we might well be entering the end game of liberalism.
Will we ever be able to say, ‘This is my life, I want no other?’
Nevertheless, God will have and has had the final word. Ultimately, it is not about being ‘Woke’ or ‘anti-Woke.’ Rather, the Christian hope, now and in the future gives us all the hope and vision we need to serve the God of justice in this world, in the name of his Kingdom, not an earthly utopia.
“But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning; and I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of his spirit, and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age. Not to bring works and signs of renewal to birth within God’s creation is ultimately to collude, as gnosticism always does, with the forces of sin and death themselves. But don’t focus on the negative. Think of the positive: of the calling, in the present, to share in the surprising hope of God’s whole new creation.”
Bruno Macaes, ‘The dawn of Eurasia – On the trail of the new world order’, (Penguin Books: London, 2019), p196
‘Is Democracy capable of cultivating a good life? What Liberals should learn from the Shepherds’, 2 November 2016, Stanley Hauerwas website – https://stanleyhauerwas.org/is-democracy-capable-of-cultivating-a-good-life-what-liberals-should-learn-from-shepherds/
Abas Mirzaei, ‘Where ‘woke’ came from and why marketers should think twice before jumping on the social activism bandwagon’, The Conversation, 8 September 2019 – https://theconversation.com/where-woke-came-from-and-why-marketers-should-think-twice-before-jumping-on-the-social-activism-bandwagon-122713
‘Barack Obama Challenges Woke Culture’- https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50239261, BBC Website, 30 October 2019
Harry Farley, ‘Good disagreement: Christian principle or vacuous buzzword?’, Christian Today, 27 May 2016, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/good.disagreement.christian.principle.or.vacuous.buzzword/86988.htm
Mark Latham’s Maiden Speech, 9 May 2019- One Nation Website – https://www.onenation.org.au/mandatory-reading-mark-lathams-maiden-speech/
Bill Sirs, ‘Hard Labour’ (Sidgwick and Jackson: 1985) page reference unknown
‘Archbishop Gomez: ‘Reflections on the Church and America’s New Religions’, address to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid, 4 November 2021, published in National Catholic Register, https://www.ncregister.com/commentaries/archbishop-gomez-reflections-on-the-church-and-america-s-new-religions
Kathleen Bonnette ‘Catholics: Embrace being ‘woke.’ It’s part of our faith tradition.,’ ‘America – The Jesuit Review.’ 26 May 2021, https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2021/05/26/wokeness-pastoral-cycle-see-judge-act-240639?utm_source=piano&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9886&pnespid=6_c4ViobZf8EwqnHpjrlGImF5kKjCsUqNPajz.Rj8xZmi7WiEUki2MIEAd0zcWyQ5ovlDhrW
Tim Farron, ‘ Woke-washing Christmas: Why you’re just as guilty’, Politics.co.uk, 21 December 2021 https://www.politics.co.uk/comment/2021/12/21/woke-washing-christmas-why-youre-just-as-guilty/ In fairness Tim Farron’s blog is not just a riposte to the Woke downgrading of Christmas, it makes a broader and more incisive point
‘The cancel culture: the intolerance of the tolerance agenda’. Christian Concern, 10 July 2021 https://christianconcern.com/comment/the-cancel-culture-the-intolerance-of-the-tolerance-agenda/,
Gaby Hinsliff, ‘Kathleen Stock: ‘On social media, the important thing is to show your tribe that you have the right morals’ https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/dec/05/kathleen-stock-interview-university-sussex-transgender-headlines-2021, The Observer, 5 December 2021
I simply ask the reader to undertake a YouTube search on ‘Woke’, it is not uncommon to see disparaging critiques of social justice.
Michael Novak, ‘Social Justice: Not what you think it is’, The Heritage Foundation, December 29, 2009. https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/social-justice-not-what-you-think-it
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’, Harvard University, 8 June 1978, – American Rhetoric – Online Speech Bank – https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/alexandersolzhenitsynharvard.htm
Stephen Beale, ‘The ‘Mad Virtues’ of a secular society,’ Catholic Exchange, 9 August 2016, https://catholicexchange.com/mad-virtues-secular-society
‘Is the Church Too “Woke”? A Letter from N. T. Wright’, Glenn Packiam, March 27, 2021 – https://www.glennpackiam.com/post/is-the-church-too-woke-a-letter-from-n-t-wright,
Acts 2vv42-47 although not relating to ‘social justice’ infers a community life of the early church where there was a dynamic spiritual life embodied in a loving community and a radical social ethic.
Karl Barth, ‘Community, State and Church – Three Essays,’ (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1960), p173
Fleming Rutledge, ‘The Crucifixion – Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,’ (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2015), p328
‘Where can Progressive Christianity Lead?’Q Ideas, John Mark Comer, December 1, 2020 – Where Can Progressive Christianity Lead? | John Mark Comer – YouTube
‘People First: The Human Redemptive Priority,’ Novo, https://novo.org/resources
Peter Leithart, ‘Global Wokenes?’ Theopolis Institute, October 14, 2020, https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/global-wokenes/
Acts 20v27, The Holy Bible (English Standard Version) – https://biblehub.com/acts/20-27.htm
Mark Sayers,’ We do not have a plan, but we have the person of Jesus,’ Global 2020 – Kings Church London – https://vimeo.com/483965583
Kathleen Bonnette, ‘Catholics: Embrace being ‘woke’. It’s part of our faith tradition’, America – The Jesuit Review, May 26 2021 – Catholics: Embrace being ‘woke.’ It’s part of our faith tradition. | America Magazine
‘…a schism could be detected in liberal ranks long before September 2001. I call the rival camps ‘fleshed-out’ and ‘hollowed-out’ liberalism. The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of material self-interest.’ Mark Garnett, ‘The snake that Swallowed its Tail – Some contradictions in Modern Liberalism’ (London: Imprint Academic, 2004), p.8
Tom Wright, ‘Surprised by Hope’, (SPCK: London, 2007, p220)