As we enter the decade of the new “roaring 20’s” many new words will find currency in our society. This piece looks at wokeness, virtue signalling, and intersectionality.
“Woke” —“My church is more ‘woke’ than yours is” or “my party within my local church is more ‘woke’ than yours is.” Derived from the idea of being woken from sleep, this terminology suggests that a certain group is more “awake” to what is going on than others and that they have had some kind of an epiphany to that fact. Thus, a group may say that they are “woke” to climate change, to some kind of supremacy, to some kind of racism, or to openness to self-identified sexual identity.
“Virtue signalling” —Just as one group may say they are more “woke” than the other, in essence, what they are doing is stating that they are more virtuous than the other who is still in a deep sleep. Of course, this is a self-defined virtue, and it is signalled by positions taken on certain issues, or pronouncements made on certain topics of the day.
For example, if I make an official pronouncement in the name of a local church, a group of churches, or by a denomination, I might be doing two things: one might be that I am genuinely concerned about an issue as godly ambassadors of King Jesus, or I could be attempting to send a message that I am the one who has taken the moral high road, and have expressed some kind of outrage about an issue.
Imagine a group within a denomination—officially sanctioned or otherwise—who makes a statement that has the effect: “We are more emotionally sensitive to this issue than you who are not.” It is as if one is dealing with a motherhood or apple pie statement. Who can argue against it? Yet one must ask if emotional sensitivity is all there is in deciding moral, ethical, and theological issues.
“Intersectionality” —Picture a place where four or five roads converge. We call the central meeting point the intersection. Thus, I can say, “Please meet me at Woodies near to the intersection of Main St. and Kalamazoo Avenue” and you will know where to find me. This idea of intersectionality is now being used to stack up a list of items that qualifies one for being disadvantaged. This is especially true in a day and age where victimization has moved from rightfully exposing injustices to a type of hypersensitivity to any perceived, not necessarily real, offense. Thus I may claim to be a victim because of______, ________, and _____.
The idea of intersectionality is that at the intersection of my life, I have a longer list of areas of victimization than you do. I may claim that my skin tone, my ethnic background, my sexual preference, my economic disadvantage, my disability, my religious background, and gender choice all are qualifiers for a long list of intersections of victimization. On the flip side, those who do not have a list as long as I do should be disqualified from challenging any choices I have made as they simply are less intersectional than I am.
How might these three words enter the church?
Imagine this fictitious scenario:
A group—let's call them “Changing Church (CC)” —within a local church looks at the times we are living in and decides that its agenda to address a certain issue is worth adopting. Their agenda is a mixture of genuine concerns to address a certain injustice or a lack of pastoral care for a certain issue, or a frustration that the church is not addressing it; either locally or officially. They are passionate about this issue and want everyone else to be as well. Because they encounter some pushback, either theologically or relationally, they are somewhat frustrated. They feel like some of the local leadership is “asleep at the wheel” and needs to “wake up and smell the roses.” CC now invokes the three words that we have been examining.
At a local presbytery meeting, one of the members of CC gets the floor and in an impassioned speech lets the attendees know that this issue is a hill to die on and that they must wake up. Then a person is brought in as a witness and with tears, they tell the attendees that they know of someone who has suffered victimization and that if the presbytery does nothing, now, about this issue, this will cause further victimization.
The attendees now are conflicted. CC has signalled by its willingness to engage in this issue that somehow it is more compassionate, more empathetic, and more with the times than they are. The attendees have just been virtue signalled. They have also been told—in no uncertain terms—that they need to wake up and be as “woke” as CC is. CC has set the standard, for what it means to be awake.
Some members of the presbytery show reserve. This emboldens and frustrates CC all the more, and they pull out the intersectionality card. In essence, CC tells the attendees, “We are more qualified to make a judgment on this issue, because we have suffered____, ____, and _______.” “Because you are ________, ______, and ________ you are not qualified to speak to this issue.”
CC feels proud that they have taken the high moral ground and have managed to persuade a few of the attendees. Yet the change that they are seeking does not happen as quickly as they hoped. What are they to do next? And the story continues. . .
So what is the problem?
In the three words above, and in the fictitious scenario, three dynamics appear to be at play.
The first is a view that a certain issue is a hill to die on. This raises a vital question. How does a church or a denomination decide whether an issue is a hill to die on, and whether or not it is a distraction from its core identity or core business? If a church does not know this, then anything and everything that blows in the door could be a hill to die on. It will be wide open to being influenced by the effects of virtue signalling, “wokeness” and intersectionality.
The second is that if a church is not theologically grounded it can easily be swayed by the emotional appeals of these three words. What can happen is that this less than grounded church can be cajoled by special interest groups like CC. Its lack of theological backbone can allow such groups to dominate the life of the church. CC can exploit the church in order to cause endless discussions and study committees.
Thirdly, these three words serve to polarize a church. CC can come across as more awake, more virtuous, and more victimized than the rest, and so holds a trio of powerful playing cards in its hands. If this divisiveness under the rubric of being with the times, compassionate and caring is not addressed, then CC will become yet more emboldened.
Again, what is the problem?
Culture is king. The literature of wokeness, virtue signalling, and intersectionality affirms my perception of my victimization, my sense of injustice, and my desire to right these wrongs in my power. It is ultimately about me, and it is frequently informed by the culture around me. What is missing is the wisdom of the collective Church down through the ages, the timeless principles of Scripture and its ability to exegete and critique any culture, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Again, what is the problem?
Self-determination. The surrounding culture tells me on no uncertain terms that. . . “You can be whoever you want, and do whatever you want with whoever you want, whenever you want, and you can stand up to anyone who challenges any of it.”
. . . “If you don’t get your way by yourself, you can find a group of fellow-thinkers and organize yourselves to be change agents.”
. . . “If the local church is in your way, then use the tools that activists throughout history have used, and force change upon it.”
Again, what is the problem?
A utilitarian view of the church and God. The church and God serve my and my group’s agenda.
What are some possible solutions?
What if we took the three words and turned them on their head? What if the church had....?
- …“an awakening to His greatness” so that the church is truly “woke.” Revivals in the history of the church, show that it had to be brought back to submission to the whole counsel of God in the Bible, radical honesty, and a return to a hunger for an encounter with the living God.
- …a sober diminishing of the egocentric view of our own virtue, and a willingness to signal the virtue of the truly virtuous One.
- A willingness to live at the intersection of “now and not yet” where we cry out with the martyr throng. “How long, holy Lord, sovereign and true” and cry out “Maranatha” knowing that we will not be the ultimate knights and superwomen in shining amour who right every wrong, but are those with a holy and healthy impatience that He will do so.