I have put off writing this article for a long time. The purpose of this series is to explore the ways various terms are used in conversations about race that make it hard for folks to understand each other. Language develops in community, so each theological tribe has its own way of talking about race, and when we start talking outside our circles, things get confusing. This is as apparent as ever when considering the usage of the term woke.
The first usage of this term makes the most sense of the word. In this usage, to be woke is to be awake to racial realities. The thinking goes that many have been and are figuratively asleep to the racism around them. To be woke is a positive claim that you are conscious of your reality.
This is easy enough to understand, whether or not you agree with the conclusions of those who use the term this way.
The second and now more common usage of woke is derogative. The trouble for our purposes here is that I don’t know how to define what is meant by this usage. It is clear that in this sense to be woke is a bad thing and, in a Christian context, leads to all sorts of theological compromise. But what is much less clear is what behavior or convictions make a person woke.
This lack of clarity means that we use the term woke as a pejorative way to categorize people, we charge them in a way that makes it impossible to clear their name.
In light of this, I am doing something we have not yet done in our word study series. I suggest that Christians stop using this term if we mean it negatively.
Christians—and I mean blood-bought, Spirit-filled, born-again believers—are all over the map on the complicated matters of race in our society. If we are truly Christians, we love our fellow image-bearers and can not tolerate racism. But that does not mean we will agree about the pervasiveness of racism or what to do about it.
You may believe that theological compromise is happening in the name of racial justice. You may believe ministries like ours are wrong-headed. But, Christian, you are still duty-bound to not slander. This is no small matter, according to God. He promises to destroy the one who slanders (Psalm 101:5) and lists lying lips, false witness, and sowing discord as three of the six things He hates in Proverbs 6:16–19.
Given these stakes, Christians who use the term woke negatively should retire the word. Why advocate for retiring it as a charge but retain it as a compliment? A vague compliment does not pose the same threat as a vague charge of misconduct. A compliment can be accepted or ignored without consequence. A vague compliment is not necessarily flattery. A vague accusation is almost certainly slander.
Calling someone outside your tribe woke might get you retweets or praise, but only from those who already think as you do. You will not win your brother or sister who disagrees with you. You are not being fair.
Beyond that, you lay a snare for yourself. A charge without standards is dangerous for everyone because it is impossible to disprove. All that it requires is enough repetition for it to stick. The same charge you level might come back at you as culture and circumstances shift.
This is a suggestion which I believe will increase both the clarity and charity of already difficult conversations. We will all give an account for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36). May that knowledge spur us to speak of even our opponents, especially if they are our brothers and sisters, in ways they can affirm, even in our disagreement. Let us have love which does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but only in truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).
- Pray that God make us more kind in our disagreements.
- Pray that God make us more clear in our disagreements.
- Pray that Christians would disagree while agreeing in the Lord.