Rev. Kelley Becker
This winter, I’ve been preaching a sermon series that was born from a billboard I saw in Tulsa. The billboard was advertising a church, which is probably why it caught my eye in the first place. At the time, I knew nothing about this church except what I read on the billboard. It said the name of the church and identified itself as a church “Where Jesus Ain’t Woke.” Based on this billboard, I wondered if maybe woke doesn’t mean what I think it means because I most certainly would describe the Jesus I’ve read about, studied, and chosen to follow as “woke.” Obviously, my real curiosity was around what that congregation was learning about Jesus. If he wasn’t “woke,” what was he?
Since then, I’ve done some research on how the word “woke” is being used, both by people who think being “woke” is a good thing and people who do not. Some politicians are falling all over themselves to make sure voters know they are not “woke” and do not support “woke-ness.” On the campaign trail, they are using the word to criticize anything on the progressive side of the political spectrum, like teaching about racism in schools or gender transition policies, or even books and libraries they deem inappropriate. As the word has become politicized, its true meaning has gotten lost in the noise.
According to Merriam-Webster, “woke” means “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” People of color know this awareness can be life-saving. According to Elaine Richardson, professor of literacy studies at Ohio State University, in a July 2023 NPR interview, this use of “woke” “comes out of the experience of Black people, of knowing that you have to be conscious of the politics of race, class, gender, systemic racism, and ways that society is stratified and not equal. Marketing Jesus as unaware of the ways in which the oppressive systems of the Roman Empire impacted his followers is not only a horrible way to drum up interest in following his ways now, but it is also inaccurate.
Whether you want to call Jesus “woke” or not isn’t really the point. The point is that there seems to be a convenient disconnect between the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus some people who identify as Christians claim. For some reason, the Jesus who was the champion of the ones who were oppressed and excluded has been replaced by a Jesus who cares only about what they believe about his activity on the cross. In other words, they care more about his death than his life. Jesus’ first followers were poor, sick, marginalized, and pretty much fed up with a system in which they didn’t matter. Jesus cast a vision for a world turned upside-down, a world where their problems mattered, a world made whole.
Jesus was the guy who ate with people others refused to eat with. He showed compassion for people; everyone else just walked by. He valued the contributions of women beyond their traditional roles within families. He crossed cultural lines as he held a man from Samaria up as an example against the behavior of certain religious leaders. He encouraged his followers to love their neighbors, all the neighbors, even the ones not like them.
Whether you are interested in calling yourself a Jesus follower or not, I think we all agree that loving our neighbors is not a bad idea. Today, loving our neighbors isn’t much different than it was in Jesus’ day. Loving our neighbors means we care about immigrants and refugees, regardless of their countries of origin, how they came to this country, or their documentation status. We include everyone at meals and make sure everyone has food to eat and a warm place to live, even if their priorities are different than ours. We insist that the truth is taught in our public schools and trust our educators to do their jobs. We respectfully use a person’s preferred pronouns because, when we do that, we communicate that they matter and they are loved the way they are. We embrace all kinds of families and affirm the worth of all human beings and creatures. We trust doctors and scientists when they tell us that wearing masks, vaccinating our children, and taking care of the planet create a safer world for all of us.
Since February is Black History Month and the vernacular use of “woke” comes from Black culture, it is a good time to hear again the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? he wrote, “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake.” It is true. We get complacent, frustrated, and distracted, and we are metaphorically lulled to sleep while the insidious evils of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and xenophobia seep into all aspects of our lives. We are lulled to sleep while the planet gets warmer because we are not moving away from fossil fuels fast enough. We are lulled to sleep while we add to the waste in landfills and fill our oceans with plastic. All of this negatively impacts every one of us, but especially people of color and people in other marginalized communities.
We must remain awake to the ways in which our actions impact our neighbors. And if we are interested in following the ways of Jesus, we should know that we can’t do that if we aren’t doing what he did — loving, inviting, caring for, healing, and listening to our neighbors. Jesus was killed because he dared to cast a vision for a world made whole, a world where the ones who had never mattered to the people in power mattered. That was dangerous for Rome’s status quo. As followers of Jesus 2000 years later, we are called to work to bring about his vision for the world and to stay awake to the suffering and the experiences of the ones our society treats as “the least of these.” Stay awake. We are better together.
Rev. Kelley Becker is senior minister at Disciples Christian Church in Bartlesville.