Jesus and Justice by Peter Goodwin Hetzel

Subtitled “Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics,” an overview of the history of 20th-21st century evangelicalism as it moved from ignoring race to embracing the Christology of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Jesus and Justice, author Peter Goodwin Hetzel writes an incredibly detailed history of Focus on the Family, Sojourners, and the National Association of Evangelicals, among others. He also presents a thorough examination of Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology, which was a topic I’d never really explored before. I knew that King was a gifted speaker, but I didn’t realize the extent to which he was a deep intellectual and theologian. In doing so, Hetzel aims to awaken modern white evangelicals to the necessity of embracing the legacy of black evangelicalism in order to effect real change in the world. He writes:

It is what is specifically Christian within black evangelicalism that can help a white evangelical modernity break out of its whiteness and its modernism circumscribed by racial and colonial logics. And insofar as black and white evangelicalism do not make this break, insofar as evangelicals modernity’s racial imagination cannot be perforated and displaced by the fullness of the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the bearer of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, to that same extent such interrogations of black Christianity and evangelicalism remain trapped within, not liberated from, the colonial gaze.

Earlier, he cites the individualism endemic in most evangelical theology as the greatest hindrance to widespread evangelical engagement with larger cultural issues like race, class, and stewardship of the earth. I agree wholeheartedly with his critique, even though I’m lukewarm towards Sojourners, the group he sees as most embodying the new evangelicalism. Hetzel’s book reminds me most of Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians not to allow their own cultural distinctions to supersede their identity as Christians. I believe he offers a great roadmap to those American Christians who wish to bridge the racial divide in a way that pays fitting tribute to the tragedies and triumphs of America’s racial history.

But because my recent reading of Christless Christianity is so fresh in my mind, I can’t get past Michael Horton’s evisceration of the works-oriented theology at the heart of Jim Wallis’s emphasis on “deeds, not creeds.” Horton convincingly argues that the church is not called to “live the gospel” but rather to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. Jesus is not someone that we are to emulate; rather, he is the Savior we are to worship.

Hetzel’s picture of Sojourners is quite different from Horton’s, and I get the feeling that the reason might be theological–Calvinist vs. Wesleyan, perhaps? Honestly, I think they’re both right–if Calvinism works the way the Reformed say it does, and if Sojourners’s mission is what Hetzel says it is. And the book makes it clear that Hetzel’s vision is about so much more than just “WWJD.” I would love to see his vision come true.

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