Sheila Caldwell on True Worship Means Real Justice

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Portrait: Courtesy of Shelia Caldwell / Background Images: WikiMedia / Unsplash / New York Public Library

Sheila Caldwell is chief intercultural engagement officer for Wheaton College.


My Jim Crow parents used time-honored African storytelling to pass on their meaningful lessons and history to me. Growing up on land owned by white sharecroppers, my mother and father picked cotton in Mississippi and Tennessee from the age of three. While in elementary school, my father told me about a white store owner who attempted to cut off his right hand when he was nine because the store owner felt my father disrespected him by correcting him for giving back the wrong amount of change. I was taught at a young age that justice does not roll like a river, nor righteousness like a never-failing stream, for people of African descent (Amos 5:24). For me as an adult, justice feels far away.

Where in American society can I see proof of righteousness and justice for disadvantaged racialized people? Education? According to a 2019 report by EdBuild, schools with mostly racial/ethnic students received $23 billion less in funding than white school districts. Economics? Brookings reports the net worth of a typical white family is ten times greater than their black counterparts since most wealth is inherited. The long-term effects of involuntary or forced labor such as slavery, convict leasing, and black codes means white citizens possess an average household wealth of $171,000, compared to $17,150 for African Americans. Health care? A Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention analysis reveals 55 percent of US coronavirus cases come from black and Hispanic people, who make up 31 percent of the population. The Navajo Nation has the most cases per capita in the United States. Poverty, essential worker roles, and chronic health conditions combined with limited access to health care makes the least the most vulnerable. Personally, I have multiple relatives who have died or acquired lifelong health complications due to COVID-19.

With whom in our society should I engage whose principles and practices demonstrate a true commitment to treating all citizens as equals, every day, in every aspect of life? Should I seek out disciples in the church to be God’s agents for racial justice? Is the church committed to correcting the wrongs of poverty and racism, loving the outsider, feeding the food insecure, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned as Jesus commanded (Matt. 25)?

Christian scholars criticize the church for falling short. In The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby argues thattoo many Christian leaders refuse to publicly speak out against racism. Tisby writes, “Nowadays, all the American Church needs to do in terms of compromise is to cooperate with already established and racially unequal systems.” Christian leaders are compelled by the Scriptures to develop anti-racist behaviors and actions. Jesus willingly left the crowds behind when they rejected righteousness and justice. Jesus let a rich man walk away sad because of his unwillingness to repent and do right by the poor (Matt. 19). Jesus upset crowds who refused to acknowledge him as the Son of God (John 6), and Jesus told crowds they could not be his disciples if they weren’t willing to deny themselves and prioritize him over all earthly relationships (Luke 14).

Church leaders must not fear thinning crowds in the search for true worshipers (John 4). True worshipers are committed to justice because God is just and cares that we act right, do right, and make right. Racial justice cannot be an exception. The Bible commands us to love the immigrant as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:34). “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?a Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that??” (Matt. 5:46–47).

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Source: Christianity Today