Take a Knee? Bonhoeffer on Jonathan Issac’s Gospel Stance: Part 1

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Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic didn’t take a knee when he was expected to. This is a noteworthy event in the world of professional sports and in our general cultural moment. Recognizing the historic oppression of black people in America is at the top of our current public discourse. In relation to this cultural moment, the Black Lives Matter organization has branded and promoted themselves in such a way that they seem to own the rights for how a public figure must show solidarity for black people. So, for Jonathan Isaac, a black man, to be the first and only NBA player to not wear a BLM t-shirt and to not kneel during the national anthem on the first day of resumed play is a profound counter cultural statement. Why did he do what he did? Here is his answer, as reported by CBS Sports:

“I do believe that Black lives matter, but I just felt like it was a decision that I had to make, and I didn’t feel like putting that shirt on and kneeling went hand in hand with supporting Black lives. I believe that for myself, my life has been supported by gospel, Jesus Christ, and everyone is made in the image of God and that we all forge through God’s glory.”

“So I felt like I wanted to take a stand on, we all make mistakes, but I think that the gospel of Jesus Christ is that there’s grace for us, and that Jesus came and died for our sins and that if we all come to an understanding of that and that God wants to have a relationship with us…”

“I think when you look around, racism isn’t the only thing that plagues our society, that plagues our nation, that plagues our world, and I think coming together on that message that we want to get past not only racism but everything that plagues as us as a society, I feel like the answer to that is gospel.”

Mr. Isaac sounds like a man that desires to see a very controversial moment (one which he has been dragged into in a far more intimate way than many of us) through the lens of biblical truth. How many of you went back to work and were expected to put on a t-shirt that squarely placed you on one side of a culture war in a way that didn’t allow for much margin of disagreement of approach? How many of us went back to work and were immediately confronted with the choice of disrespecting one’s nation (many see it this way) or disrespecting one’s ethnic community (many see it this way)? I originally wanted to proceed into a discussion of how Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed similar questions from a Christian perspective in what was a far more violent moment in history. However, I believe it will probably be helpful for us to review our current controversial context more fully before moving on to Bonhoeffer’s world and theology.

I’ll frame the controversy by offering a critique to one of Jonathan Isaac’s detractors. After posting about Jonathan a couple of days ago, I was sent an article to read by a friend of mine. It was Rasool Berry’s article, “Jonathan Isaac & The Inadequate Gospel of Individualism.” I don’t really know much about Rasool, but he has apparently worked with Campus Crusade for many years and is the current teaching pastor at The Bridge Church in Brooklyn. The article was well written and Rasool made several excellent points about the inherent ties between our beliefs about the Gospel and our actions in the name of the Gospel. In addition to his criticism of evangelicalism’s history of fighting social activism, Rasool sought to offer some constructive criticism to Jonathan:

“Like with many issues, Jonathan’s post-game response requires nuance, something we often don’t have patience with in our sound bite culture but it’s important, I believe, not to overly simplify or demonize people even when we believe they are sincerely wrong. I am deeply troubled by Jonathan’s comments, and I also know that he is sincere, and has been shaped in a theological way that has not forced him to be critical of his conclusions on social activism. What follows is an attempt at my nuanced response.”

However, the way that he pitched his contention with Jonathan was right out of a playbook that many would have called racist if it had been written by a white man about a young black man:

“[W]hen we see them make questionable decisions it can be easy to judge them too harshly on one moment (think: LeBron’s decision). I am reminded by psychologists that the frontal lobe isn’t completely developed until the age 25 which is in part why you can’t reserve a rental car until that time from Enterprise or Hertz. And yet, because these athletes live and act in public, it is appropriate to respond publicly to their actions whether in support or critique.”

Rasool affirmed the technical truth of a few points that Jonathan made but he felt it necessary to criticize Jonathan when he spoke about the universal nature of man’s sinfulness and the unhelpful nature of rating people’s sins against one another:

“Jonathan verged off the path in his next statements. “we each say things we shouldn’t say, we point fingers of whose evil is worse …. Racism isn’t the only thing to plague our society.” Unfortunately, his explanation for why we shouldn’t single out racism is based on a theological posture of spiritualizing sin instead of “particularizing sin.” When it comes to social justice, which ever since the Fundamentalist/Modernist split of the early 1900’s, a false dichotomy exists between the spiritual problem of sin and the need to engage it socially through justice initiatives.”

“Jonathan reveals the evangelical rejection of social engagement and a complete spiritualizing of sin that removes it from the realm of fixing social injustice on earth, which would insist on naming and challenging “racism.”

“The problem with this aphorism is that it often creates a very individualistic faith expression that fails to see the importance of solidarity.”

“One of its weaknesses though, is an over-emphasis on the individual that truncates the gospel from a multidimensional expression of the kingdom of God which teaches that Jesus came to save … not just Black people’s souls, but Black bodies as well. Jesus came, not just to save our souls, but to inaugurate a kingdom that would empower us to transform criminal justice systems, economic systems, and healthcare systems to be more like Heaven.”

“Sadly, Jonathan has missed out on that crucial teaching which is why he believes that if we just focus on conversion we can “Get pass skin color and anything that doesn’t really deal with the hearts of men and women.” The history of white evangelicalism in this country sadly reveals the fallacy of his position. As a recent article recently revealed, conversion, church attendance and religious activity were not associated with white Christians becoming less racist. In fact, the opposite was true!”

There’s a lot to unpack in these statements, but let’s first address the “recent article” that Mr. Berry is referring to. It is one written by Robert P. Jones, an adherent of the social gospel and progressive Christianity, and founder/CEO of PRRI, a progressive liberal organization which seeks to further liberal Christian narratives that primarily relate to political agendas. Think in terms of a leftist, more politicized Barna Group of sorts. So, when Mr. Berry uses the survey statistics put out by a socially progressive liberal Christian to land a major point against a young man attempting to remain faithful to his understanding of the Gospel, that doesn’t sound very “nuanced.” Nor does it seem nuanced to lump Mr. Isaac’s brave departure from the strong convictional stance of his predominantly black peers in with a biased view of the complex history of liberal and conservative Christianity and racial justice in America. That actually seems a lot like the sort of “over-simplified” message that Mr. Berry said it was important to avoid. Nuance would take into consideration the fact that there are different approaches to different social injustices and some approaches actually detract from the Gospel more than they point to it (A point that I’ll address in relation to Bonhoeffer in Part 2 of this post series).

I can’t say that I know Rasool’s theology well enough to confidently label his perspectives, but it seems as though he is beholden to critical race theory principles and possibly to the postmillennial theology held to by adherents of the social gospel, which was greatly undermined in the early to mid 1900’s because the world seemed to be getting worse rather than better. I draw this conclusion from Rasool’s statement concerning Jesus coming “to inaugurate a kingdom that would empower us to transform criminal justice systems, economic systems, and healthcare systems to be more like Heaven.” If he is talking about human institutions progressively conforming to the image of Christ until the world is as it should be, then that would most definitely be in line with postmillennialism, which would fall in line with progressive liberal theology.

Unfortunately, no matter Berry’s theological background, he is inconsistent in his criticism of evangelicalism in his own post. He writes:

“Isaacs’ response reflected the uniquely American emphasis in evangelicalism: the twins of individualism and a pietistic theological frame that resists social justice and insists on exclusively other-worldly applications to the gospel. It’s a well-worn trope in especially white evangelicalism that has stifled white Americans’ ability to understand the relevance of the gospel message to social justice for years. And yet, many may be surprised to hear it parroted by a young Black Christian. As someone who has worked in white evangelical spaces, I am not surprised at all.”

Rasool then makes an inconsistent point about the inconsistency of evangelicalism and their history with social justice:

“Now, the Evangelical position is inconsistent, because certain issues like abortion would be considered by them social justice and worth changing laws for. But nonetheless the idea Jonathan shouldn’t be involved in advocating for racial justice because “racism isn’t the only thing to plague our society” is an expression of evangelicalism’s aversion to social justice.”

As I mentioned to my friend that sent me Rasool’s article, the problem with this statement (which seems to be a big part of his contention with Isaac and conservative evangelicalism) is that he’s attempting to make an unnuanced one-to-one correlation between the conservative Christian’s presumed active approach against abortion and their lack of a more active approach against racism. He inadvertently validates conservative evangelicals for historically holding to a social justice activism against abortion that he doesn’t recognize them historically holding to in relation to racism, and then suggests that the reason is that they don’t believe in social justice. Surely anti-abortion activism is either a social justice initiative or it is not. No matter what people choose to label it, certainly Rasool would recognize that it is a form of social activism that could be referred to as a social justice initiative, if adherents to his brand of “social justice” valued that sort of activism. Therein lies the issue. We’re talking about loaded brands of “social” justice that are framed by different worldviews. We’re talking about ideologically driven terms and the boundaries of what they traditionally reference.

I think Rasool’s article, which was meant to chastise Jonathan, actually revealed a deeper issue that many black and white Christian communities must come to terms with. The example I gave to my friend in response to his request for my assessment of the article was this: You don’t have conservative evangelical Christians going down on a knee during the national anthem to fight the fact that the national government, American businesses, and popular culture has validated the murder of babies for decades now. If conservative evangelical football players and basketball players were protesting in the same manner against abortion, then I’d more readily agree with Rasool’s one-to-one correlation. But they are not. Despite the horrid reality of the legality of murdering babies in the womb, we don’t see popular Christian activism against it playing out with public protests among professional athletes. Maybe there’s a difference in how certain Christians view the protest process and in how they view the relationship that social activism has with their faith and with their respect for governing authorities.

The other disconnect (I realize this is a controversial point that will take many further conversations to work out) is that racists perspectives that might be motivating factors behind certainly unjust actions by police officers, loan officers, landlords, and many other individuals in positions of relative authority to a black citizen, amount to personal prejudices that are difficult to practically prove simply by looking at procedural actions. Whereas, abortion is very easy to prove, and thus to concretely protest. The legislative battles against the abortion procedure and the industry that supports it have very clear paths of engagement, and the parameters for how abortion stops are very clearly drawn. But the same cannot be said for racist perspectives sprinkled throughout society, unless one argues that there is a conspiracy that the predominant population of white Americans, consciously or unconsciously, built and maintain all their major institutions in order to suppress blacks and minorities. In that case, you’d turn to liberation theology, black theology, cultural Marxism, Intersectionality, and Critical Race Theory in order to obtain plans for attacking and replacing the systemic racism that is supposedly found in all of the major American institutions, whether they have been occupied by black citizens throughout the nation for decades or not.

I’m confident that if you asked Jonathan Isaac whether or not he believes that blacks in America have been put at a disadvantage because of the significant inhuman treatment and prejudice that most of them received throughout several hundred years of American history that he was say yes. I can’t imagine that he hasn’t felt any prejudice against himself throughout his life. But to throw his uncomfortable, countercultural, action of faith-conviction in with a biased indictment of one party in a culture war seems to simplistic and unnuanced to actually give our brother in Christ the respect that he deserves. Maybe Jonathan understands the community around him, and the message that would benefit them, better than Rasool does. Maybe Jonathan understands well enough what the Black Lives Matter organization, and the movement tied to it, holistically stands for and doesn’t want to validate it. Either way, suggesting he’s doing it because he’s immature in the brain and in his faith doesn’t seem to have the right optics. There’s a nuanced, less simplistic way to view Jonathan’s actions in the “the bubble,” and I’m hoping to argue for that in Part 2 of this series of posts. I believe Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the Christian struggle in discerning how the Gospel informs our actions will be very helpful in assessing Jonathan’s own choice to remain standing while others took a knee.

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