I had a recent conversation on activism with fellow Christians of color that started as many discussions do today: on the internet. Over the course of several days in a private Facebook group, women across a wide spectrum of ethnic and cultural backgrounds discussed recent efforts within American evangelicalism to decenter whiteness. Though we agreed on many things, the continual point of contention came back to whether these efforts should include dismantling White systems (i.e. places in which White people have structural advantage and power over people of other ethnicities). It’s one thing to engage in civil disobedience or to have a quiet exodus from predominantly White spaces; seeking to remove White leadership and even deconstruct White organizations is quite another thing altogether. Some of us were convinced that this sort of systemic change is a biblical practice; others not so much.
Granted, to even have this kind of discussion is new. As an Indian American woman, my journey thus far, like many others, has primarily consisted of growing in my own cultural identity and learning how to raise my voice. But as people of color begin to gain platforms with real influence, particularly within Christian spaces, our conversations on systemic change have the potential to now become a reality. Even as the dust continues to settle from recent events, I think it would be wise for us, as Christians, and particularly for those of us who have committed our lives to racial solidarity, to consider if and when moving beyond individual heart transformation and other degrees of reform is required.
“My aim is to show how dismantling systems is not our only recourse, but it can be biblical. At the very least, we can each strive to have a more robust theological understanding of activism and the biblical necessity for changing unjust systems.”
I know this conversation scares a lot of people. Many of my fellow White friends have expressed fears that these sorts of ideas are not aligned with the gospel, and that engaging in deconstructive practices would only make the racial tensions in our country worse. For some, talks of dismantling institutions feels like code for just burning everything down. But is it?
My aim is to show how dismantling systems is not our only recourse, but it can be biblical. At the very least, we can each strive to have a more robust theological understanding of activism and the biblical necessity for changing unjust systems.
Cycles of Deconstruction in the Bible
The word “deconstruct,” means to disconnect the pieces of a system in order to expose its internal assumptions and contradictions. Destruction in and of itself is never the goal. However, deconstructing a system is a useful tool and also a form of analysis, in which we reduce and cut back to our constituent parts, so that we can figure out how to improve.
The history of God’s people is a recurring life cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction. The Israelites turn to sin, idolatry and injustice, and God gives them every opportunity to repent. But when they refuse to listen, the time for attempted reform comes to an end, and dismantling their way of life becomes the only recourse.
Exilic space and wilderness wanderings are God’s primary tools for deconstruction in the Old Testament. The natural imagery of the wilderness, for example, is rich with metaphorical analysis of barrenness and regrowth. It is a desolate place devoid of civilization, and the Hebrews are forced to aimlessly ramble through it until they are refined. What initially feels like a digression is actually part of God’s vision for progress. He leads his people into the desert, not to destroy them, but rather to begin again. The sins of an entire generation are so great that God removes them and chooses instead to move forward into the Promised Land with their children. When God declares in Zechariah 13:9 that he uses fire to refine, reduce, expose and reform his people, we can understand how the wilderness is but one of these fiery processes.
The Babylonian exile, similarly, serves to deconstruct an entire kingdom. In 586 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar sieges Jerusalem and forcibly relocates Jews to Babylonia, and this unparalleled event in Israelite history is a moment of absolute devastation. Through this process, an entire system of rule is eliminated. Unsurprisingly, the people of God fall into despair, feeling that the loss of their leadership, culture and way of life have been destroyed. But God reassures them that this too is part of his plan for renewal. In an often-misquoted verse, he tells his people, “For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). In other words, the dismantling of Judah’s kingdom is necessary for the Israelite’s own good. Its fall will pave the path for a future of renewed obedience.
“God engages in the practice of deconstruction and reconstruction so that injustice and corruption can be eliminated, and hearts can be transformed.”
Finally, in the New Testament, we see the destruction of the temple buildings. In Mark 13:2, Jesus prophesies, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (cf. Matthew 24:2; Luke 19:44). Here, physical buildings are torn down to make way for a new kind of residence. The temple is no longer a place where God dwells. Its original use has been replaced with commercialism (Mark 11:15-19), politics and grand-standing (Luke 18:10-14; Mark 12:38-42). It’s time for Jesus to break with the temple, to disassemble it, and create something new in its wake. In this case, the new temple of God is the church (Ephesians 2:19-22).
In each of these examples, leaders, peoples and buildings are dismantled in order to make way for something both new and better. God engages in the practice of deconstruction and reconstruction so that injustice and corruption can be eliminated, and hearts can be transformed.
People as Agents of Change
God’s refinement of his people is perhaps less of a gray area than our own involvement within these processes. This question is in many ways the defining question of Christian activism: What role, if any, do we have in fighting against and even dismantling unjust systems ourselves?
Perhaps there’s no prescriptive command in Scripture that the people of God should challenge systems. Then again, there’s a lot of other good things that we engage in today that are not mentioned in the Bible either, such as voting and the use of technology. This is why literalistic, one-to-one interpretations of Scripture can be problematic.
Rather, when it comes to things like dismantling and deconstruction, we need to interpret Scripture analogically. The best examples that we see for individuals becoming involved in institutional change is found with the prophets and foreign nations in the Old Testament. God commanded the kings and judges of Israel to be just, and when they were not, he first rose up prophets to call these men out. Then, if these leaders still refused to turn from their unjust ways, God raised up foreign armies to put an end to their rule. Prophets and foreign nations worked hand in hand to execute reform and reconstruction, and their practices have many analogies for activism in our lives today.
First, we too have the prophetic spirit. Joel 2:28-29 predicts a messianic age in which all of God’s people will act prophetically, and in Acts 2:16-21 Peter declares that this prophecy is now a reality within the church. Every Christian is led by the Holy Spirit to discern, admonish and encourage other believers in truth. We are to dwell richly in the Word of God (Colossians 3:16), interpret it and apply it. To speak prophetic words of truth over peoples and spaces is part of what it means to be a Christian. To question and challenge unjust practices by holding them up and exposing them with the light of God’s Word is nothing less than what Christ calls us to as agents of change in this world. It is often easier to understand our roles as priests and kings than as prophets. Truth is both a balm and a hammer, and we are to wield this as much as we are to also be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2) and rulers with Christ (Ephesians 2:6; Revelation 1:5-6).
“Reform and reconstruction form a logical and biblical process for approaching injustice at a systemic level. We begin with words of caution and pleas for reform, but when these attempts fail, dismantling a system becomes a necessary recourse.”
Second, the chronology from early to late prophets maps out the ways efforts in reform precede deconstruction. The pre-exilic prophets, like Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea and Zephaniah, for example, plead for God’s people to return to the covenant -to repent, confess and renew their obedience to God. However, when both kings and peoples alike still refused to heed their words, the prophets during and after the exile, including Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Haggai, announce that destruction is coming or has come. Reform and reconstruction form a logical and biblical process for approaching injustice at a systemic level. We begin with words of caution and pleas for reform, but when these attempts fail, dismantling a system becomes a necessary recourse.
Third, God is always building toward righteousness, and we should too. Like the exiles who return to create new ways of life in Nehemiah, so too can we be part of processes in our churches, Christian non-profits and Christian magazines that seek to grow us deeper in love, in faith and in unity with one another and God. We must rebuild the way God has always wanted us to live, and this is why we need to be continually asking ourselves questions like, “What are we doing?” “Was this what we were hoping to achieve?” and “Where are these steps leading us?” If we are calling out names and removing people from offices, it should be done in ways that are just and loving. Like the Hebrews in the wilderness, sometimes senior leadership and staff need to be removed, and an organization needs to rebuild with new people. But thought should be given to due processes, and how to criticize without shaming. If we are seeking to decenter whiteness, then White leaders shouldn’t simply be replaced with people of color. We don’t want to merely substitute one default culture with another. Rather, we should strive to have no center. That is, after all, the true vision of diversity and racial solidarity in Scripture.
The list goes on, but the point is this: yes, caution, prayer and counsel should be given serious weight before initiating processes that seek to dismantle unjust systems. However, at the same time, we should not be afraid to consider deconstruction and reconstruction as necessary steps within Christian activism.
Finally, we must recognize that our rebuilding is never complete. Even though the exiles return to rebuild their city and their temple, God never takes up residence there again. Their reconstruction is still lacking, and it will not last. Similarly, our new systems will fail and may be torn down in time too. As long as redeemed, yet fallen people build institutions, our organizations and spaces will be imperfect. Fully righteous spaces will not be achieved until Christ returns, but until that day, we should ever strive to accomplish this goal.