Word “wokeness” spelled out on wood cubes.

Photo by MichaelJayBerlin

Did Jesus preach about being woke?

August 2, 2023

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

I talk on the phone frequently with someone who gets his information from Fox News. I imagine many have family members or friends who hold opposite values and political views. Our relationship is too important to allow our differences to sever our bond, so we simply do not talk about politics, world affairs, or the state of our society and culture. And yet, occasionally, my person sneaks in the phrase “woke” to condemn those who disagree with his values. To him, being woke is bad, which I suspect emanates from the place where he gets his information. So that I could understand better what he refers to, I needed to find out what “woke” means, recognizing, as did the New York Times, that “woke is notoriously ill-defined.”

– Merriam-Webster defines “woke” as: “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

– A recent ABC News article noted that “the definition of ‘woke’ changes depending on who you ask. The term has recently been used by some conservatives as an insult against progressive values…To be ‘woke’ politically in the Black community means that someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality.” The article went on to talk about one of the biggest opponents to being woke, Florida governor Ron DeSantis: “‘We reject woke ideology,’ DeSantis said in his election night speech. ‘We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda.’”

– USA TODAY reported this spring: “During the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference, speaker after speaker attacked ‘woke’ ideology in their speeches to conservative activists. Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley decried wokeness as ‘a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.’” To oppose being “woke” sounds like a dog whistle to identify those who are not in favor of being attentive to and caring about the needs of the marginalized in our society. At the extreme, being opposed to being “woke” sounds like it describes a racist.

To be “woke” is to be awake to justice issues, and not just to be awake, but to care. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have inadvertently stimulated the use of the term “woke” when he gave the commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965, declaring “there is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. … The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake.” King would have known Jesus’ challenge from the Gospel of Mark: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Be woke.

An image I recently saw on Facebook depicted Jesus preaching to the crowds, with the phrase boldly proclaiming: “Being ‘woke’ is literally what Jesus preached about his entire life.” Is that accurate? “Woke” wasn’t in use the way it is today when Jesus preached, but would the core of his message qualify as being “woke” as we understand it today? Is the Kingdom of God woke? While the word may be notoriously ill-defined, we can squint and get a general picture of what it means. Is being “woke” literally what Jesus preached about his entire life? Let’s take a look.

An image I recently saw on Facebook depicted Jesus preaching to the crowds, with the phrase boldly proclaiming: “Being ‘woke’ is literally what Jesus preached about his entire life.” Is that accurate? “Woke” wasn’t in use the way it is today when Jesus preached, but would the core of his message qualify as being “woke” as we understand it today?

Jesus practiced inclusivity and acceptance. He associated with people from marginalized and stigmatized groups, such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers. His actions demonstrated the importance of embracing all individuals, regardless of societal prejudices. “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus challenged injustice. He confronted religious hypocrisy and social injustice, speaking out against oppressive systems and practices. He overturned tables in the temple, criticizing the exploitation of the poor (Matthew 21:12-13). 

Jesus stood with and spoke for the poor and the oppressed. In his hometown synagogue, he read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18). Jesus’ siding with the poor and standing with the oppressed led his hometown crowd to thrust him out of town and attempt to toss him over the cliff (verse 29). There are risks to being woke.

Jesus embraced diversity. His embrace welcomed and uplifted people from different backgrounds, races, and genders. Consider how Jesus lifted up Samaritans and often made them the hero of his stories, like the Good Samaritan or the Samaritan woman at the well. Jews didn’t like or even speak to Samaritans. “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9). That is a significant parenthetical statement in the Gospel, revealing that Jews like Jesus were not supposed even share a drink of water with Samaritans when thirsty. Jesus broke down barriers between people.

Jesus named the evils of leaders’ greed and hypocrisy. He called out hypocrisy among the most religious people (Matthew 23:1-36) and encouraged his followers to be aware of double standards and to live with integrity. He identified greed and self-indulgence in leaders as an enemy to those on the margins of social and economic justice. He condemned leaders who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (verse 4). 

Jesus cared for the most vulnerable. In his classic parable about how God will judge (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus emphasized caring for the most vulnerable members of society, such as the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. He taught the principle of providing assistance and standing up for those in need. Jesus showed compassion for the marginalized and suggested that we should do likewise, because that is how God will judge us. 

Jesus urged reconciliation and taught that the transformative nature of forgiveness was his pathway to achieve reconciliation (Matthew 5:38-48). In our divided world, his call in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:24-25) – to drop whatever you are doing and to seek reconciliation – is more important than even the utmost of religious practices.

Jesus’ highest ethic – the Golden Rule – is synonymous with being woke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31). It could not be said any simpler or with fewer words, yet every main religion has a version of it. Those opposed to being woke violate this Mount Everest of human ethics.

Jesus instructs us to seek the highest and best interest of others. All others. No exceptions. He used the word “agape,” (translated as love) which can mean to seek the highest and best interest of the other (John 13:34-35). He didn’t say we had to like them, to accept their values, or to take them out to lunch. His command is that we love them, that we seek their highest and best interests… even if we’d much prefer them to take a long walk off a short pier. Here he emphasizes empathy, understanding, and treating others with kindness and respect.

In Christ, equality is the name of the game. The Apostle Paul wrote “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Jesus affirmed the equal worth and value of every individual, breaking down societal barriers and emphasizing the importance of love and unity among all people. Today, the list might be expanded, for God is still speaking. It might say that in Christ, there is no longer straight or gay, pro-life or pro-choice, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, trans or queer, militaristic or resister, Republican or Democrat, rural or urban, fat or skinny, and on and on, for in Jesus, equality is found and cherished, and all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The list could go on, but the case is sufficiently made that Jesus did preach about being woke.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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