‘Woke’: A danger for the Church
Prudence Dailey Commentary
The phenomenon of ‘wokeness’ has in recent times risen to the forefront of public consciousness, and it often appears that the Church itself is not immune. What exactly is ‘woke’, and why might the Church fall prey to it?
It is sometimes assumed that ‘WOKE’ is an acronym: a friend speculated that perhaps it stood for ‘women only, kill embryos’! Surprisingly, it originated as early as the 1930s and 40s, when black Americans would urge one another to ‘stay woke’—that is, to remain awake and alert to the bigotry and injustice that they undoubtedly faced. It became part of American street slang, and thence its meaning expanded to include awareness of perceived prejudice of all kinds. Having begun as an epithet used almost exclusively by ‘woke’ people to describe themselves, more recently has it evolved into a term of mockery, because of the absurdities enacted in its name.
‘Woke’ is, in essence, synonymous with the more familiar idiom ‘politically correct’ (PC) (which also developed from a self-descriptor to an expression of ridicule). Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson rose to fame in part because of a series of online lectures entitled ‘Professor against political correctness’, in which he analysed the phenomenon that was increasingly manifesting itself in academia:
- Identify a domain of human activity;
- Note that some people are doing better than others;
- Define those doing worse as victims, and those doing better as perpetrators;
- Identify with the victims, and feel good about it (usually at no personal cost).
Christians are called to follow Christ’s example of care for the poor and the oppressed, and throughout history the Christian faith has motivated everything from the abolition of slavery to the provision of education for those who could not afford to pay for it, For centuries, it was the Church, rather than the State, which endeavoured to offer a ‘safety net’ for the destitute.
It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the Church might be duped into confusing PC with Christian charity, not noticing the sleight of hand occurring in step (3). This accounts for such things as the Church of England’s obsession with its own imagined institutional racism, and the General Synod’s request to the bishops for special liturgies to mark ‘gender transition’ (having been assured that vulnerable young people would commit suicide if these were not forthcoming). Some other Christian denominations have gone even further down the PC rabbit-hole.
Christians understandably eager to appear, and indeed genuinely to be, caring, too often fail to see that those who promote PC, sometimes known as ‘social justice warriors’ are—as Jordan Peterson also observed—weaponizing compassion for altogether less commendable ends. The concepts underlying PC have their origins in the social theories associated with the Institute for Social Research attached to Goethe University in Frankfurt in the mid-twentieth century, known as the ‘Frankfurt School’. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School were Marxists; but rather than seeking to bring down capitalism by pitting the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, instead they sought to undermine the foundations of Western culture itself by dividing the world into ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressors’. Their ideology is therefore often referred to as ‘Cultural Marxism’, and—like classical Marxism—is absolutely antithetical to Christianity.
Of course, those who parrot PC or woke concepts in the misguided name of ‘politeness’ are rarely aware of their origins—and so are all the more likely to be taken in by them. The Bishops are not Marxists; but they may sometimes be naïve. For that reason, it is incumbent on individual Christians to recognise PC when it rears its head, and to resist it.