Do Christians have any moral responsibility to speak out against injustice and evil in their culture? Assuredly, the individual Christian cannot repent of someone else’s sin. The individual Christian will not stand before God and have his personal sin weighed together with his local church’s sins or his country’s sins. However, the Christian’s duty and responsibility extends beyond himself or herself. God deals with individuals, but He also deals covenantally with corporate bodies. The Christian life is not primarily individualistic or collective. It is both.
Throughout all of history pagan and pagan-influenced pseudo-Christian ideologies have drifted towards an overemphasis on the primary importance of either the individual or the collective. This drift has followed the predominant philosophical presuppositions of those cultures. Which has primacy, not just in culture but also within reality: the one or the many? These abstract philosophical questions find their way into families, societies, religions, politics, corporations, and everything in between. There has always been the tension between the one and the many; the primacy of the collective or the individual.
Only Christianity answers this question adequately. The answer is found in the doctrine of the Trinity throughout genuine Christianity: God is both One and Many equally and ultimately. R. J. Rushdoony elaborates:
Since both the one and the many are equally ultimate in God, it immediately becomes apparent that these two seemingly contradictory aspects of being do not cancel one another but are equally basic to the ontological trinity: one God, three persons. Again, since temporal unity and plurality are the products and creation of this triune God, neither the unity nor the plurality can demand the sacrifice of the other to itself. Thus, man and government are equally aspects of created reality. The locus of Christianity is both the believer and the church; they are not independent of or prior to one another. The wishes of husband and wife do not take priority over marriage, nor does the institution of marriage have primacy over the partners to it; marriage indeed is a type of an eternal reality (Eph. 5:22-25), but man is himself created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).1
When the Church, therefore, is faced with injustice and evil, whether it be widespread abortion, racism, socialism, or humanism, the Christian has an individual responsibility, but he also has community responsibilities. The Christian must keep himself clean, but he must also understand and fulfill his responsibility to speak out against the evil within his communities. These two types of duties are not contradictory, but rather work together. The sins of the culture do not condemn the man in his individual standing before God, but they may bring about covenantal curses upon the people as a whole that could negatively affect even the righteous man. Similarly, the faithfulness of a nation may receive covenantal blessings, and those blessings can fall on the wicked as well as the righteous alike.2 Covenantal realities may not always be soteriological, but they are still realities.
These covenantal realities, keep in mind, are not vague social forces divorced from faithfulness and God’s Sovereignty. They are based upon the Will of God because of the faith or the lack of faith of a nation or community. For example, the dehumanizing, racist, and heretical chattel slavery of the Antebellum South (and North) still plays a role in our nation. We are dealing with the fruit of that sin. Not only slavery, but the bloody, lawless, and sinful way slavery was abolished in this nation also plays a part in where we are today. We are dealing with the fruit of that sin as well.
Though this is true, every Image-Bearer of God is a personally responsible individual. None of us are mindless automatons, nor are we at the mercy of the sins of yesteryear. We are, nevertheless, subject to the workings of a sovereign God who heaps blessings and curses upon people and nations according to His divine will.
History is not a product of vague social forces but very real peoples, who by faith embarked on brave ventures and made great steps forward. Behind every great age of advance in history, we find men of action vitalized by a powerful faith. Forces do not exist in the abstract. A social force is the product of a people’s faith and action. It has no existence in and of itself, and it cannot exist apart from a people’s beliefs.3
Racism, whether it be the racism of theologically-astute, 19th Century Presbyterians, or the racism of jackboot-wearing, swastika-waving, alt-righters, is not a vague social force that causes those they dehumanize and hate to hate in return as a deterministic effect. The reality is not based on environmental forces, but the faith and actions of real people (or, sadly, the lack of faith and lack of action of real people).
Though sin does not justify sin, sin does beget sin. What is sown will be reaped. The Gospel can always put this cycle to an end, and that is what we should focus upon. History affects the present, so sin in our history can also affect the present. Even so, we do not worship a God bound by the past sins of man. Nevertheless, reactionary injustice, hatred, and sin is not a necessary outcome. Whenever we address and confront sin, whether on a broad social level or a personal level, the answer remains the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The same Christ commands us to come to Him for salvation also commands us to seek justice and show mercy to those in need.
God will judge our personally-committed sins, and he will also judge our sins of omission when we fail to speak out and act against evil. As Rushdoony once remarked, if we sit quietly and without protest, God will not hold us guiltless:
The Christian has a corporate responsibility with the country at large for the evil if he has taken it without protest, if he has done nothing about it. And the Christian who sits silently in churches that are apostate share a corporate responsibility for all the evils the church has committed, and the country has committed, because they sit there without protest, without doing something about it, they have a corporate responsibility, and God will not hold them guiltless. But Christians who have made a stand in terms of the faith are guiltless. Christ has come to set them free from guilt, not to allow men to put guilt upon them, and they have separated themselves in terms of Christ from these things, they have witnessed against them, they have testified against them, and they are innocent.4
Because God deals with both individuals and communities at the same time, there are both individual and community responsibilities for sin. We must not fall into a pagan individualism that self-righteously claims that you are only ever responsible for yourself. We must also not fall into a pagan collectivism that claims that the sins of the whole will damn the individual. We must have a distinctly Trinitarian understanding of responsibility that embraces both the individualistic aspect of personal salvation but also the corporate nature of how God deals with corporate entities.
So no, we can’t repent on behalf of history’s man-stealers and we can’t repent on behalf of an abortion-addicted nation, but we must speak out against past sins and present sins and seek to understand the covenantal ramifications of corporate sin. God will not hold us blameless if we do not speak out for the oppressed, the hated, the dehumanized, and the butchered. He will certainly not hold us guiltless if we refuse even to listen to them to begin with.
Must Christians innocent of injustice speak out against injustice? The hard but true answer is that if Christians do not speak out against injustice, they are not innocent.