“Stay woke” is an expression arising from African American experience in the United States. The phrase means “watch out” or “be alert” to racially motivated hatred. It is and was, originally, tragically necessary advice.
It is possible to do a history of the term woke and its various expressions over time. In Wikipedia, the phrase is linked to Abraham Lincoln’s presidential bid of 1860 and the young supporters called the “Wide Awakes.” Woke, as a word, has a distinguished history related to people who tried to be open to change, who were aware of justice issues, and who practiced solidarity with marginalized individuals and social identities. In any normal reading of such a history, woke is a term to be respected, not mocked.
Distinguished words, unfortunately, have a way of being threatening words, too. Words that signal human integrity also call for human reform, but the ideal such words hold simultaneously reveals the destructive sides of our humanity, our shadows. The power of the word woke lies in its insistence on change but change threatens those for whom more of the same is most advantageous. The fate of the word woke, because it carries truth, has fallen on the path of our shadows. In the hands of individuals or political parties that feel threatened, the word woke is mocked, turned into a key divisive word, and used to express distain. The social issues that need to be addressed are blurred, then hidden, then made irrelevant behind the mob-like codeword “woke.” The history and dignity of the word disappears, and crucial issues needing address are dismissed without commentary or debate. Two recent examples are on my mind.
In an interview on “Fox and Friends,” Ron DeSantis was asked why he was running for president now and not waiting until after Trump served a second term. The question presumed Trump would serve a second term, which is already problematic. DeSantis confidently answered that he is running for president now, and will win, because everyone knows he will destroy leftism and leave woke-ism on the dust bin of history. The answer was not a reason but a proclamation, and the proclamation was not a political slogan but a cultural threat. To be sure, people can be on the right or the left of any given issue, but no dialogue can take place if the foundation of the discussion is indecency. What DeSantis seems not to care about is that his comment belongs on the lips of a dictator, not a democratically elected president. One hopes the American people will remember that their nation is a democracy.
Recently in Ontario, a Catholic School Board trustee, following a discussion about a school flying the Pride flag, made a comment that compared the Pride flag to the Nazi flag. The trustee claimed to be misunderstood. Okay. Perhaps the comment was awkward or a poor attempt at sarcasm, but why think that Pride and Nazism somehow go together? The trustee further suggested that the Pride flag made the school unsafe for Catholic students. It is very difficult to find any reasoning here, but the attempt to associate diversity and inclusion with Nazism, something we all reject, does have an aim. The aim is to shame tolerance and to force a people, a “volk,” (in this case, the heterosexual majority) to condemn the LGBTQ+ minority. This forced persuasion is also the act of a dictator, not a publicly elected official. (By the way, in case anyone wonders, the Pride flag will fly.)
To condemn inclusion and reconciliation policies as “woke” is to eliminate the history of that word, to bury the respect “woke” is due, and to reveal a disturbing fear of truth. The theological point here is that “truth” is supposed to make us fear because truth reveals our deeply shadowed selves. Standing in the light, theologically, is not a self-righteous act but a self-reconciling act. What do we think Paul was talking about when he referred to his former self (Gal 1:13)? Paul’s insight into Jesus forced him to reconcile with his shadow side of intolerance. He turned from condemning the Jesus movement to seeing how that movement included the nations that did not practice circumcision and that he now understood did not need to. To use fear to hide truth is the inverse of the theological act. Fear not confronted buries the call for change in the shadows of our psyches, but fear affirmed necessitates change, exposes the need for change, which is what theology means when it speaks of revelation and what history means when it speaks of woke.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies”; he did not advise to create them. He used the weakest members of society as exemplars in his parables, like a woman mischievously hiding leaven in flour or a Samaritan dangerously traveling in Jewish territory for reasons unknown. Sayings like, “How happy are the poor,” leave us wondering what the poor have that the rich lack, and the curious advice to “give away everything you have” seems entirely ridiculous but equally entirely self-effacing.
Jesus sayings are often “woke” in the respectful sense of that word. They address the underside of who we are. In the buried treasure parable, where an individual sells all to dishonestly buy a field containing hidden treasure, the question can be asked, “What is so important in your life, so treasured, that your dishonesty exceeds the value of your community?”
Parables can be interpreted in different ways because they are stories. Personally, I have taken parables in many directions, but one way they work theologically is to require us to uncover the layers of our own personalities and to confront the various shadows we would rather leave alone. Parables often tempt us to be taken into the standard way the world works, and often we fail to see what they are really about. (For those who wonder, no, the parable of the buried treasure is not about treasure.)
Woke is a term that means to uncover, to reveal, the cultural problems of racism and then to resist those problems, to expose them, that we might collectively move past them. The term works even further to awaken our culture to forms of sexism and injustice that equally remain under the surface of daily life. It is not easy, as individuals, to face our hidden selves, but it is significantly harder for a culture to do so collectively. The anti-woke movement is in fundamental ways anti-Christian as much as it is anti-humanist. It is an attempt to bury what needs exposure, and then to use the cover-up as a way to control reality, to condemn minorities, and to shame differences—just like a dictator would do.
Subscribe to our email list and receive updates, news, and more.