Obery Hendricks will not compromise his faith. For him, the activities of right-wing Christians need to be called out and identified as what they are: anti-Christian.
In his book “Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith,” he argues that the events of Jan. 6 were well-telegraphed beforehand through the Christian nationalism prevalent in President Donald Trump’s rise.
“Anyone who paid attention knew that Donald Trump was running to rule and not to serve,” he said in a recent interview.
The weaponization of Christianity should not be taken lightly by Christians who know that the core of the faith is social justice and equity, he said.
Hendricks argues that it’s time to redefine Christian faith in the public sphere.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and his work as a scholar-activist. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Tell me about the intersection of your work as a scholar and an activist.
Obery Hendricks: Well, my introduction to activism began in my teens, in New York, New Jersey, in the Black cultural movement. I was in an organization headed by Amiri Baraka, and it was late ’60s, early ’70s. Of course, we were very much concerned with fighting against racism.
Some of our goals were somewhat romantic, but nonetheless, it gave me a sense of really my life’s vocation of being involved in social activism. Also, it gave me a sense of what discipleship means, because I was among many young people who were totally committed to social justice, to the point that we really were willing to die for it.
That in turn informed my academic work as well, because everything I’ve ever written, every public lecture I’ve given, every sermon, every article has been to try to make a difference in this work, trying to make this society more just and loving and healthy, fighting the forces of reaction and, frequently, the forces of evil.
F&L: Do you see either scholarship or activism as primary, or do you see them as fully intertwined?
OH: Fully intertwined, because scholarship, and the intersection between my work — between religion and political economy, really, is how I make my contribution. It can show up in different ways. But no, they’re not separable at all. They’re both vocational.
My first career was on Wall Street, so that gave me somewhat of an inside view of the culture of capitalism and how frankly sociopathic it is. It’s not about any kind of responsibility to anything but the numbers and wealth. That informed the work that I do in political economy and critiques of business.
F&L: What drove you to write your most recent book, “Christians Against Christianity”?
OH: I wrote the book before the events of Jan. 6, but the handwriting was on the wall. Donald Trump was weaponizing Christianity, and the right-wing evangelicals were using the gospel to do the exact opposite of what the gospel calls us to do.
I wrote the book in anger and sadness, rage and outrage. And I wrote it to try to raise cognizance, hopefully, in my readers, to show that the biblical claims that right-wing evangelicals had staked their ground on were just wrong. They were wrong in so many ways, and anti-Christian in so many ways.
F&L: What is the call that you’re issuing throughout the book?
OH: Well, there are two calls. One is to refocus the emphasis in Christendom on what Jesus says is the core of the gospel. He said it out of his own mouth. He didn’t say John 3:16; he said first you’ve got to love the Lord with your whole mind and strength and then to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-39; Mark 12:28-31).
He said those are equally primary, and “love your neighbor as yourself” is a commandment that we are supposed to try to follow in the world, in the social sphere, in society, in the political economy. I want to refocus and remind people that Jesus said that.
And the second call is to the primary mode of judgment that God gave us, and that we should use for ourselves, from Matthew 25:40 — “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me” — which says that we are to be judged by how we act in the world, how much love and justice we pour out.
So the book tries to identify that core of the gospel and the words of Jesus, but also, I wanted to go issue by issue to show how right-wing evangelicals were contradicting that message.
I wanted to really show that right-wing evangelicals led by Donald Trump, whom many have called a messiah, are in essence anti-Christian.
They made the wrong decisions with social justice. John MacArthur said that social justice is heresy. I wanted to show that social justice, in looking at the Bible, is central. The word for justice or ethics shows up 400 times in the Bible.
We often translate a second word, tzedakah, as “righteousness,” but that’s wrong.
“Righteousness,” for us, has the connotation of personal piety. But with this term, the Bible is talking about a righteousness in society, righteousness in the community. Put that together, and you get social justice.
When translated correctly, we should think of egalitarian social justice as the ethic that should inform all that we do. It should describe our actions, our policies, our workings in the world. And it’s analytical, in that we should analyze our policies, our actions, judge our actions by social justice.
F&L: What do you think the battle for Christian activists is today?
OH: For one thing, Christian activists need to stress a common ground that we can have, not only with other Christians but with all people.
We need to recognize that Jesus taught almost nothing about what we should believe but he taught how we should live in the world, how we should treat one another, what constitutes the sole sovereignty of the kingdom of God on earth, which is relation, as he most often explains it.
I think that if we stress the ethical teachings of the gospel, try to call people back to the ethical teachings of the Bible, we can get more allies and also have more credibility.
Because on the left — Christian activists on the left don’t cite the biblical text. To give you an example, President Obama, when he first introduced the Affordable Care Act, started out saying that this was a function of his faith: his faith told him that everyone had the right to health care.
For some reason, he shifted to political argument, and that’s when the policy became vulnerable. If we state our goals in terms of the gospel and biblical ethics, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s hard to attack.
F&L: How do people move from supporting the idea of activism to actually becoming activists?
OH: I think part of that has to do with biblical education. Many people do not realize that there is a gospel responsibility to struggle and to fight for justice. And a lot of folks don’t realize it’s a biblical responsibility for those in power and authority to struggle for justice.
The other part is that many people aren’t clear about what they’re fighting for. They talk about social justice, but that could mean anything. We have to be clear that we’re talking about egalitarian social justice, working for the common good.
We need to articulate the kind of world that we want, the kind of political economy that we want. I’m on the advisory board of the Institute for Christian Socialism. We are very clear that socialism as a mode of political economy, democratic socialism, is much closer to the biblical witness than capitalism is.
What form of government do we want? We want democracy, I think, but how much do we want to stick with representative democracy? How about participatory democracy? How about more referendums, where all the people get a chance to speak?
Look at the issue of abortion. Most Americans support legal abortion. If we had a referendum on that rather than having these paid-for politicians voting on it, we would have a very different outcome.
We must evolve a vision of the kind of society, community and political economy that we want. And I think that can energize people to know what we need to work toward.