Woke Ideology: A Christian Response
By Darius Lee
In 2021, TODAY published an article by undergraduate student Ms Dana Teoh, titled “This is why I don’t want to be “woke”. Don’t cancel me for it“, where she expressed reservations about transgenderism.
The term “cancel”, which she used, refers to the practice or tendency of engaging in withdrawal of support for someone as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure. It is linked to “calling out”, which involves the public criticism or faulting of someone.
Almost on cue, she was heavily criticised, mocked and shamed by certain groups online for her views on transgenderism and “woke” ideology. This prompted her faculty at the National University of Singapore to issue a statement calling upon those, who disagree to “refrain from making personal attacks against her”, emphasising that discourse should be carried out in a civil and respectful manner.
Member of Parliament Gan Siow Huang also spoke up for her, writing in a Facebook post: “I respect Ms Dana Teoh for speaking up on “woke”. There should be space for open and respectful conversations without fear of being cyberbullied. Only then can we build deeper understanding of issues and stay united as a nation.”
This is one instance where “woke” ideology entered into the public eye.
But what is this “woke” ideology? And how should Christians respond?
Five key questions
In order to understand “woke-ism”, we need to understand that every religion (and ideology) seeks to answer these five key questions:
- Who am I? (Identity and belonging)
- Why am I here? (Meaning and purpose)
- What is the problem with the world? (Questions about suffering and evil)
- What is the solution to the problem? (Answers to suffering and evil)
- How then shall I live? (Values, rights and duties)
Answers to these questions essentially form a person’s worldview (i.e. how a person sees the world). It is like a lens or a pair of glasses through which we see the world, find our place in it, and which shapes our behaviours as we go about our daily lives.
Two narratives, unpacked
a) “Woke” ideology narrative
“Woke” ideology is based on a particular narrative, which goes something like this:
In the beginning, our people lived in peace and harmony. We were free. We were diverse, equitable and inclusive. Our lives were happy. The land was flourishing. We were thriving.
But then, the Oppressors came. They were white, male, heterosexual. They took our land. They oppressed our people. They despised everyone different from them. The Oppressors brought their foreign ways with them, and imposed these on us. They destroyed our culture. They oppressed racial minorities, women, homosexuals, and other minorities with their hateful and bigoted teachings. Some of us decided to join the Oppressors. They embraced the ways of the Oppressors. They rose to positions of wealth and power. They gained “privilege”.
But the Oppressors were on the wrong side of history. Those among us who are “woke” see through the lies of the Oppressors. Together, we arose and overthrew the Oppressors from power. But the journey of progress is not complete.
Today, there are still many institutions left by the Oppressors, which are systemically racist, sexist, homophobic and discriminatory. There are also many who follow the ways of the Oppressors, and are “privileged”. Today, many racial minorities, women, homosexuals, and other minorities continue to be oppressed. Everywhere, there is discrimination, hate and bigotry because of those who continue to follow the ways of the Oppressors.
The fight must continue. We must continue to fight for progress, and for diversity, equity and inclusion. One day, we will prevail, and there will be peace and social justice in our land and the whole earth.
b) The Christian narrative
This contrasts with the Christian narrative, which can be summed up as follows:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He created everything. He created male and female in His image. It was good. This was paradise.
Tempted by Satan, humanity sinned against God by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It broke the relationship between God and humanity, among humans, and with creation. There was evil, injustice, violence and hatred as a result.
But God had a plan for the redemption of the world. He promised that the offspring of the woman will defeat Satan. He chose a man (Abraham) who would be the father of many nations, and through whom will come the Saviour. As a result of the Fall, there was injustice and oppression. Abraham and his descendants, the nation of Israel, were oppressed by Egypt. But God kept His promises and delivered them into the Promised Land.
Israel was unfaithful, and guilty of violence, idolatry and sexual immorality. They were conquered and brought into exile. But God kept His promise and brought back the nation to the land.
In a time when Israel was oppressed under Roman rule, God sent His Son – Jesus Christ – into the world. He did this because He loved the world, and was willing to give His only Son. This was not to condemn the world but to give life. Instead of being a military leader to fight the Romans, Jesus taught that the real problem was sin within the human heart. He suffered at the hands of people and died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. He rose again on the third day.
In this act of redemption, God defeated sin and death and reconciled all things to Himself. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ bring restoration in the relationships between God and humanity, among humans, and with creation.
This transformative power is available to all by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to follow Him, and bring His message of reconciliation to the world. He told His followers to love God and love other people.
There will be a time at the end of days, when things will grow darker. Evil, injustice, violence and hatred will rise. Those who follow Jesus are called to be faithful till the end. Jesus will return at the end of the world. He will judge the living and the dead, and uphold justice and righteousness. He will establish His kingdom, and His kingdom will reign forever.
Depending on one’s narrative, each of the answers to the five key questions would radically differ. These produce vastly contrasting worldviews, as well as contrasting moral values, norms and ethical frameworks.
As can be seen, the “woke” and Christian worldviews differ fundamentally on many levels:
|1. Who am I?||You are either Oppressor or Oppressed. You are either “woke” or not.||Both male and female are made in the image of God. You are defined by who God created you to be.|
|2. Why am I here?||You are here to seek diversity, equity and inclusion for all the Oppressed.||You were created by God to enter into a deep relationship with Him.|
|3. What is the problem with the world?||Oppression, bigotry, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. by the Oppressors.||Sin, which is within every human heart. Sin leads to evil, injustice, violence and hatred that we see in the world.|
|4. What is the solution to the problem?||Remove the Oppressors in order to establish a just, equal and free society.||Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead, to save all of creation from sin and death, and reconcile all things to God.|
|5. How then shall I live?||Fight for diversity, equity and inclusion for all the Oppressed.||Follow Christ and be Christ-like, bring the message of reconciliation in truth and love to everyone.|
“Woke”: a pseudo-religion
One former adherent to “woke” ideology, Africa Brooke, called “woke-ism” a “cult” in her open letter titled “Why I’m leaving the cult of wokeness“. She noted how similar “wokeness” is to “fundamentalist religion”, such as the manner in which it attracts vulnerable people, promotes certain ideas to them, and encourages them to follow the ideology while cutting themselves off from anyone who does not share the same ideology.
Even though “woke-ism” is a secular ideology, it is not difficult for Christians and other religious people to recognise in “woke” ideology, many of the same elements that exist in religious systems (with a twist). This makes “woke” ideology a pseudo-religion:
- Believers vs non-believers: The concept of “woke” implies a certain idea of being “awake” or enlightened, in a sense. It distinguishes between believers (“woke”) and non-believers (not “woke”).
- Sin or guilt: There are conceptions of sin or guilt. These are known by terms like “privilege”, “bigotry”, “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “transphobia”, and more.
- Blasphemy: Much as religious groups regard certain things as blasphemous, “woke” ideology considers the expression of certain ideas and words to be “hate speech”, and deserving of condemnation and punishment.
- Repentance: When there are perceived offences or wrongdoing against the tenets of “woke”, these are followed by demands for repentance (i.e. “calling out”).
- Excommunication: If the offence or wrongdoing is severe enough, the person may be “cancelled”, which is “woke” culture’s way of “excommunicating” someone from polite society.
- Unpardonable sins: As a result, it can be seen that “woke” ideology is a highly judgmental dogma that leaves no room for forgiveness, grace and mercy.
Going back to the incident of Ms Dana Teoh mentioned at the start of this article, we can see how the young lady was brutally cyberbullied for having dared to even question the dogmas of “woke-ism”.
The incident offers a poignant insight into how these ideas can translate into real world consequences, exerting social pressure on people in order to push certain ideas and norms.
What is wrong with “woke-ism”?
As alluded to above, one major problem with “woke-ism” is its inherent “us versus them” mentality.
“Woke-ism” essentially categorises identity groups in a dualist “us” (the “good guys”) versus “them” (the ‘bad guys’) manner:
|Oppressors (Bad guys)||Oppressed (Good guys)|
|Straight, cisgender White Christian Male Able-bodied Etc.||Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. Black, Latino, etc. Non-Christian Female Disabled Etc.|
Modern day “woke” ideology can be traced back to its origins in Karl Marx’s communist ideology and its offshoot, known as the “Frankfurt School” of intellectual thought originating in the 1920s.
Both “woke” and communist ideologies divide people into identity groups, except that communist ideology focuses on economic status, between the Oppressed (i.e. working class “proletariat”) and the Oppressors (i.e. capitalist class “bourgeois”). Marx promoted the idea that the working class will rise up and overthrow the bourgeois class, and establish a free, just and equal society.
The Soviet Union was the communist empire. During the rule of Mr Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union ran the notorious prison labour camps (known as “Gulags”). The basic idea was simple: If the “bourgeois” are the ‘bad guys’, then one can achieve this vision of a “perfect society” by getting rid of all the “bad guys”.
The result instead was a growing list of “bad guys” whom they sent to the Gulags. Beginning with the common criminals and prosperous peasants (known as “kulaks”), the list was then expanded to a host of “political prisoners”. These were opposing members of the Communist Party, military officers and government officials, as well as educated people and ordinary citizens, including doctors, writers, intellectuals, students, artists and scientists. Soon, people who were sent to the Gulags included anyone that the government did not approve of.
The Gulags operated from the 1920s until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. During this time, about 18 million people altogether were imprisoned in the Gulags, of whom around 1.6 million people died. Stalin’s regime was estimated to have killed around 62 million people.
One person who saw through the falsehood of communist ideology was Mr Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008). He had served in the Soviet army during the World War II, but was arrested for criticising Stalin in private letters, and sent to the Gulags. While in the Gulags, he came to reject communist ideology, and returned to his Eastern Orthodox Christian faith.
The key lesson Mr Solzhenitsyn learnt is encapsulated in a classic quote in his work, The Gulag Archipelago, where he saw through the utter falsehood of the dualist “us” (the “good guys”) versus “them” (the “bad guys”) division inherent in communist ideology:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
This echoes the teachings of Jesus Christ, who said that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15:19 NIV)
Mr Solzhenitsyn continued: “Since then, I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
“And since that time, I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary within them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.”
To paraphrase Mr Solzhenitsyn: By trying to destroy your (growing) list of “bad guys”, you easily end up becoming far worse than the thing you are trying to destroy.
For his works, he won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.
Having seen from history the absolutely disastrous consequences of such dualism, it would behove our generation to learn the harsh lessons these have for us. Otherwise – borrowing the words of Sir Winston Churchill: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The Bible is replete with accounts of how human beings can go wrong with prideful utopianism. One of these is the well-known story of the Tower of Babel.
The passage begins with the opening words: “Now the whole earth had one language (safa achat) and the same words (d’varim achadim).” (Genesis 11:1, ESV)
Whereas some versions translate d’varim achadim as “a common speech”, the actual term in Hebrew refers to the people having “one word” or saying the same things. This implies a common ideology, and evokes cult-like images of people speaking as one.
They said: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 1:4 NIV) However, this ended in confusion as the Lord came down, confused their language and scattered them.
The message of the Tower of Babel highlights the difference between heaven and earth, and the impossibility of human effort in achieving utopia (or “heaven on earth”). In fact, there is a danger when human beings think or any group thinks that they can be the ones who will bring about “heaven on earth”.
As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out: “Babel was the first civilisation, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell.”
Nevertheless, on a deeper level, we can see that “woke-ism” appeals to something deep within the human heart: A cry out against injustice, and a longing for utopia (or a perfect society, a “heaven on earth”).
However, there are some hard truths that we need to confront.
- Suffering and evil are real. Injustice, violence, hatred and oppression exist.
- No human being is perfect. Humans are not divided into two simplistic categories — “good guys” and “bad guys”. All human beings are capable of good and evil.
- There is a difference between heaven (a.k.a. the ideal, perfect society) and earth, between human beings and God.
Much as we desire utopia, the truth is that this perfect society will not be established by human effort. Instead, as the Bible says, it will only be established when Jesus returns at the end of days.
On that day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. And a loud voice from the throne will proclaim: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4 NIV)
In the meantime, the gospel is and will always be the answer to suffering and injustice, and our call is to love God and love others, and to remain faithful till the very end.
(This talk was delivered by Darius Lee at the Spiren meeting on 25 February 2023.)
Darius Lee is a lawyer by training, and is the Executive Director of Cultivate SG, an organisation dedicated to “cultivating culture together for the common good”. He holds a Master of International Law and Human Rights from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The views in this article are expressed in his personal capacity.