The term “woke” has been championed by those seeking more knowledge about issues and decried by others for being an overzealous attempt to reinterpret reality.
Some politicians have picked up the term, lashing out at “wokeness” as if it were an extension of extreme political correctness.
Recently, at the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, presidential hopeful Nikki Haley suggested, “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana went further, describing other citizens as “deeply weird, nauseously woke people who hate George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head.”
Another potential presidential candidate who did not attend CPAC, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, offered this assessment: “If woke ideology takes over, it will destroy this country.”
With politicians such as Haley, Kennedy and DeSantis railing against “wokeness” so strongly, it inspired me to investigate the term’s origins.
According to VOX, the term started to be heard before 2014 within Black communities as a “notion that staying ‘woke’ and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic.”
However, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the term took on new meaning. “Stay woke” suddenly became a cautionary phrase used by Black Lives Matter activists. It was a reminder to be aware of police brutality and unjust police tactics.
Since 2014, the term has been further redefined by partisan politics. On the left, “woke” means deconstructing unjust systems to reconstruct systems promoting equality and justice. On the right, “woke” means “canceling” systems and people that do not advance a leftist agenda.
Both of these definitions fall short. Admittedly, I like the first definition more than the second, but there needs to be a better understanding of the term.
Therefore, let’s return to its origin. In Black communities, the term simply meant to stay aware of deceptions that brought danger and destruction.
One might conclude that “woke” means to be alert to dangerous systems and individuals. It does not necessarily conclude that the entire system is unjust or that every individual within that system is evil. It is, however, a challenge for everyone living within those systems to be alert and ready.
Another man from a Brown community put it this way: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
This Brown man was, of course, Jesus. He warned his followers of the dangers ahead; unjust systems and evil individuals will do anything to keep power (Matthew 10:16-23). Those systems and individuals would strike out against anyone challenging their power and status quo.
With these words, Jesus was instructing his followers to be “woke” in the most straightforward way possible. The Greek word “wise” translated in the NRSV is phronimos, meaning “to be shrewd, prudent, sensible and wise.”
In other words, Jesus challenged his followers to be aware of how the world works. They should constantly evaluate and assess the world, identifying unjust systems and working to make the world a better place.
Two years ago, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, was asked about “wokeness” infiltrating the armed services. More precisely, the question centered on whether “white rage” was being assessed as a threat within the military.
General Milley’s response was brilliant. He began, “I want to understand white rage, and I’m white.”
He asked, in the aftermath of Jan. 6, “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?”
He then concluded, “What is wrong with having some situational understanding about the country we are here to defend?”
Wokeness, as I understand it, is a challenge to be as wise as serpents, alert to the world’s dangers, and open to seeking solutions to make the world a better place for everyone – not just the powerful and wealthy.
Therefore, I embrace wokeness as a way of life, seeking to better myself as a human being and better the world as a human living within it.
I pursue a journey of wokeness through the following practices:
- Assessing my behaviors.
- Reevaluating my language.
- Listening to minority voices.
- Reading credible and informative books.
- Consuming reliable and trustworthy media platforms.
- Evaluating history with an open mind and heart.
- Wearing the “shoes” of others.
- Deconstructing harmful and oppressive systems to build more just systems.
- Assuming the best of humanity while verifying attitudes and actions.
- Following the words and example of Jesus by loving my neighbor – which surely means understanding their existence and point of view.
As I think about living into wokeness, I cannot help but remember the humorous words of late-night comedian Jon Stewart, who tweeted: “Hey all!! Just found out I’m woke … all this time, I just thought I was good at history.”
People of good faith need to follow a path that leads us to be alert about the world’s dangers, open to finding solutions to make the world a better place for all, and wise enough to implement those solutions for the common good.
CEO of Good Faith Media.