In the last essay we defined Wokeness as “compassion for the oppressed.” While this is a good start, it doesn’t quite capture the true nature of Wokeness. The Woke, after all, have very little in common with The Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, or even Dorothy Day, at least after she converted to Catholicism. It is insufficient, then, to say that the Woke are animated purely by compassion, or that they are trying to do the Lord’s work. Compassion may be an animating force in a general sense, but we must try to be as specific as possible because it would be wrong, both historically and morally, to conflate social compassion, much less Christian compassion, with Wokeness. Mother Theresa was not Woke. Neither was Martin Luther King, Jr. Just because two movements identify the same problem does not mean that they offer the same solution or adhere to the same underlying ideology. Identifying social ills is easy. Creating solutions is the hard part.
It’s worth taking a moment to parse out Christian compassion. The word compassion literally means “to suffer with” someone, so to be compassionate transcends the emotional state of sorrow for someone in difficult circumstances. (Though it certainly includes this!) To demonstrate compassion is to walk alongside someone in their hardship, which means to engage in their struggle in a helpful way. Paul encouraged believers to “carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) The law of Christ is summed up in three related commands: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; 2) Love your neighbor as yourself; and 3) As I [Jesus] have loved you [my disciples], so you must love one another. Compassion, therefore, is an expression of love. To be more specific, it is an expression of agape love, which is the love referenced in all three of those commands.
Compassion is an expression of agape love.
Compassion is one expression of love, but it is not the only expression of love. (Another expression of love that all Christians are familiar with is self-sacrifice, which is what Jesus did for us at the cross. He said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”) Compassion is, therefore, subordinate to agape love (or charity as it used to be called) and cannot be rightly expressed, at least in any conceivably Christian way, apart from love. This makes compassion an important, but secondary, virtue. It does not stand above love. Instead, love provides the context in which compassion is rightly expressed. Compassion is a governed, not a governing, virtue. The highest virtues that govern the rest are wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, faith, hope, and love. These are what the Church has traditionally called the cardinal virtues. It is one thing, for example, to exercise justice without the virtue of mercy. This may seem harsh, but it is fair and good, so long as the judge stays within the confines of true justice. It is something else entirely to exercise mercy without justice. How could a society survive in such a state? (Incidentally, this is precisely what certain cities appear to be doing by allowing shoplifters to steal up to $900 worth of goods without facing a penalty. These lawmakers think they are being merciful, but they are placing an immensely large burden upon the shoulders of store owners, managers, and retail workers by refusing to pursue justice on their behalf.)
In the same way, to practice compassion with little or no wisdom is to enter the suffering of another with naivete. Wisdom tells us that we are rarely the best interpreters of our own experiences because it is nearly impossible for anyone to be objective about the things that happen to them. In addition to being poor interpreters of our own experiences, we all tend to filter out information or events that contradict our biases or beliefs. Compassion, apart from wisdom, is easily deceived, whether intentionally or unintentionally. How many of us expressed compassion for a person who turned out to be the villain in the situation about which they cried to us? How often do people manipulate one another’s emotions in order to get what they want? Of all the virtues, compassion is the most susceptible to manipulation or misinformation, and therefore it must be governed by wisdom. Likewise, compassion apart from justice quickly devolves into escalated vengeance on behalf of a victim (whether the victim’s status as victim is real or perceived). Incidentally, in a more cynical environment, “escalated vengeance on behalf of a victim” might serve as an adequate definition of Wokeness.
Ungoverned compassion is the avenue by which Christians get sucked into Wokeness.
Christian compassion, then, is a vital but secondary virtue. It is, like all virtues, a necessary component of the faithful Christian’s life. It cannot, however, be a (or the) primary virtue of a Christ-follower because it is a virtue that must be governed by the higher virtues, especially love, wisdom, and justice. Ungoverned compassion is the avenue by which Christians get sucked into Wokeness. The overlap of Wokeness and Christianity is the arena of social concerns, where the virtue of compassion is most sensibly applied. But Woke compassion is vastly different from Christian compassion, and Christians must be aware of the ways in which Wokeness manipulates their compassion for its own anti-Christian ends.
We can discover what Woke compassion is by listening to the Woke, observing their actions, and reading their literature. Because Wokeness is everywhere, it is not difficult to parse out three components that comprise Woke compassion. First, there is critical awareness of the oppressed. (And we shall shortly get to a more comprehensive definition of what the Woke mean by “oppressed.”) One must have one’s eyes opened and mind transformed to the plight of the marginalized, and this must happen in a very specific way and toward specific ends. Second, there must be political advocacy for the oppressed. One of the key dogmas of the Woke is “the personal is political.” For every problem, therefore, there must be a political solution. And, finally, there is social activism on behalf of the oppressed. The fight must be taken to the streets, to the institutions, to the media; in short, all of society must be turned upside down before justice can be realized. Wokeness, then, is critical awareness of, political advocacy for, and social activism on behalf of the oppressed. Let us now examine each of these three elements of Woke compassion in more detail.
In the 1990s it was very fashionable for people to publicly wear a ribbon representing certain important causes on their lapels. Ribbons were often proudly displayed by celebrities at awards shows or by normal people at charitable events. The intent of the lapel ribbon was to spread awareness of the cause, like AIDS research or breast cancer. The ribbon, therefore, was both a signal and a symbol. It was the signal that the wearer was aware, or awake, to the plight of a certain group, while simultaneously acting as the symbol of the wearer’s compassion and goodness. It meant that they were in the know or on the right side of history. The ribbon meant that you cared. (One of the best Seinfeld bits of all time was when Kramer refused to wear the AIDS ribbon while on the AIDS walk in New York City.) This is the type of awareness referred to in the phrase “critical awareness.”
Critical is one of the most important words in the Wokeness lexicon. It does not mean what we might typically think it means, like important or skeptical. It has no relationship to the concept of critical thinking. In the Woke context, critical means deconstructing long-held ideas about knowledge, specifically that knowledge is, or can be, objective. According to Wokeness, knowledge is socially constructed, which means that it “is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it.” Knowledge is the product of the powerful in the same way that goods are the product of a factory. The factory produces goods for a profit in order to sustain the factory, and the powerful produce knowledge in order to sustain their own positions of power. The Woke idea of critical, then, is wrapped up in the power structures from which, and for which, knowledge has been historically created.
To be critically aware of the oppressed and marginalized, therefore, is to see their plight in the context of systems of power and knowledge production that consistently reinforce their oppression. The only reason that certain groups exist on the margins of society rather than in the center is because the powers that be have created systems that place and keep them there. “When [the Woke] speak of ‘racism,’ for example, they are not referring to prejudice on the grounds of race, but rather to, as they define it, a racialized system that permeates all interactions in society yet is largely invisible except to those who experience it or who have been trained in the proper ‘critical’ methods that train them to see it.”
To be critically aware of the oppressed is to see their plight in the context of systems of power and knowledge production that consistently reinforce their oppression.
To be Woke, then, is to know that all knowledge is socially constructed, that knowledge is produced rather than discovered, and that it has been used in oppressive ways to keep certain groups of people in power. This is why it is increasingly common for math, as just one example among many, to be called an oppressive tool of whiteness rather than representative of basic laws and functions of nature, something that can be used by all humankind for both local and global benefit. As a body of knowledge, math is the product of powerful, historically white, people (typically men) and therefore its “discovery” and application was constructed to further the power of white men. Math, therefore, must be decolonized in order to be legitimized. Never mind that math, in its historical construction, is the foundation upon which all of our technology is built. For the Woke, that math is responsible for the world as it currently exists is further proof that it has been compromised; it must be subverted and deconstructed in order for justice to be achieved.
If all knowledge is socially constructed, if objectivity is impossible, and if knowledge is always cynically produced for the benefit of the oppressor, then any knowledge can only ever be produced and used in this manner. In other words, for the Woke, knowledge is always a weapon. It is only produced, even by the Woke, to be deployed in the power struggle of oppressor and oppressed. As Michael Hanby says, “ideas and words have ceased to be vessels of truth and communication; they have become instruments – or weapons – of social change.” Knowledge has no inherent link to truth. It is only useful in the exercise of power, whether by those who wish to maintain the status quo or by those who wish to disrupt and dismantle it. This is vital for Christians to understand. The Woke have no commitment to truth. Their only commitment is to the establishment of their vision of justice (what they call “Social Justice”) as brought about by demonstrations of power through political revolution and ideological deconstruction, and especially the deconstruction of traditional Christian faith.
For the Woke, knowledge is always a weapon.
Critical awareness of the oppressed means seeing every human interaction through the lens of the power dynamics between oppressor and oppressed. “This is a worldview that centers social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything into a zero-sum political struggle revolving around identity markers like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others.” Critical awareness is an overtly cynical way of looking at the world, and especially at our fellow human beings. While power dynamics are a normal part of everyday life, so are many other things that have nothing to do with power or oppression, like rest, love, and beauty. People are simply not as motivated by power as Wokeness would have us believe because most people have too much going on in their lives to focus solely on power. Sociopaths and megalomaniacs might live this way, but these are outliers of normal human behavior. Wokeness would be valuable if it helped society deal with these types of people appropriately, but instead it imputes sociopathology to every person of a certain group, and therefore offers us nothing in the way of overcoming sociopathological behavior.
This brings us to the second aspect of Woke compassion, political advocacy for the oppressed. As mentioned above, one of the core dogmas of Wokeness is “the personal is political.” Originally coined as a mantra of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, this statement now plays a deeply foundational role in Woke philosophy and ideology. This is seen most clearly in the now ubiquitous phrase “identity politics,” which is a shorthand way of saying, “My personal self-understanding is properly understood as a political force.” Because the Woke have deconstructed all knowledge (not to mention every human interaction) into a form of power play, the political arena, where power between people is negotiated and exercised, is the only arena that truly exists. The personal is subsumed into the political. Nothing is personal or private anymore; every relationship, every story, every joke, every word muttered or thought entertained is an act of political oppression or liberation.
For this reason, it is imperative that the Woke advocate for the oppressed and marginalized in a political manner. It is insufficient, though perhaps still laudable, to provide the poor with food through charity or the sick with care. These actions, however, are ultimately empty without accompanying political advocacy and agitation. The social and political status of the oppressed is, after all, the fault of the system, and therefore the system must be destroyed. There can be no justice until the current system, rooted as it is in prejudice and corrupted as it is by the asymmetrical exercise of power, is dismantled and replaced by the Woke vision of universal Social Justice. This is why movements to either defund or abolish urban police departments have gained so much momentum in recent years. For the Woke, the police do not exist to protect and serve the populace, but rather to intimidate and tyrannize them.
In advocating for the oppressed and marginalized, the Woke understand themselves to be speaking truth to power. They are, in their own minds, speaking up for those who cannot speak up for themselves and telling the powerful how the world really is. They are latter-day prophets, standing in the court of the king with fists raised in defiance. However, it must be noted that, in Woke doctrine, both speech and knowledge – or, to be more plain, meaning itself – are culturally conditioned as weapons of cultural warfare. Speech and knowledge are incapable of expressing or ascertaining objective truth because, if such a thing even exists, we can never transcend our cultural biases in order to grasp it. Therefore, Wokeness is not committed to the truth except to use it as a means of inverting the existing power structures. Political advocacy, or speaking truth to power, therefore, is nothing more than speaking one truth, or my truth, to power. In other words, Woke political advocacy is speaking power to power with the intention that the former power (Woke power) will dismantle and replace the latter power (existing social structures that perpetuate inequity).
Christian political advocacy is always founded upon the revelation of God and the rationality of the universe.
One of the primary differences between Woke political advocacy and Christian political advocacy is that Christianity cannot accept the postmodern turn of Wokeness to the relativity of truth. For the Christian, truth comes from God and belongs to God, and is therefore an essential aspect of the created universe. There is such a thing as truth, and God has made human beings to be truth-seeking creatures. He has also ordered the universe in such a way that we can find truth within it, meaning that nature itself can and does reveal truth to those who seek it. Truth is something to which every human being must conform him or herself, not something that each individual gets to invent for themselves. Beyond nature, God himself reveals his own nature to humanity through the Scriptures and, ultimately, through his son Jesus Christ, who made the remarkable claim about himself, “I am the truth.” (John 14:6) Truth is not a matter of power dynamics but of divine revelation. Truth is not cynically manufactured in the chaos of human culture; it is revealed in the order of God’s creation. Regardless of how poorly humans interpret or understand truth, or how cynically they twist it to their own advantage, truth exists and stands above us, unsullied by our fallen attempts to manipulate or deny it. The Christian cannot conceive of justice apart from truth, nor of truth apart from the revelation of God. Therefore, Christian political advocacy is always founded upon the revelation of God and the rationality of the universe, the pursuit of objective reality outside of oneself so that each person can justly conform himself to the nature of God’s creation.
Now we arrive at the third aspect of Woke compassion, which is social activism on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized. Activism is as essential to Wokeness as obedience is to Christianity. In fact, it is just as simple to say that one obeys the precepts of Wokeness by engaging in social activism. To be Woke is to actively participate in protest, disruption, agitation, and resistance to the oppressive system as a matter of everyday life. Social activism is, most importantly, a visible and public demonstration of subversion and disruption. Because the personal is political, and because the political is public, it is impossible to be Woke in anything approaching a private manner. Wokeness is similar to Christianity in that it makes totalizing claims on the lives of its disciples. Preachers have long bemoaned the part-time nature of the average Christian’s commitment to Christ, and the same is true for the Woke person’s commitment to Wokeness. One must always be vigilant in their faith.
One of the simplest manifestations of Woke social activism is the public display of personal pronouns in one’s social media account, professional bio, or email signature. To publicly display one’s personal pronouns is the purest form of the personal becoming political because it is the exhibition of personal identity for the purpose of making a political statement. The statement is this: “Normalize trans and non-binary gender identities by problematizing the assumption of referents to any person.” The public display of pronouns makes it wrong, both in the traditional sense and in the moral sense, to assume that we know how we might refer to someone when speaking of them in the third person. This kind of social activism, which requires almost zero effort on the part of the activist, is a significant driver of cultural change, even if a large percentage of the general population finds it silly or obnoxious.
The Woke are persistent in their social activism and rarely give into opposition. Many have critiqued Woke activism like pronoun display or protests as mere virtue signaling, meaning that the activist does not actually possess the virtue they are displaying. The activism, it is argued, is nothing more than a public signal to other activists and allies that the activist is “on the right side of history.” This is an unfair critique because it assumes, without the ability to truly know, that the activist is being inauthentic and doesn’t truly care for the plight of the oppressed and marginalized. What is much more likely, and perhaps more charitable, is to say that Wokeness demands a certain amount of performative righteousness in order to reveal its authenticity. These power systems cannot, according to the doctrine of Wokeness, be dismantled through the private lives of citizens. It takes awareness, advocacy, and activism to uproot systemic injustice and replace it with the Woke vision of Social Justice. The righteousness demanded by Wokeness is meant to be demonstrated, to be performed, in the struggle to dismantle oppressive power structures. The public performance of Woke righteousness is, in fact, another weapon in their arsenal, and has proven to be quite effective in both subverting and dismantling inequitable social power systems.
The righteousness demanded by Wokeness is meant to be performed.
In this sense, the Woke are like the Pharisees in the time of Christ. They were also performatively righteous, doing their good works in public in order to be seen by others. Their intention, like the Woke, was to dismantle an oppressive power structure – the Roman occupation of Israel paired with the corruption of Israel’s leaders – which they could not accomplish on their own. They had to recruit the people to their side, and one of their strategies was to dramatically and extravagantly obey Scripture in a way that would inspire others to be like them and join their cause. The Pharisees believed that if everyone would be faithful to Torah (God’s law given to Moses) for just one day, then Messiah would come and rescue Israel from her Roman oppressors. In the same way, the Woke believe that if everyone would do, say, and think like them, then the oppressive power structure would be overthrown and a new age of justice and equity would be established.
Christians should understand, of course, that nothing irritated Jesus more than the performative righteousness of the Pharisees. Jesus told his disciples, time and again, to resist the temptation to become like the Pharisees, and to reject their way of bringing about God’s kingdom. He told them to pray in secret and to keep their prayers short rather than offering long, drawn-out prayers in public. He told them to give in such a way that their right hand wouldn’t know what their left hand was doing – in other words, to not broadcast their good deeds. Jesus hated performative righteousness because it cut God out of the equation. Obedience publicly performed was all about the doer of deeds and the audience who would approve of him, not the God who sees what every person does in both public and private. Performative righteousness is obedience for the sake of the elevation of the self rather than for the glory of God.
Nothing irritated Jesus more than the performative righteousness of the Pharisees.
This does not mean that Christians should abandon social activism. The pro-life movement and the Civil Rights Movement, both of which are rooted in the Christian faith, would not have any success in the public sphere if their advocates kept all their beliefs to themselves. God’s righteousness will not roll down like a river if his people spend all day locked away in their prayer closets because God is committed to working through his people as well as in them. Christian social activism, however, is distinguished from Wokeness in that it is public obedience intended to bring the world into greater conformity to the kingdom of God. Both movements are eschatological in nature, but Christianity looks forward to the return and reign of Jesus Christ, who will set all things right through his wisdom and justice. Wokeness, on the other hand, seeks to realize the Marxist utopia of a world without God where all humans live, against their universally-demonstrated fallen natures, in equality and harmony. How such a utopia will come about continues to bedevil Marxists of all kinds, as their every attempt thus far has only resulted in mass poverty, suffering, violence, and death.
It is not fair to say that the Woke don’t care about the oppressed and marginalized. By all accounts they do, and deeply so. What is important is to understand the differences between Woke compassion and Christian compassion. Christian compassion is an expression of agape love for anyone who is hurting or suffering. In its best form it is governed by wisdom and justice, resisting the twin impulses to blindly accept everything the sufferer says as gospel and to become vindictively bitter toward those who are, or are perceived to be, causing the suffering. Woke compassion is a cry against social injustice (as defined by Critical Theory, not Scripture) and a call for political action.
God’s answer to the broken human condition is Jesus Christ, his Son.
As mentioned above, ungoverned compassion is the avenue by which many Christians slide into Wokeness. Where Christianity and Wokeness overlap is in the area of social concerns, for which compassion is a vital part of a sensible response. In fact, one cannot begin to formulate a proper response to social concerns without first feeling compassion for those who are experiencing suffering and hardship. Compassion reminds us that these problems are fundamentally about people, and that those who seek to help must remain focused on people rather than policy or missions. Good policy and effective missions are noble aims, but Christ rescued people from sin and death by dying and rising again. Whatever social ills wring our hearts with sorrow, we do well to remember that God’s answer to the broken human condition is Jesus Christ, his Son.
Now that we understand Woke compassion more clearly, we can come back to our first definition of Wokeness and provide greater clarity and detail. Originally, we said that Wokeness was compassion for the oppressed. But as we have seen, this is far too simple. Let us modify our definition this way: Wokeness is critical awareness of, political advocacy for, and social activism on behalf of the oppressed. But what do the Woke mean when they talk about oppression? Who is oppressed? And who is the oppressor? It is crucial that we be as specific as possible in naming both parties in the ongoing cycle of oppression that Wokeness seeks to dismantle. We will turn to this question in our next essay.
 Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal? (New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press, 2012) p. 7
 Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020), p. 15
 Michael Hanby, American Revolution…, p. 451
 Pluckrose, p. 15-16.
 Napikoski, Linda. (2021, February 16). The Personal Is Political. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-personal-is-political-slogan-origin-3528952
Header image retrieved from sbs.com.au.