Civil Righteousness: An Interview with J.T. Thomas
When we look at our country, our home, the piece of dirt upon which we live and thrive, we need to ask ourselves a probing question: In a country deemed “united” by our forefathers, what have we done to deserve that title? The union we aspire to share with our fellow Americans is fractured and disjointed, and we spend more time pointing the finger at the “other side” than striving to do the hard work of putting what is out of joint back in place. Our greatest enemy is ourselves; the longer we let the cancer of division metastasize, the harder it becomes to implement any type of solution, much less the right one.
Maybe you, like me, are pining to find some sort of resolution to the problems confronting our country, especially those pertaining to race. I long for reconciliation, but it seems that few have paved a way toward reconciling our past with our present, minorities with the majority, or the culture of individuality and exclusivity with one of inclusion. In an ocean of conflict teeming with frustration, reformers must make the conscious decision to wade out into choppy waters in order to give way to true transformation.
One such leader is Jonathan Tremaine (JT) Thomas, a man waving the battle flag of civil righteousness as he advocates for a shift in America’s racial climate. Speaking with Thomas afforded me an opportunity to feel hopeful about resolving wrongs and achieving true unity within our melting pot of a nation.
“My message is civil righteousness, not a civil rights movement but the pursuit of spiritual wholeness, moral excellence, and restorative justice in the face of adversity,” says Thomas. “Spiritual wholeness: the bottom line is we need healing. We need a deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing from even the trauma of our inherited history in America.”
Raised in the missionary baptist tradition, Thomas grew up as a fifth generation preacher’s kid. His great-grandparents were both preachers, and his family history is chock-full of people who affected and influenced culture in a variety of ways, ranging from the arts and music to the church and ministry. With this inheritance of activism, it’s no surprise that Thomas plunged into the fight for reconciliation at a young age.
“I remember asking the Lord in my bedroom before I went to sleep one night, ‘God, if you can use a Dr. King, then could you use me?’ I’m not trying to compare myself to Dr. King today, he’s on a whole different level—but I feel like the Lord heard that cry of a little twelve-year-old, and I’d say from that moment on I’ve had a unique and pretty intense interest and burden for race-related issues.”
During our talk with Thomas, he described his approach to what he calls the “ministry of reconciliation.”
“I would define it as ultimately the Biblical definition that we see in 2 Corinthians 5, that we are ambassadors of Christ and his kingdom and that we regard no one according to the flesh because we have been born of the Spirit. So the ministry of reconciliation can only start and be understood from a theological basis in order for it to have some sort of sociological impact. The ministry of reconciliation reconciles the ‘Why?’ of history to the plan and goodness of God. […] When you answer those questions by default, you can then deal with the enmity between men because it starts out as an enmity with God—an enmity with the purposes of God, the goodness of God, the character of God, the nature of God.”
Thomas gained a wide-reaching, nationally recognized voice following the civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Since then, the country has seen a slew of similar incidents, situations that are proving to be agents of provocation. Thomas’s experience handling civil unrest and traversing complex social terrain has made him a trustworthy point of reference for those craving answers, especially Christians wandering through bleak landscapes in search of biblical unity and reconciliation.
NATIONS: When is the right time for intercession and when is the right time for protest?
I think that’s a twofold question, probably more folds than that. Since we’re commanded to pray without ceasing, it’s always the right time for intercession. Protesting in and of itself can be a form of intercession, but it isn’t always guaranteed to be the appropriate response or to produce the intended results.
Many of my friends who are prominent protest leaders, who love God, say, ‘This is righteous indignation. I’m being led by God to do this,’ but when it comes to righteousness we have to say, ‘What are the fruits of righteousness?’ The fruits of righteousness are actual physical fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, long-suffering, mercy […]. So righteous anger may be confrontational, but the fruit of that confrontation is that [it] will produce righteousness, not only in you but also in the people around you. While I’m standing at the picket line, in front of the police officer, maybe even the officer who pulled me over unjustly—do I love him while I’m yelling at him? If I can’t answer that question truthfully, then there’s a problem. The measure of all we do has to be the presence of love. Protest is appropriate when the protest is accompanied by, fueled by, catalyzed by, and is producing godly love.
“The measure of all we do has to be the presence of love.“
What does the long road of reformation look like when there aren’t protests in the streets? What does it look like when the news cycle has moved on?
The tone of many of [many] movements, but particularly the Black Lives Matter movement—the undertone is not necessarily hope. People are being mobilized out of frustration and anger, which is wildly different from the historic movement which was dream-driven and vision-driven. I Have a Dream was so powerful really because it was the dream of God, and the dream of God involves all people, not just black people. And that’s why it had the power to mobilize beyond the black community. […] It was a dream for majority culture and minority culture. I feel like part of the dream of God, particularly even in the black community, is for us to understand our worth and influence in the nations of the earth.
Another aspect that I’m working on is to bridge the gap between the historical black worship expression and the frontier missions movement. […] I believe that long-term we have to see the church fight for the redemptive purposes and destinies of different people groups together. Long-term, we have to see the body of Christ, beyond just justice issues, fighting for the dream of God to manifest in our communities for every people and serving one another. I see young black men and women signing up to go to Mongolia and China and be a part of the mission of God in the nations. I see white folks signing their lives away to live and move into the most violent neighborhoods in America to contend for the destiny of the black community, and vice versa. I see black men and women adopting white babies. We’ve got to move to this place where we truly regard no one according to the flesh but yet we recognize and celebrate the unique distinctives of different cultures and see how we need those distinctives in order to see the beauty of God.
How do you hope to see the church engage in “civil righteousness”?
In the Old Testament in the time of crisis in Joel 2, the prophet says, ‘Gather the elders, gather the babes, gather everybody, consecrate and fast and tear your hearts, not your garments,’ because in Hebrew tradition in a time of mourning it’s, ‘Oh no! The king has died, let’s tear our clothes!’ So you tear your outsides to express your mourning. Tearing the outsides, or changing the policing system or changing the law or changing this or that—changing the outsides is what the natural humanistic response is. But Jesus says, ‘No, before you do anything on the outside, change your insides.’ […] It’s this place of rising above the conversation points of today or the hotbed topics and issues and getting to the question of, ‘God, you’re exposing something here—what is it? What is it in me that you’re exposing? What is it in the church that we need to understand?’ The humility part is first, which comes in [a] posture of honest prayer. But then from that place, when we get God’s heart in prayer—He changes us, we don’t change Him—we get His heart, and then from a purified place we can receive instruction as to what to do beyond prayer. I think that’s the ministry of reconciliation that proceeds from the Spirit and not from the flesh.
One reality in our current cultural climate is, ‘Well I’ve never called a black person the n-word! My family didn’t own slaves!’ But God isn’t after your external actions, he’s after your thoughts. How are you thinking about your neighbor? For the black community or historically oppressed people groups: How are you holding your heart in the midst of offense? Just because I’m offended by you, even if you actually offended me, that doesn’t give me a right to air my offenses and attack you. […] Now, all that to say is that foundationally the church has to actually know how to walk out Christ-likeness even in the midst of legitimate injustices and legitimate frustrations, and I feel like we have been tested. The body of Christ specifically in the past four years has been tested in this area like never before, and largely we are failing the test.
“God isn’t after your external actions, he’s after your thoughts. How are you thinking about your neighbor?”
It seems so important to build a multiethnic church, but people naturally move toward others who are similar. How do you cultivate diversity in a church setting?
It’s really challenging. I think it’s easier to build a multiethnic church than it is a multicultural church, because those are two different things. You can have a congregation with many ethnicities but one culture, in the sense that all the music is of a certain culture or even the style of leadership is a certain culture. So you can have a multiethnic church that is not multicultural, but in order to build culture you have to have a value on culture and who’s represented in your congregation.
It’s important to be intentional about cultivating a culture of honor—setting an atmosphere where people are excited to learn about and celebrate the diverse cultural expressions that are represented within the congregation. It’s also important to intentionally add and empower representative voices when setting the leadership table.
The ultimate plan of God is that He is going to gather the nations; He is going to settle the disputes as King once and for all and then we are going to worship him together and work together. […] There are certain ideological groups out there today that are trying to recruit upon the pain of the black community and say, ‘Well this is a white man’s religion,’ and I’m going, ‘No white man could ever teach the expression you see in some of these black churches!’ [Laughs.] The expression of praise and worship that comes out of our community, that came from a revelatory encounter with the goodness of God.
“The expression of praise and worship that comes out of our community, that came from a revelatory encounter with the goodness of God.”
What are you currently doing in Ferguson and around the country to pursue civil righteousness?
We purchased our home in Ferguson last summer. When the unrest happened, property values plummeted and there were amazing deals to be had at the time. The asking price for our place was well above market value, but we offered full price because we knew that it could help drive up the values in the area. It was a way of expressing to the city and to the Lord, “Hey, we’re fully invested here.” After closing and moving in, we’ve never been so graciously welcomed as we were by our neighbors. They brought us gift baskets, fruits and vegetables, gift cards…we were overwhelmed. I was serving on several committees that were mandated to be established by the U.S. Department of Justice, but after buying the house, my wife and I have made it our aim to simply be the best possible neighbors and residents of Ferguson that we can be. Engaged, contributing, and loving people well.
Civil righteousness was a message that now has started to take on movement on its own in different cities. I have traveled the country speaking on these issues, and various people say, ‘What can we do?’ We have been looking to establish civil righteousness chapters in different cities that help the church understand race and justice issues from a biblical standpoint, and to engage those issues first through prayer. We have something called ‘The Wall’ where we go to altars of pain. Every city has one—could be a place where a Native American person was brutally murdered, or something [else] happened in history. We go to those places and we pray for God to heal the land, and whatever the generational consequences of what happened, for God to bring healing spiritually and emotionally and mentally for those things.
We can use language for [a national] truth and reconciliation commission based on the models of what’s happened globally to get support not only from the church but from the culture at large, calling upon this administration if they are serious about being an equitable administration and caring about the rise of nationalism in our nation. What a truth and reconciliation commission can do is help us take a massive step forward toward the healing emotionally that our nation has never done.
Derrick Bills is a freelance photographer, videographer, and writer based in Durham, NC. He is passionate about the human aspect of storytelling, and he can be reached on Instagram @dareebearr or through his website dbills94.myportfolio.com.