In Christian communities (churches, missionary groups etc) there often springs up this debate about whether we should be putting funds and resources towards social justice issues or towards evangelism. Here’s how the debate goes, for those of you who aren’t privy to Christian internal disputes.
Social Justice people: “Women and children are being trafficked, people don’t have clean drinking water, children are dying of easily preventable diseases, and we’re spending all our time and money saying, “Here’s how you can get to heaven when you die.”
Evangelism people: “What good is it to give someone clean water if they’re just going to die anyway and spend eternity in hell? We need an eternal perspective here, folks. Besides, there are no social issues, there are just sin issues. If enough people have their hearts changed by Jesus, they will naturally want to do the right thing, and that will lead to social transformation, less poverty, less crime, and more justice.”
Social Justice people: “Well, James 2:15-16 says “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?”
Evangelism people: Well, Hebrews 9:27 says “each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment” and what kind of loving person are you if you don’t tell people about Jesus? It’s like putting a band-aid on a rotting corpse. Any nice NGO can help poor people, but only Christians can offer people the way to be reconciled to God.”
You get the (caricatured) picture. Also, there’s this historical thing that happened where there was a split because some social justice people stopped believing in really key Christian stuff (like Jesus being the guy who reconciles us to God, and the Bible being trustworthy), and so sometimes the evangelism people are scared about the slippery slope into liberalism that the social justice people might lead them down. Another thing I’ve heard is that the Old Testament talks a lot about social justice, but in the New Testament, Paul didn’t even talk about ending slavery, so New Testament people should be worried about people’s hearts, not about social issues.
David and I have been taking the online class Perspectives on the Global Christian Movement. And their perspective on the big picture of the Bible is really cool. You should take the class. But here’s what I’ve been thinking lately:
The story of the God that is shared in the Bible shows that because of human sin, God’s plan has always been to call out a people that he could use as a channel to communicate who he is to the world, and through whom he could bless the world by reconciling all things back to himself. The Abrahamic covenant sums this up, “I will bless you and make you a blessing and through you all the nations of the world will be blessed.” So, God chose a people to use as a vehicle through which he could communicate his nature and also reconcile the world to him.
If you read any of the Old Testament prophets, there are two things they are constantly ragging on the Jews about: idolatry and social injustice. And those two things are always together. You rarely see a prophet ranting about idolatry without also throwing in, “And you’re taking advantage of widows and robbing the poor of their wages.” Why does God get so mad about idolatry and social injustice?
The idolatry problem: If God’s plan is to use Israel as a way of communicating restoration to the world, then idolatry screws things up. Everything is wonderful in the nation of Israel, and the Israelites are like, “yeah, this is because of this god Molech” then the plan fails. The nations of the world think Molech is the way to go.
The injustice problem: if Israel is like, “Yeah, we worship Yahweh, he’s the one true God” but they treat each other like rubbish and the land is full of injustice, then the nations are like, “Wow, your God is awful, who would ever want to worship him?”
Injustice smears the name of God in the world. It damages his reputation.
Obviously Israel wasn’t so great at that “being a blessing” thing all the time, but they did produce Jesus. Then after Jesus rises again, he tells his disciples to go and make disciples and baptize them. Baptism was an identity marker in those times. It was a statement saying, “I was in that group, now I’m in this group.” So Jesus makes a new people group: Jesus-followers (the church). And he commissions this group to go help people know what God is like and how to be reconciled to him.
So now we’ve got the job- we, the church, have the task of showing the world what God is like, and helping them come back to him. So if we’re all like, “Yeah, come be a Christian, we just love everyone but you don’t have to believe that Jesus is who he says he was” then we’ve failed. AND if we’re like, “You need to know about Jesus” but Christians are known as people who are unloving and our churches/communities are not known as places where justice thrives, then we’ve smeared the reputation of God in the world and we’ve failed. (Or, crusades anyone? Big mistake).
And I think, in general, the evangelical church in South Africa and in the US is failing. We are known as a people group who say they know the way to heaven, but our communities are not known as places where there is social justice. No one says, “Oh, those Christians, so crazy. If you become one of them, there are like no poor among them, because they just share their resources.” or “Yeah, those Christian CEOs, they’re crazy man, they just refuse to hold on to 90% of the shares in their companies and distribute them among their workers.” Or, “Yeah, those Christian churches, it’s so weird, we’re out here chanting #whitesmustfall because of how frustrated we are at how white people in SA have held on to privilege and power for so long, but these white Christians are crazy, they just take cues from the black church leadership and they’re all learning isiZulu so they can better communicate with their black brothers and sisters, they’re investing in things to help the common good, and ….”
Churches are supposed to be places that show the world, “This is what God is like”. Are we showing the world a God of justice? A God of love? A God who cares for the poor? A God who despises unjust gain? A God who humbled himself and laid down his rights to the point of death? A God who values all life, the black 13-year-old life held in prison for 173 days without an indictment as much as the unborn life?
And if you’re thinking, “That’s just crazy talk” maybe we should all just start reading the Bible again and figure out what kind of God we’ve created for ourselves. Maybe we have an idolatry problem, too. Maybe we’re painting a distorted picture of God for the world because we ourselves are not seeing him as he truly is.
Photo credit: evangelicalsforsocialaction.org