I had a conversation today with some friends… well, I listened to one… about the choice between evangelism and social justice. I was perplexed, which is probably why I didn’t talk much, because I couldn’t separate the two as distinctly as my friends had. I was trying to picture what one would look like without the other. When I tried to imagine evangelism without social justice all I could see was a distortion of the gospel. When I tried to imagine a social action that was not evangelistic I saw an incomplete version of social justice, like a screen door trying to keep out the wind.
If we are creating justice, we are creating the kind of world God created in the beginning and is still in the business of creating all around us. Evangelism is about creating such a world, a world that cannot deny the reign of God. If we are about this sort of work, it must be evangelistic. For example, when we bring a hungry person some bread to eat it’s not only attractive to them—it doesn’t only make them interested in such compassion, possibly wondering where it came from—it also brings the reign of God over their hunger. It is the same when we free a slave, heal a sick person, free a family from the bondage of dept, or embrace a homeless man on the street of a wealthy city. We cannot help but be evangelistic. Even if it’s not as specific as proclaiming the name of Jesus with our words, social action is a declaration of his name and of his kingdom in our deeds.
The adverse is true as well. If we proclaim the name of Jesus, if we evangelize, but do not work toward justice then our evangelism is a sham. What are we proclaiming? We are saying to a brother or a sister who is without clothes or food, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but we are not bringing the reign of God over their need. What good is that (James 2:16)? We can evangelize without working toward social justice but it will ultimately be empty. Evangelism may not always be synonymous with social justice, but perhaps it needs it in order to survive.