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.
This really is a question of language. Many view evangelism as a verbal activity and social justice as primarily an activity of action. In this case, they are mutually exclusive activities that take place on different planes. If this is the way that certain people define it, I don't see a problem with it. It just means that you have a different definition.
It may be true that people see evangelism as purely verbal and this is the false perception that I am trying to correct. You say you don't see a problem but I see a huge problem when people have a definition of evangelism which is purely verbal. If we limit it to words then we are no longer able to apply it to many things which have long been considered evangelistic. For example, the word was applied to the sacraments before it was hijacked by fundamentalists and conformed to the rhetoric of dispensationalism. We are among the first in history to make a distinction between evangelism and action. So if there is a difference in language I think it should be corrected.
Hi there, I just googled "Evangelism and social Justice" to help pull together material for my Intro to Social Justice small group tonight. Would you mind if I shared your post with my group here in DC? Thanks so much. Great thoughts here.
I don't mind at all if you use my post. I hope I didn't respond to you too late.
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