Social justice and evangelism
For as long as I can remember there have been debates among Christians about the relationship between social justice and evangelism.
And the majority, or at least the loudest voices, seemed to think that one or ought to have priority, and that the other should be secondary.
Those who regarded themselves as evangelicals, as their name implies, thought that evangelism should come first, and that concern for social justice was an optional extra, or even a hindrance if it distracted from preaching the gospel.
Those who thought that social justice should take priority likewise thought that evangelism was an optional extra, or even a form of escapism.Unlike evangelicals, the social activists didn’t really have a name. One could call them social activists, but they weren’t always all that active. But for the moment let’s call them “social activists”.
And also, as long as I can remember, I have felt alienated by both positions.
In the 1970s things became a little more fluid. The charismatic renewal helped a lot of social activists to see the need for evangelism. It helped some evangelicals to see the need for social justice as well.
A dyed-in-the-wool Anglican evangelical, John Stott, went so far as to define mission as evangelism plus social action, and to say that both were therefore necessary.
Much of the problem, it seemed to me, was that when people argued about it, they never defined their terms. What is social justice? What is evangelism?
Back in the 1960s social justice was a bit easier to define than it is now, at least in South Africa. The greatest social injustice was apartheid and the ethnic cleansing that it entailed, and the fact that the majority of the victims of the ethnic cleansing, who were being forced out of “blackspots” in “white areas” had no vote. Those who opposed this policy too strenuously were harassed by the Security Police, banned, detained without trial, and some were defenestrated. To protest against it too strongly or to say that there should be votes for all was regarded by the government as subversion, or “furthering the objects of communism”.
And the standard response of evangelicals back then was “Jesus never organised any protests against the Roman government” (conveniently ignoring Palm Sunday) and that he said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” and that Christians should therefore not get involved in such worldly things as politics (that was before the rise of the “religious right” in the 1980s).
The Christian social activists, on the other hand, read things in the Old Testament. The story of Naboth’s Vineyard (I Kings 21) seemed to have a great deal to say about the ethnic cleansing of the 1960s. Ahab was condemned even though he offered Naboth a better vineyard, or adequate compensation, whereas the South African government offered neither to those it dispossessed. The land people were moved to was usually worse, and the monetary compensation was often less than the value of the land they were forced out of. Certain liberals, who helped the dispossessed to go to court to fight for better compensation were banned, since that kind of justice was “furthering the objects of communism”.
And so, in reply to the evangelicals’ references to “Render unto Caesar”, the social activists would parody Amos 5:21-24, “Take away from me the noise of your sentimental choruses… but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and would quote texts such as Proverbs 29: “When the righteous are in authority the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan” and “The righteous man knows the rights of the poor; the wicked man has no such knowledge.”
But hurling proof texts really makes for futile arguments and debates, and does not get to the heart of the matter. What social justice was was reasonably clear, but what is evangelism?
Evangelism is telling, proclaiming the good news. But what is the news, and why is it good?
The problem was that most evangelicals back then were wedded to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. God’s justice was in conflict with God’s mercy. God’s mercy means that he loves sinners, but his justice demands that he must punish sin. He resolved this dilemma by punishing his sinless Son so that the sinful ones could be let off the hook. So for evangelicals, this was the good news, this was the gospel. Evangelism was telling people that Jesus has died to pay the price of your sin, so that all you have to do is accept him as your personal saviour and God won’t punish you. And that had nothing to do with politics or social justice. It was easy to separate them.
The problem is that this is a very narrow and partial view of salvation and the atonement, and therefore a distortion. I have discussed that in another blog post on Salvation and atonement, and so won’t go into all the details here.
My political education in this respect began with New Testament II at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, UKZN). A rather dry and dull lecturer, Vic Bredenkamp, was explaining about principalities and powers. Until then the word “principalities” brought Monaco to my mind, so I found what Vic Bredenkamp was saying difficult to follow. He pointed out that it meant more than that — in Ephesians 3:10 and 6:12, for example, St Paul (if he wrote Ephesians, but that is another question) spoke of principalities and powers in heavenly places, so it was not just places like Monaco that he was talking about. Vic referred me to a small book by G.B. Caird, Principalities and powers and my eyes began to be opened.
Political power was as much a spiritual thing as a worldly thing. Authority (exousia) was more than flesh and blood. Our struggle was not merely against the flesh and blood authorities of Vorster and Verwoerd, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies. G.B. Caird also wrote commentaries on the Gospel of St Luke and the book of Revelation, which helped to make things a lot clearer. More recently, writers like Walter Wink have covered the same theme in more detail.
A year later we were doing Theology II, also with Vic Bredenkamp, and we were discussing theories of the atonement, and the subject of principalities and powers came up again, and Vic referred to Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor, which again made much more sense than the penal substitution theory of the atonement, and linked up with what Caird had said. In most of the arguments between evangelicals and social activists, social justice had been treated as a matter of Christian ethics, and salvation as a matter of doctrine. Evangelicals were suspicious of social justice being regarded as important because they believed that “by grace you are saved through faith, not because of works, lest any man should boast”, and they regarded concern with social justice as “works”. But people like Caird and Aulén showed that social justice was part of Christian docrine, and not merely an ethical question.
A couple of years later I learned that all these Western theologians like Caird and Aulén were in fact rediscovering what the Orthodox Church had known all along and never forgotten.
For those who believe in the penal substitution theory of the atonement, sin is primarily something that God punishes us for. But really sin and evil are things that God rescues us from. The world lies in the power of the evil one (I John 5:19), and so all oppression and injustice in the world ultimately proceed from the devil, who holds the world in thrall. But Christ has come to break the chains of the devil, sin and death. Social justice on earth is not merely a question of right and wrong ethical human behaviour, but it is a sign of the Kingdom, or Reign of God. All Christian theology is liberation theology, because the theme of liberation runs through it all.
In Western theology, Liberation Theology is seen as one theology among many. There are theologies of this and theologies of that and people are always looking for or declaring the need for a theology of something or other. And so theology is fragmented into a host of competing sub-disciplines, each declaring that “traditional” theology is lacking in this or that aspect of theology.
But traditional theology is a theology of liberation. And the good news, the gospel, the evangel, the evangelion is that Christ has set us free, as Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Freedom and liberation are at the heart of the gospel. As Christos Yannaras says in his book The freedom of morality
Freedom is one of Christianity’s most central ideas. As Berdyaev aptly summarizes: ‘The idea of freedom is one of the leading ideas of Christianity. Without it the creation of the world, the Fall and Redemption are incomprehensible, and the phenomenon of faith remains inexplicable. Without freedom there can be no theodicy and the whole world-process becomes nonsense’ (Berdyaev 1948:119). This message of freedom recurs in the New Testament in a variety of contexts (Mt 17:26; Jn 8:32, 36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1-13). The Greek Fathers of the Church repeatedly expound the truth that a free God created free human beings, who are therefore responsible for their actions. Taking responsibility is linked to human dignity.
There has certainly been no lack of Christians who, in the course of time, have sought to restrict this freedom, allegedly in the interests of maintaining social order. In the end, however, the Christian conscience has always rejected them.
John Stott was wrong. Mission is not “Evangelism + Social Action”. The “social action” is part of evangelism; social justice is part of the good news.
Back in the 1960s, however, the issues were reasonably clear. The oppression and injustice of apartheid were obvious to all who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Now things are a bit more fuzzy. Back then the issues were black and white (literally!), but, as one friend of mine used to say, when South Africa has solved the problem of the blacks and the whites, you will begin to see the real problem: the haves and the have nots.
So what is social justice now?
Perhaps the Orthodox philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev gives a clue:
It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be bread for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual question will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that for a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men, and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality.