Consider the quote from Billy Graham a few decades ago:
“I am convinced that if the Church went back to its main task of proclaiming the Gospel and getting people converted to Christ, it would have a far greater impact on the social, moral, and psychological needs of men than any other thing it could possibly do. Some of the greatest social movements of history have come about as a result of men being converted to Christ.” (Quoted by Rodger Bassham in “Mission Theology: 1948-1975 Years of Worldwide Creative Tension,” 226)
These needs– social, moral, psychological– certainly makes sense. Perhaps if “converted to Christ” actually meant a radical leaving behind of what is old, and following Christ, such needs would indeed be met, and may even overflow into broader society as “salt and light”. But overall, Graham’s statement hasn’t really stood up well to history. As a black minister stated around the height of the Civil Rights movement infor the US,
the “law did for me and my people in America what empty and highpowered Evangelical preaching never did for 100 years.” (Ibid., 227)
Many like to point to William Wilberforce, an Evangelical Christian, who fought to end slavery in the British Empire in the early 19th century, and also fought for many other issues of social justice. But for every Wilberforce, there were scores of Evangelical Christians historically who stood against social justice. Christians in the Southern United States, for example, took a very different stance to Wilberforce. Consider the quote by an Evangelical preacher from the mid 1800s:
“Let us then, North and South, bring our minds to comprehend two ideas, and submit to their irresistible power. Let the Northern philanthropist learn from the Bible that the relation of master and slave is not sin, per se. Let him learn that God says nowhere it is sin. Let him learn that sin is the transgression of the law; and where there is no law there is no sin, and that the Golden Rule may exist in the relations of slavery. Let him learn that slavery is simply an evil in certain circumstances. Let him learn that equality is only the highest form of social life; that subjection to authority, even slavery, may, in given conditions, be for a time better than freedom to the slave of any complexion. Let him learn that slavery, like all evils, has its corresponding and greater good; that the Southern slave, though degraded compared with his master, is elevated and ennobled compared with his brethren in Africa. Let the Northern man learn these things, and be wise to cultivate the spirit that will harmonize with his brethren of the South, who are lovers of liberty as truly as himself: And let the Southern Christian– nay, the Southern man of every grade– comprehend that God never intended the relation of master and lave to be perpetual. Let him give up the theory of Voltaire, that the negro is of a different species. Let him yield the semi-infidelity of Agassiz, that God created different races of the same species– in swarms, like bees– for Asia, Europe, America, Africa, and the islands of the sea. Let him believe that slavery, although not a sin, is a degraded condition,– the evil, the curse on the South,– yet having blessings in its time to the South and to the Union. Let him know that slavery is to pass away in the fullness of Providence. Let the South believe this, and prepare to obey the hand that moves their destiny. (“Slavery Ordained of God,” by Rev. Fred A. Ross, D.D., 1857, pages 6-7)
Truthfully, I chose this quote as one of the more balanced, less bigoted, supporters of slavery. I could have chosen much worse. For example, I could have chosen a quote by Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens, of the same Protestant denomination as Ross, in a speech he gave challenging the notion that all are created equal:
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” (Cornerstone Speech, Savannah Georgia, March 21, 1861)
I, instead, chose Ross’ quote because it shows pretty clearly one major reason that Evangelicals struggle with social justice–
#1. Evangelicals have a tendency to support the past or the status quo. Evangelicals often idealize the Primitive 1st century church. Others may idealize the Reformers, the Puritans, or perhaps the church in the 1950s (among other times). <Perhaps this explains the tendency of Evangelicals in the United States, to align themselves with the American political right. Despite great areas for potential conflict, both groups tend to mythologize a preferred past.> In the previous quote, what Ross here was saying was that slavery is not an ideal thing, but since it presently exists, it must be ordained by God to exist, and so to take action to end it, is to act against God. Rather, we should support the status quo, and be prepared for slavery to disappear… in God’s own timing. The title page of the book is instructive as it quotes Romans 13:1, “The powers that be are ordained by God.” So social injustice exists because God wills it to be that way… at least for now. Unfortunately, to look at the present and at history as expressing God’s preferred ordained state of things, essentially blesses injustices, and tends to make us blind to the same injustices that those of the past were blind to.
Frankly, however, we should learn from the past. We should look at the, illegal actually, expulsion of Cherokee native Americans from the Southeast United States in 1838-1839, (well-described today as “The Trail of Tears”) as a great evil, unjustified Biblically, and unconscionable regardless of their citizen status. When we look to today and the future, we should learn and grow from that, and Evangelical Christians, above all others, should be horrified by the possibility of multiplying this horror with “carte blanche” executive expulsion of millions of those without citizen status in the US.
#2. Evangelicals often have a poor theology of social justice because of the prioritization of evangelism. The term “because” is an admittedly loaded term, since there is no automatic causal relationship between the two. But there is certainly a connection. If one takes the five major attitudes (theological perspectives) that Christians have regarding social action (avoidance, convenience, social gospel, ulterior motive, and holism), the most common tend to be Convenience and Ulterior Motive. Convenience view is that social ministry or social action is fine, even commendable, as long as it does not get in the way of “real” Great Commission ministry. Ulterior Motive view is that social ministry is great and justified if, and only if, it can be used to direct people to “real” Great Commission ministry. Great Commission ministry I am using to describe the three-fold description from Matthew 28 of conversion, baptism, and spiritual training (and am not here going to deal with the question of whether these are the only valid GC ministries). Both Convenience and Ulterior Motive viewpoints devalue social ministry or social action. What we don’t prioritize, we don’t value. What we don’t value, we tend to do poorly.
Additionally, some take a view like Billy Graham did in his quote at the top of this post that suggests that if people are successfully evangelized, social ministry and social justice will tend to take care of themselves. This hasn’t proven to be true. The early church struggled immensely with societal issues. They did not “just get worked out.” In fact, Evangelical groups often unwittingly perpetuate injustices. It has long been noted that the growth of Evangelical or Charismatic groups in Central America has had little to no impact on societal evils. Part of this comes from the common Evangelical viewpoint I like to call “Apocalypticism’– I mean by that the idea that if this world will pass away, and a new heaven and earth will endure, present sins and injustices really don’t matter all that much. We need to focus on that which is spiritual and eternal. This view sounds good, until we test it against Christ’s declaration of an imminent Kingdom of God, and the call of Christians to be a part of the call towards radical transformation, both within and without. While I do agree that history does not appear to support a post-millennial view of social progress, to simply embrace a Jainist or Hindu (Kali yuga) inevitability of cosmic corruption, or perhaps a Benedictine view of separation from the world, is ultimately inconsistent with our call as Christians.
#3. Evangelicals tend to like to generalize social problems. One might call it whitewashing… an intentional minimization of social concerns. Evangelicals have difficulty transitioning from abstract truths to practical truths– they are better at dogma than applying dogma to praxis. Consider the movement in the US in the last few months, “Black Lives Matter.” A lot of Evangelicals expressed dislike for the term, preferring to say “All Lives Matter.” While the second statement is certainly true, it is also part of the long-standing tradition of maintaining blindspots by using general, although true, language. In the 1800s, Christians could tacitly support slavery while speaking vaguely about the “brotherhood of man.” Consider the (American) Declaration of Independence that starts out as
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The initial draft of the Declaration of Independence had a paragraph on concerns regarding slavery and race. While admittedly, the language is mixed– both inspirational and a bit racist– eventually, this was stricken from the final version. It seems that those (commonly Christians, or Christian-influenced Deists) who sought to retain slavery, wanted to remove explicit condemnation for enslavement, while perfectly happy to keep ambiguous, high-sounding statements of human equality and unalienable rights.
Sadly, general language promotes blind spots. Here in the Philippines, for example, there has been a rash of extrajudicial killings (criminal homicides) of those involved in the drug trade. If Evangelical Christians want to sound good while maintaining a blindspot, they can talk about the “sanctity of human life” or “All lives matter.” But if they want to face the problem directly rather than ignore it, they should say “Drug lords lives matter” or “Drug dealers lives matter.” I really don’t expect to hear that language anytime soon.
William Wilberforce was a great champion of social justice, in part, because he did not generalize. He did not simply say that all men have rights… he focused a light on the deplorable practice of black slavery. He did not simply talk about the well-beings of laborers, but focused attention on specific abuses such as in child labor. He did not simply express support of justice, but supported specific justice and reform in how prisoners were handled. He did not talk vaguely about good Christian stewardship of Creation, but (actually) supported legislation protecting the well-being of farm animals.
Wilberforce, did not presume that the past or the present define God’s preferred future. He did not assume that the “powers that be,” ordained by God, don’t need to be challenged and held accountable to serve God and the public good effectively.
Wilberforce did not a focus so much on the hereafter that his theological understanding of God’s call to Christians is muddy and sporadic. One might say that he saw that Lord’s prayer “… Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as not just a passive wish, but a call for personal commitment to partner with God.
A commitment to evangelism, churchplanting, and discipleship does not demand a watering down or half-hearted commitment to social justice.