Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bridging the Great Divide: How Can Christians Counter the Persistent Split between Evangelism and Justice?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bridging the Great Divide: How Can Christians Counter the Persistent Split between Evangelism and Justice?

Article excerpt

I'VE ALWAYS BELIEVED THAT THE GOSPEL is good news to the poor. My parents are both Baptist ministers who preached a lot about the "kingdom of God." They didn't mean just a spiritual reality--going to a disembodied heaven when you die--they meant building a more just society on earth. After all, Jesus taught us to pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." But I 'also grew up in a moderately evangelical subculture that encouraged us to make a personal decision for Christ and share our faith with others.

As I grew older, I realized there was a "Great Divide" in Protestantism between the people who did evangelism and the people who did social justice. Christians who worked for justice talked a lot about the "social gospel." Christians who did evangelism often dismissed social activism, saying things like, "we believe in preaching the gospel, not the 'social gospel.'" I felt pressured to choose sides, so I sided with justice. I figured that if it wasn't good news to the poor, then it wasn't the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When I was in college, I got involved with a movement called "Friends of Justice," which overturned a corrupt drug sting in my hometown that targeted African Americans. I organized a youth group to empower children of incarcerated parents to be change agents in the community. At a summer camp, I talked to a group of street-wise youth about Jesus' teachings on nonviolence. The kids were intrigued, but skeptical. "If I turn the other cheek, everyone's going to say that I'm a punk!" objected Anthony. His friend quipped, "I know which cheek I'm going to turn!"--and showed us how he would moon his imaginary aggressor.

Anthony reported back after lunch: "Chris just tried to fight me, and I tried turning the other cheek, but then I looked weak in front of everyone. Now everyone's going to try to push me around, because they think I won't stand up for myself. Does Jesus want me to look like a punk?" He waited for an answer. I balked. I wanted to empower Anthony to change the world but what good news did I have to share with him?

Anthony was facing a world of immediate threats to his safety and dignity. He wanted to know why he should follow Jesus when it looked foolish to everyone around him. I doubted he would find much personal hope in my long-term political program to end youth violence or my abstract vision of radical inclusion through Christ. Anthony's world needed a living savior who had conquered the forces of sin and death literally, not metaphorically. Real hope. Real resurrection. Real victory.

That's when I realized something was missing from my justice-only understanding of the gospel because if it wasn't good news to the poor, then it wasn't the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Since then, I've been asking, "What would it look like to proclaim the gospel and invite people to follow Jesus in a way that leads to the work of justice?" I'm constantly meeting other Christians who are trying to combine evangelism and justice as two expressions of one gospel. But we're finding that old habits die hard. As a Christian and a sociologist, I've reflected on our challenges; I want to propose three learnings for our movement.

1. To heal the "Great Divide" between evangelism and justice, we have to start by telling the gospel in plain language. Here's the problem as I see it.

Evangelical Christians often preach a gospel that leaves out Jesus' life and ministry: Jesus came to earth to die and pay the price for our sins--and as a warm-up act, he did a few miracles and preached the Beatitudes. I once attended an Easter musical at an evangelical church that spent 15 minutes portraying Jesus' birth, 20 on his death and resurrection--but less than five minutes on his ministry. One might gather that Christ's teachings weren't integral to the "gospel message" they were trying to convey.

Meanwhile, liberal mainliners proclaim a gospel that leaves out the cross: Jesus was a prophet and healer who preached good news to the poor, then he died and rose again--but let's not get too distracted by that "dying and rising again" part. …

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