A huge issue has arisen amongst evangelicals: social justice and social action have become front, left and center — in shaping our behaviors and in understanding the gospel … and Patrick Mitchel, from Ireland, we get a pushback that can make us think again. The issue is one of “how much continuity is there between now and the kingdom?”
I’ve been thinking about the link between
eschatology and social action recently. One line of thinking, that can
be called the ‘future continuity’ argument, is hugely influential in a
lot of missional writing and emphasizes the strong continuity between
the future and the present. We experience now the ‘presence of the
future’ – in the kingdom of God and in the Spirit. AND we hope for the
‘future of the present’ – where the present will have a strong
continuity into the future in a renewed earth.
Since God’s kingdom has broken into the present,
we are called to co-operation with what God is already doing in
redeeming creation. This leads to ‘kingdom ethics’ where what we do now
in this world matters deeply as we are called to help fulfil the Lord’s
prayer ‘May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. This
calling gives deepened spiritual significance and motivation to all
that we do in this life: for our bodies; our work; for art; for ecology
and so on.
N T Wright says this sort of thing towards the end of Surprised by Hope
but it has been around for quite a while. For instance, one church I
read about recently was removing rubbish from a local canal. Their
motivation was mainly eschatological; fulfilling their calling to
co-operate with God’s agenda of a renewed creation.
Now please hear me – I’ve no problem with most
of this. Future hope should profoundly shape our lives and priorities
in the present. The New Testament obviously has some sort of continuity
between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. Social justice is close to the heart
of God. But the more you think about it, the more difficult it is to
draw straight lines between cleaning up a canal (or whatever action you
want to substitute here) and helping ‘complete’ God’s kingdom plans for
a renewed creation. The reality is we know very very little about the
future new creation. Will there be canals there? Art? Forests? Music?
Books? We just have very little solid idea.
Have we been so keen to reject individualistic
ideas of salvation that separate social action from the gospel that we
have too easily assumed a strong, if not almost literal, continuity
between the present and the new creation? And have we, almost
unnoticed, put our efforts, our fulfilment
of kingdom ethics, centre stage in God’s plan of redemption? Have we
begun to assume that the primary motivation for social justice is an
eschatological vision of a perfectly just future? I’m not too sure the
Scriptures do this – it seems to me the Bible’s primary motivation for
social justice is a deep love of God and a deep love of neighbour.