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Evangelicals and Justice: why are we so late to the game? Justice#2

Evangelicals and Justice: why are we so late to the game? Justice#2 December 15, 2020

It is ironic that Christians are often viewed as unconcerned about social justice issues. After all, many orphanages, rescue missions, schools, feeding programs, and other social organizations were initially founded by Christians.

In this series of posts, I would like us to grapple with the issues pertaining to justice. In the first post, I suggested that maybe I was to blame for some of the injustices in the world today. I am convinced that unless evangelicals are willing to acknowledge our own role with regard to global injustices, I am not sure we will make much progress.

 

Doing justice

In one sense, to do justice is to be human. There is something in our veins that calls us to do justice. How often have we heard the hero respond, “I was just doing what anyone else would have done”?

Yet, one of the intriguing elements of evangelicalism of the 20th century has been the distancing from acts of “social justice.”

How is it that we have arrived at a place in which there is such a radical disconnect from our own heritage?

Being mindful of the fact an historical overview in the course of a short blog will hardly be able to do justice, I would note several factors that significantly influenced evangelicals and their hesitancy toward social justice.

 

Evangelicals and the Social Gospel

First, evangelicals have often been removed from justice work because the rise of the “social gospel” was too closely aligned with liberal Christianity.

Especially problematic was the liberal church’s endorsement of biblical higher criticism,[1] which, in the eyes of conservatives, was viewed as a challenge to the legitimacy and authority of the Bible. Conservatives felt the need to distance themselves from those who were viewed as compromising the integrity of the Scriptures.[2]

 

Evangelicals and the embrace of Modernism

Also, there was a growing embrace of modernist thinking and its emphasis on the divide between heaven (spiritual) and earth (physical). One of the convictions that arose from the incursion of modernism and its sacred-secular divide was the notion that Christians were to focus primarily on spiritual matters.

Note: the embracing of modernism and its focus on spiritual matters provided a solid justification for the lack of social engagement.

 

Evangelicals and individualism

The focus on spiritual matters corresponded with a greater emphasis on the role of individual responsibility. Evangelicals became more convinced that social injustices were most often the result of poor individual choices.

Just as each person was responsible for making a personal decision regarding their salvation, so also, they were responsible for themselves socially.

The stress on individual responsibility combined with a growing emphasis on the spiritual, led to an increased focus on personal conversions. Within evangelicalism, the conviction became that the goal of the church was to help people find Jesus and make better choices.[3]

Though the emphasis on conversions has a long history in American theology, tracing back to the two “Great Awakenings” (c 1720-40’s; and 1790’s), it was fueled among evangelicals in the middle of the 20th century by the success of the Billy Graham crusades.

The growth of evangelicalism as a result of the emphasis on conversions led to an even greater conviction that social concerns and the care for the poor were not the goal of the church. If, after all, the plight of the destitute was caused by poor choices, then neither our assistance, nor that of the government was going to solve their problems.

 

Evangelicals and the End Times

In addition, there was a rising interest in eschatological[4] matters. Speculations regarding the imminent return of Jesus were bound up with the conviction that the world would soon be destroyed. This, of course, would not occur until after Christians had been safely rescued from the world.[5] The popularity of this view accelerated with the publication of The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970.

The emphasis on the imminent end of all things, had serious ramifications on ecological and environmental concerns. One can easily see how eschatological convictions influenced evangelical non-action when it came to matters of conservation and concerns over the climate. If God was about to destroy the world, then why should we be concerned with preserving it?

This led to a further detachment within some segments of evangelicalism with regard to social concerns. After all, if the people of God were merely awaiting the day when He would take them to some spiritual heaven, why should they be concerned with social justice?[6] After all, the world was going to burn soon.

 

Where do we go from here?

All this means that by the time we reach the end of the 20th century, evangelicals have posited biblical, theological, social, and political reasons why doing justice was not a concern for the people of God.

Tim Keller notes that the lack of concern among evangelicals for doing justice has had some unsettling effects:

“In the Bible Christians have an ancient, rich, strong, comprehensive, complex, and attractive understanding of justice. Biblical justice differs in significant ways from all the secular alternatives, without ignoring the concerns of any of them. Yet Christians know little about biblical justice, despite its prominence in the Scriptures. This ignorance is having two effects. First, large swaths of the church still do not see ‘doing justice’ as part of their calling as individual believers. Second, many younger Christians, recognizing this failure of the church and wanting to rectify things, are taking up one or another of the secular approaches to justice, which introduces distortions into their practice and lives.”[7]

So, where do we go from here? How do we solve this dilemma? The answer is simple and one that evangelicals should embrace. We return to the Scriptures.

Though evangelicals have learned to read the Bible in terms of a heaven-earth divide, which leaves little room for justice concerns, it is not difficult to demonstrate that Jesus and justice go hand in hand.

This will be the subject of our next post.

 

 

[1] Higher criticism endeavors to study the history and sources behind a text. Much of biblical higher criticism rejected the Scriptures as divine.

[2] It may seem incredulous to think that someone would not engage in justice work because they did not want to be associated with the “other.” Such convictions, however, are found in most every society and group within societies. Evangelicals are no exception. In fact, though this might come as a surprise, at the time of Roe v Wade (1973) evangelicals largely supported abortion and were reticent about “pro-life” activities because that was the work of the Roman Catholic church. Evangelicals were so opposed to Catholicism that they did not want to align with the pro-life movement.

[3] During this time, I recall distinctly being convinced that if I were to offer the beggar on the street money, they would simply make more poor choices with it. In fact, if they used the money to buy more alcohol or drugs, I would be guilty of only contributing to their plight. They needed Jesus. That was the only way they would get better.

[4] Eschatology focuses on the study of the “last things” (i.e., the “end times”).

[5] Note the rise in the anticipation of the “rapture” among evangelicals at this time. The rapture is idea that Jesus will take up (i.e., rapture) all Christians from the Earth in the years immediately preceding, or for some in the midst of, the great tribulation, which will climax with the Second Coming of Jesus. This idea corresponds well with an increased emphasis on the spiritual and a denial of the physical.

[6] I must note that I personally recall a general lack of empathy within my community for those who suffered from injustice. After all, the world I grew up in emphasized the need for everyone to personally decide to accept Jesus for themselves. Those who did so, would eventually escape this world and its injustices. Those who failed to do so would suffer injustice now and damnation later.

[7] Tim Keller, A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory, https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/a-biblical-critique-of-secular-justice-and-critical-theory/.


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