Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I


Evangelicalism has been very good at preaching the good news, but falls a bit short on doing justice.



I am taking a break from considering the difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” in Scripture to return to a related topic that erupted publicly in recent weeks: racial injustice. It is related because God’s character is righteousness and justice at His core.

As an attorney, I have had the privilege (and sacred duty) to devote some time to a local organization known as Administer Justice that serves the poor, vulnerable and under-privileged in communities around the country. A great many of “those people” are minorities, immigrants and “the working poor”. I’ve had the honor of getting know some real servants of the Gospel in the process, like Bruce Strom, the founder and executive director of this organization.

I am reading through his book, Gospel Justice. I’ve owned the book for a long time, probably years. I started it a long time ago, and I am still not through it yet because ( I admit) that other, more “interesting” subjects and diversions have distracted me from the seemingly mundane subject of justice.

If I truly want to know God’s heart, to follow Jesus and to work out my salvation as God works within me to will and to act according to His good purpose, though, I need to be concerned about justice – because it’s at the foundation of God’s throne. (Psalm 89:14)

We can’t talk about justice in the United States in the 21st century without talking about racial disparities resulting from centuries of racial injustice. The recent events following the killing of George Floyd (and others) have focused national attention on the issue. As the national dialogue continues, we in the Body of Christ need to engage.

There is a great need for the Body of Christ collective to participate as God would have us get involved in the discussion, action and changes necessary to address racial injustice. My own neighborhood in the Body of Christ is the American evangelical church. Thus, I write this with my evangelical brothers and sisters in mind.

The following passage in Bruce Strom’s book inspires my thoughts today:

“The division between Jews and Gentiles was the great divide of the first century.
“In America that great divide is race, and it remains a leading contributor to injustice. In their book, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith examine the role of white evangelicalism in race relations. Based on extensive interviews and study, they conclude that the evangelical church, with its focus on individual salvation, not only misses the opportunity to break down the great divide between the races, but also contributes to it.
“This view is shared by my friend Ed Gilbreath, who wrote Reconciliation Blues. ‘A sad tendency of evangelical faith is to elevate the act of evangelism over the humanity of the people we want to reach…. Apparently, any time an ethnic minority speaks out against race-related injustice, he risks being branded a malcontent in need of therapy.’
“Racial injustice is real….
“We must not walk on by [like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan] as if racial injustice does not exist. We should listen to our neighbors of color who understand well the injustices in their community. And our friends of race should not give up, but seek opportunity to lead by example.”

I am reminded that the evangelical tradition is informed by people like Luther and Wycliffe. They championed the principal that salvation is by faith in the grace of God, not by works that we can do. That and the primacy of Scripture and the need for individual members of the Body of Christ to read Scripture for themselves and to pray to God our Father – not through some intermediary, but directly – one on one.

These things have driven the evangelical church to seek and save the lost, proclaiming the Gospel with the message of salvation to individuals who believe, repent of their sins and put their faith in the lordship and salvation wrought by Jesus on the cross. These are hallmarks of evangelicalism. They are indeed central to the purposes of God.

I am reminded further that, when Jesus stood up in the Temple to announce the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, he read this from the Isaiah scroll:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel…. (v.18)

When the evangelical church considers the Great Commission –  “[G]o and make disciples of all nations….” (Matt. 28:19-20) – preaching the Gospel comes primarily to mind.  Evangelicalism has been a champion of preaching the Gospel. 

But, I think that sometimes we forget that Jesus didn’t stop there. The passage in Isaiah from which Jesus read continues on well past preaching the good news (quoting from Isaiah 61:1):

He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

Specifically, Jesus came preaching good news to the poor, and the good news included proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and setting the oppressed free.

The Gospel, itself, can do all of these things, of course. Those who are poor in spirit, captives of sin, blind to the truth and oppressed by Satan, the world and their own lusts and pride are the people who need the Gospel. That includes all of us – all of mankind. Those who are physically rich are still poor in spirit without the Gospel.

Jesus demonstrated in his actual ministry, though, that preaching and proclaiming the good news goes hand in hand with meeting the physical needs of those to whom the good news is preached. The physically poor, destitute and downtrodden comprised a large percentage of those who responded to him.

(“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong….” (1 Cor.:26-27))

Knowing that we might be apt to misunderstand this, perhaps, Jesus gave us the parable of the sheep and goats. He wants us to be His hands and his feet, ministering to the physical needs of the lost as we proclaim the good news to them. Whatever we do to the least of people, he said, we do to him! (Matthew 25:31-46)

The goats in the parable are the ones of whom Jesus said,

“‘I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'” 

These words stand as a solemn warning to us today not to neglect the physical needs of people. Preaching the good news and proclaiming release to the captives is only part of the Gospel equation. The other part is a demonstration of God’s love. As this blog article has gotten long, I am going to finish up my thoughts in the next article  on Evangelicalism and Injustice Part II.

Postscript:

Racial injustice is an area of social dialogue into which our present culture has forcefully inserted itself, we need to be mindful of the “other gospels” that compete with the Gospel in this arena. I will do that in a following blog post by summarizing an interview between Alyssa Childers and Monique Duson. (See Critical Race Theory from a Christian Perspective)

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