The Common Good

Seven Burning Issues: 7. Injustice

Date: May 1, 2008

Social justice has become a buzz phrase in Christianity lately. Halting global injustice seems to be one of the foremost concerns of young Christians, and its emphasis is changing the face of the Church from the way it engages society to the way it engages politics. But is our emphasis on social justice detracting from other areas of the Gospel?

Jim Wallis: It’s unfortunate we even have to ask that question. I’ve been fighting the false dichotomy between evangelism and social justice my whole life; it’s even wrong to call for a balance between the two, because they are not two separate things. Christians in the global south talk about an integrated, holistic Gospel of the Kingdom of God. It changes personal lives; it brings social justice. It transforms individuals, communities, societies and even governments. God’s aim is to make all things new.

The message to Christians today is very clear. Any gospel that isn’t good news to poor people simply isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ; any evangelism that doesn’t include social justice ignores the perfectly integrated life and message of Jesus.

If we’re not calling people into deeper levels of personal relationship with God, we’re not taking the Gospel seriously. If we’re not engaging the world, bringing empowerment to the marginalized and addressing the specific injustices of our time, we’re also not taking the Gospel seriously. It’s that simple.


Chuck Colson: The Great Commission charges us with the responsibility to make disciples and baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is also a Cultural Commission that flows out of Genesis 1, which gives us a responsibility to care for all that God has created. In fulfilling the cultural mandate, we work fervently for social justice and to help the poor. No one can read the Scriptures and come to any other conclusion.

Both the Great Commission and the Cultural Commission are part of God’s plan of creation, clearly mandated in Scripture. But if you press me, I’d say that if people weren’t being led to Christ, they wouldn’t assume the cultural mandate. So I suppose if there were a priority, it would be the Great Commission.

Nancy Ortberg: I think for a lot of people, social justice leads to evangelism. Jimmy Long has written a book called Generating Hope, which talks about how you present the Gospel in a postmodern setting. [He says] people who didn’t grow up in the Church are going to, if they do come to know God, probably experience two conversions and not one.

The first is the conversion to community. That will allow them to live close enough to God’s people to get a view of the God who sits in the center of those people. Their second conversion then will be to God. So as we authentically live out social justice in our lives, evangelism will be an outcome of that, and I also think evangelism will bring people into our churches who will be very committed to social justice.

Many churches I come in contact with have all kinds of programs for banquets, teas and Bible studies, which in and of themselves are not bad, but there is not an equal amount of serving the poor, getting our hands dirty and coming alongside people in need. The Church has to go to them. People started clamoring around Jesus initially because He was healing people, and when they got close enough, they began to hear His message: "The Kingdom of God is available right now."

Brian McLaren: The most important thing is for us to stop putting evangelism and social justice in opposition as if they are enemies. That shows the degree to which we have become captive to a colonial, consumerist, dualist mindset, where religion or salvation is a private matter of the heart or soul and eternity, and social justice is a secondary concern because it involves bodies and politics and history. As long as we’re playing in that field, we’re playing somebody else’s game.
We need to remember that Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, "May we come to Your Kingdom in heaven after we die, where, unlike earth, Your will is done." He teaches us to pray, "May Your Kingdom come here to earth. May Your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven." When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, people who are alienated from God come back in relationship with God—which is evangelism. And people who are mistreated by others are given justice and relief—which is social justice.

Shane Claiborne: When I look at Jesus, [evangelism and dealing with injustice] are inseparable in His life. People are hungry for a Gospel that embodies a social, political alternative to the patterns of our world. To me, that is the very essence of what spread within the early Church—they were caring for the poor, preaching another Kingdom and another emperor other than Caesar. It was absolutely magnetic because the faith people had placed in Rome was at an all-time low, so when they were saying, "We’ve got another Kingdom," people were like, "Yes, we’re ready, because the world as we’ve experienced it is not working." The beautiful thing is, people are saying the same thing now.

Steve Brown: A follower of Christ doesn’t put on a "social justice" hat and then an "evangelism" hat and then try to discern which hat to wear the most and which hat is the most valuable. Why? Because it isn’t a hat; it’s the head and the heart. You can’t exchange either. They are integral to the person.

When a Christian sees someone who is physically hungry, a Christian feeds the hungry person. Why? Because hungry people can’t understand the plan of salvation? No. Simply because that person is hungry. That’s what Christians do. And if a person is spiritually hungry, a Christian becomes "one beggar telling another beggar where he or she found bread." Why? Because that’s what Christians do.

N.T. Wright: Justice and evangelism are things which have to go on through the work of the Church simultaneously. I really don’t think we have to make the choice, and to suggest we do, as our culture has suggested over the last 200 years, is to put a split in the world that has little or nothing to do with the vision we find in Scripture where Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. He is telling them about God’s sovereignty happening in a new way, which is evangelism. But the way it works out is the fact of what He’s doing for the poor. As the Church is getting its hands dirty doing what needs to be done to help the poorest of the poor, people realize this Gospel really does make a difference—it can never simply be a matter of the heart. It’s got to be a matter of real conditions of people.