Gospel & Culture blog
Social justice is an integrative field, taking into account the Creation mandate (to flourish and lead productive lives), the social ethic of the Old Testament (justice, fairness, goodness), Jesus' inaugural address in Luke 4:19-21, as well as contemporary theories of justice and development from the social sciences-- these theories converge where they address social problems, and inform the strategies we use to meet those needs.
Jimmy Carter said that the most significant social justice issue facing us in the 21st century is income inequality. Research shows that (at least in wealthy nations) wealth inequality leads to social problems like demoralization, homicide, and depending on who runs the economy, racism (see Chua.). And as free markets take off, especially in this era of globalization 2.0, levels of inequality keep rising. In the past 200 years from 3:1 to 72:1, meaning the richest countries are now 72 times richer (and increasing) than the poorest (see World Centric). If this has happened since 1820, and industrial nations are among the most unequal, it seems to be correlated with the industrial revolution, and especially with capitalism (or free markets). But does that mean the free market is to blame? Some have suggested that if capitalism is correlated with inequality, capitalism is inherently flawed (or even evil). But let's consider the syllogism
Between the 1930s and 1980s, the mainline churches changed their missions-focus from proclamation to social justice: working with orphans, civil rights, digging wells, protecting the environment and later issues like economic development and sex trafficking became more prominent whereas conversion faded to the background.
What led to this shift? Did the world all of a sudden have more physical suffering than ever? Was the world so well evangelized that proclamation was no longer a major work of cross-cultural workers?
There are actually several reasons for the shift. Some are genuine issues or problems that should inform our missiology (decolonization, social problems)- they should lead us to do cross-cultural work that is holistic and addresses physical needs. Other influences (secularism, communism) are more distractions to missions.
1) Secularization. As western society began to separate issues of faith from "real life", even church-goers, clergy and mission leaders in the mainline churches thought less and less about the supernatural, heaven, sin, forgiveness. Church, and the work of the church, was only valuable insofar as it had a secular value: promoting peace, education, development.
2) Communism. The experiment of socialism/marxism had a tremendous influence in South America in the 1960s and 1970s. This influenced Latin American theologians and missionaries. Mission work became another way of ushering in the revolution (aka the Kingdom of God). The work of missions was about equality, or really, about upending the established political and economic systems.
3) Civil rights abuses: The world saw tremendous suffering and abuse of humans in the 20th century, and Christians had to grapple with their role in perpetuating or alleviating these problems
4) The stigma of fundamentalism: If fundamentalists were seen as culturally-clueless evangelists who only wanted to make converts, mainline missionaries wanted to distance themselves from this image.
5) A reaction to the church growth movement: Donald McGavran and David Hesslegrave emphasized that missions is not just about proclamation, but persuasion. The church must be growing or missionaries are not doing their job. This made sense to evangelical missionaries, but was controversial to mainline missionaries. The distaste for such an emphasis on numerical growth and persuasion led mainline missiologists to focus more on other areas of mission.
6) Hippies: The theologians of the 1980s and 1990s came out of the hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Jesus was seen as a wandering magician whose main purpose was to upset the established conservative religious and political system of the day. This anti-establishment, free-thinking attitude permeated missiology in mainline seminaries. Religion was only good insofar as it promoted peace - evangelism was seen as divisive.
7) Decolonization: As nations gained their independence from Europe during the 1950s to 1990s, the image of the European missionary who comes to teach or transform was increasingly challenged- both in the west and in the global south. The mainline church either called for a moratorium on missionaries from the West, or for a re-imagining of the role. No longer would western missionaries preach and teach, they would learn and serve.
8) Social problems: The famines, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis that have such a devastating effect in the global south captured the hearts of many missionaries.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor