Monday, June 13, 2011

Evangelism and Social Action

Patrick Mitchel of IBI, MCC, and "friend of Scot McKnight" fame has begun a series of posts on the gospel and social responsibility over at Jesus Creed. Check the first one out here. A similar topic was mentioned to me over the weekend, with someone saying that the view of one prominent Chritian leader is that evengelism and social action must be distinguished but joined together. This is my initial response to that view, jotted down on the train back to Belfast and very much open to being shaped/changed by Patrick's series on Jesus Creed.

Evangelism and social action. To distinguish between them is to do evangelism an injustice. For evangelism is social action. To speak the language of good news is to act in and for the world as a social being among other social beings, witnessing to the possibility -- indeed, immenence -- of a new social reality and existence.

Before Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, he spoke. Not to pharaoh, but to pharaoh's slaves -- Yhwh's people. Moses's words constituted a social action. His bringing of good news -- his evangelism -- created a new social possibility in the midst of the old one. The days in pharaoh's brickyard were numbered. Scripture tells us that Moses spoke the words of Yhwh to Israel in Egypt, and Israel in Egypt believed and worshipped Yhwh. The liberation has already begun. The social action of Yhwh in coming down to his people and the social action of Moses in evangelising to his people has begun it.

Rather than retaining the sanctity of evangelism by distinguishing it from social action, the distinction merely highlights our increasing distrust in the language of faith. Or perhaps more seriously, we no longer even know what the language of faith is. We no longer know it as language powerful enough to do something, to create newness in the thick of injustice. We have distinguished between evangelism and social action because we have distinguished between the gospel and history. The gospel has come to concern our life post-history, thus distinguishing it from the historical work of social action. But when the two are thusly distinguished, it is unintelligible and incoherent when they are inevitably joined together. The writers in Transforming the World seem to perpetuate the confusion by speaking of salvation as "practical as well as spiritual" (emphasis mine). Is spiritual salvation impractical? Is practical salvation unspiritual?

If we are to break the divide between evangelism and social action, we must recover the word of the LORD proclaimed by Jesus and witnessed to by those who followed him: The kingdom of God is at hand. God is at work in Egypt, bringing Israel into a remarkably new existence. God is at work in the world, bringing the church into a remarkably new existence. And near the beginning of this work stands Moses, who received from Yhwh good news and who shared that good news with a people in desperate need of it. This sharing was a liberating social action -- an event that called out of slavery a community of worship and hope. The kingdom of Pharaoh was at an end. The kingdom of Yhwh was at hand.

Of course the liberation was not complete after the evengelism. But neither was the liberation complete after the crossing of the Red Sea. The work of liberation, of salvation, was ongoing. It  always is, until God is all in all.

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