The Long And Winding Road
As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Roger Thurow came to Tyler asking questions about hunger and what was being done locally. Now a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Roger had been a journalist covering, among other things, global food and agriculture for thirty years in Europe and Africa. While he was here, we had some time in between his interviews and our conversation turned not only to hunger globally and in the United States but to Christian philanthropy and the role it plays in those issues. At that time I was concerned about the almost exclusive focus of much of evangelical philanthropy on evangelism. We talked about the long-term and deep theological, historical and cultural roots of that and how effective those had been in not only funding denominational missions but in the formation of numerous parachurch organizations carrying out the Great Commission.
While it was evident even then that a new generation was turning toward more emphasis on and interest in social justice, one of my concerns, ironically, was it would not have as solid a foundation of theology, music and hymns, literature, stories, poetry, associations and institutions that had supported the cause of the previous generation. What could be more motivating than helping bring in the Second Coming? But, what will energize and sustain the next generation equally? While the work of evangelism is difficult and always slower than expected, there has been wide institutional support and the encouragement that there would be a moment in which victory could be declared. At a point in time everyone would have heard the Gospel “and then the end will come.” It doesn’t seem to be so with many of our social justice issues. They are rooted in the nature of a fallen and broken world and there is no similar promise of declaring a final victory. Yes, there are inspiring slogans about eradicating poverty, injustice, corruption and changing the world but nothing as concrete as ushering in the Kingdom. Yes, there are the victories of eradicating disease or improving economic conditions, but while one had an end point in mind, the other seems far more open and fluid. How can anything be as tangible and compelling as “finishing the task”? What will sustain a long obedience in the same direction? What will keep them from falling away when they realize how complex, discouraging, and frustrating the work of social justice is? Evangelism is so much easier to measure.
And, clearly, without those supports, people will eventually give up out of exhaustion and disappointment that the world did not change the way they were promised. I’ve been reading “God Is Not Nice” by Uriah Lehner and he is saying this better than me. He is concerned about religion as a tool to fix the world or advance a political agenda as a way of making religion useful. “Equally disastrous is the idea that religion is needed as an additional value as if it were a necessary vitamin supplement for society. If religion is a supplement, then culture must be the whole that really counts…We can’t sprinkle God on society like magical glitter. It is the other way around: culture has to open itself up to God, searching for the true, good, and beautiful; by doing so, it can be shaped by the divine…In my ten years teaching at a Jesuit university, I have seen my fair share of soulless activism pretending to be Christian, Catholic, or Jesuit. Once such habits take root, they are very hard to change, and they suffocate every attempt at contemplation because the Holy is perceived as a threat to the emptiness of the activists’ own agenda.”
It’s fair to say I am on the lookout for the next generation of theologians, writers, musicians and institution builders who will create more than a new wave or initiative. We have hundreds of new social entrepreneurs and nonprofits working for social justice. Yes, we have the Christian Community Development Association, the Justice Conference, Evangelicals for Social Action, the simple way and the living pioneers like Gary Haugen, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and John Perkins but we need a deeper bench and more resources like those that flooded the cause of evangelism. These new leaders will fashion a mindset and encourage a resilience and strength that will make social justice more than either a reaction to the narrowness of evangelism only or simply a way to make religion useful and attractive to millennials. In the same manner a previous generation had a sense of urgency to finish the task, I am looking for the underpinnings that will carry a movement faced with increasing complexity, a much longer horizon, and the need for an even deeper understanding of the world.