Think ‘social justice advocate’, and perhaps the first thing that will come to mind is a Fairtrade-coffee-drinking protester. If someone tells you they’re an ‘evangelist’, perhaps you picture them on a stage, or on the streets, telling the masses about Jesus. It is deeply disheartening to know that the two are rarely seen as partner disciplines or ministries intrinsic to each other – because Jesus shows us otherwise! Social justice and evangelism don’t only complement each other; they are inseparable. As the body of Christ, it’s our job to take hold of this truth in His example.
Let’s break it down a little. How can we define social justice? We’re all aware of some of the injustices suffered by people across the globe. Sweatshops and slavery, the homeless and the hungry, corrupt officials and broken justice systems. Refugees, miscarriages of justice, poverty, addictions, cycles of abuse and violence against women. The scale of the situation is so great that, overwhelmed, we cry out for Jesus. It’s not hard to see that He is what people need. And He desires to be called into situations. Timothy Keller writes in Generous Justice about the ‘zeal for justice’ that we can see in God’s character throughout His Word. Justice (mishpat) reflects the character of God; He ‘defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and refuge’ – Deuteronomy 10:17-18, commanding us to ‘administer true justice’, showing ‘mercy and compassion to one another’ – Zechariah 7:10-11. When we advocate for these people, standing up against injustice, we bring God’s heart for justice into society. We recognise His love for us, and for them. ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all those who are destitute’ – Proverbs 31:8.
And if social justice is this desire to bring God’s kingdom, truth and freedom, what is evangelism? The simplest response to this question is perhaps Jesus’ Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…’. Our call is to evangelise the nations, to tell people about Jesus, to share the good news of His salvation with the world! We are to be ‘teaching them to observe all that [He] commanded’. How were the disciples – and how are we – to remember and learn, let alone teach, all that Jesus commanded?
The Gospels are our blueprint.
Let’s look to the feeding of the five thousand: five thousand hungry souls in need of nourishment. They wanted – and needed – to hear Jesus; He was their spiritual food that they were craving. But in order to speak to them about the bread of life, He had to feed them with physical bread. He met their physical needs in order to later meet their spiritual needs. The combination is important because people experienced their needs being so completely met through the love of God.
We can see Jesus meeting the physical needs of those in need all throughout the New Testament. And we are Christians. Called to be Christ-like. When Jackie Pullinger, a missionary in Hong Kong, entered the perilous Walled City for the first time in 1966, she set about loving the destitute, broken, filthy heroin addicts lining the ramshackle streets with all that she had. She built relationships, sat through the night with them, shared rice with those who were hungry and relentlessly loved in the face of horrific gang violence. The city was transformed before hers and the addicts’ eyes because she was sharing Jesus – every part of her. In Chasing the Dragon, she writes ‘what is important is whether we have loved in a real way – not preached in an impassioned way from a pulpit’.
If we want people to hear about Jesus, we ought to talk to them. But if we want them to meet Him – to see Him – to know Him – we must love them as He does. That means raising our voices to advocate for those suffering injustices, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, giving warmth and shelter to those who have none – praying for the sick! Interceding on behalf of those in need! Going to them, meeting their needs, building relationships and sharing the love of Jesus with them through not only our words, but our full witness! Because this is what He did.
Keller notes how (in Deuteronomy 4:6-8) God tells Israel to keep His commands so that ‘all the nations of the world will look at the justice and peace of their society […] and be attracted to God’s wisdom and glory’. Pullinger’s endless and extraordinary testimonies from Hong Kong reflect this. She tells of the Walled City’s inhabitants seeing the fruits of her work through a group of young ex-addicts who lived in the houses she was running: ‘several [people who had seen the boys] came up to the Saturday meetings curious to meet this Jesus who got junkies more bothered about the price of bean curd than heroin’. A society began to be transformed because one woman loved so much that she shared Jesus in every way she could. Our witness is in our lives – not simply in our words!
Both our pursuit of social justice and our desire to evangelise are driven by our recognition of the love that God has for us. If indeed our actions speak louder than our words, we must operate – in fact, we can only truly and fruitfully operate – secure in the knowledge that we love because He first loved us. The love we have comes from the Father. When we are generous to the poor, we honour God (Proverbs 14:31).
CT Studd said “some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell.” The desire that he had for the nations to know of Jesus drew him to China, and later the Congo, where he lived and loved and met the needs of the poor, the broken and the desperate. God is zealous for justice, God yearns for His creation to know Him, and He loves unconditionally. When we walk in the love that He has for us, social justice and evangelism are no longer separate.
‘If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in them?’ 1 John 3:17.
Words by Harriet Cheema-Grubb