Walter Brueggemann, Professor of Old Testament, argues that the tension between “evangelism” and “social action” grows out of a deep misunderstanding.
To posit tension between evangelism and social action amounts to a deep distortion of both and is in the end a phony issue. Or to put it more positively, serious, responsible faith attends to both serious evangelism and intentional social action.
Brueggemann suggests we must go past the distorting antithesis to discover that behind both mandates is the God of the Bible–decisively present in the story of Jesus–who is both:
- –the principle subject of evangelism &
- –the principle agent of social action.
When we say that **the God of the Bible is the subject of evangelism,** it means that every aspect and dimension of our lives is being brought under the rule and intention of that God. The message of the gospel deabsolutizes every other claim of authority and invites us to situate our lives in the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, his burial, resurrection and ascension.
Similarly, when we say that **the God of the Bible is the decisive agent of social action**, it means that social action has an ideological quality. As Brueggemann writes:
The message of the gospel is the sustained affirmation of the Bible that the creator of heaven and earth is at work to mend and redeem and repair and rehabilitate the world so that it may become the good creation . . . the new creation . . . that God has always and everywhere intended.
Brueggemann argues that all our zeal is fundamentally “penultimate.”
In other words, we avoid the distorting antithesis between evangelism and social action when we become intimately aware and purposefully acknowledge that God is indeed effectively at work in Jesus on behalf of the well-being of the world. That God is doing the work of bringing the entire world under his good rule. And morever, that God will not quit until it is finished. As John the Apostle said, the lips are laid to the trumpet and the voices are starting to sing:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. (Rev 11:15)
In his argument, Brueggemann believes that evangelism taken by itself and social action by itself both need to be regospeled, reinvited into the news that the action stays God’s not ours. If this is so, our action stays bouyant, propelled not by success but by faithfulness.
- Evangelism taken by itself becomes self-indulgent narcissism that imagines our embrace of the gospel to be an end in itself rather than enlistment into an alternative world. Evangelism is thus trivialized away from God.
- Social action by itself becomes hard-nosed ideology that is authoritarian and graceless. Social action is thus undertaken in Promethean autonomy.
But together, Brueggemann argues that radical social action is a public articulation of our identity in Christ.
Social action indwells the evangelist because the God who promises the news of the gospel is the God at work transforming the world, inviting all adherents of the gospel to share in the tranformational work.
When we enter the larger story of God’s intent to redeem and restore all creation, we enter a story in which we are inescapably engaged in the work of mending the world “that is God’s own work.”
1. We are engaged by prayer, whereby we pray daily that God’s way of governance shall be fully established on earth as it already is in heaven so that there will be no more violence, poverty, homelessness, nor any other injustice.
2. We are engaged in hope, whereby each day we expect God’s decisive action, fully confident that things need not stay the way they are and will not stay the way they are, simply because God is God.
3. As in prayer and hope, we are engaged in God’s transformative work in the world by our actions–when we make our intentional, bodily investments in the narrative of God that we have, in Christ, come to accept as the true story of our lives. We invest our bodies in this way, not because it is exceptional or because it is heroic or because it is expecially more or virtuous, but because it is the natural and unexceptional living out of who we are in our relished identity as members of the narrative of God.
Brueggemann closes his chapter with the account of a transcendent moment in Martin Luther King’s life where at his kitchen table he was claimed and redefined by the belief that “the essence of religion was not a grand metaphysical idea but something personal, grounded in experience.” It was that moment that provided the power for the movement.
Brueggemann asks us to imagine if King had so prized the gospel that he stayed forever in the kitchen: no movement! Or to imagine if King has so prized the movement that he had not paused long enough in vulnerability to be reshaped and empowered that day in the kitchen: no durable courage or freedom! It is not an either/or. It is both/and….the deep claiming of good news and the insistent dangerous public obedience.