This is an edited version of a Chapel talk given at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA) on 2 April 2014.
Historically our evangelical community sought the welfare of our neighbors, even when it required great sacrifice. Outsiders knew that our Christian fellowship was built for the benefit of the non-member. We took seriously the implications of Jesus’s ministry to the poor: dispensing biblical justice to the at-risk; creating whole institutions focused on those who were distressed and downtrodden, in prison, or insecure.
The legacy of evangelical mission includes the abolition of slavery, the Salvation Army, homes for orphans and the homeless, leprosy missions, ministries to the poor and prisoners, and even societies to protect animals from cruelty.
The Great Reversal
However, in the first part of the twentieth century, evangelicals associated the innovations of justice with a liberal brand of Protestantism that we thought put too much emphasis on human progress. We felt that personal faith and evangelism were in danger of being lost when put beside a spirituality that put weight on the reformation of sinful structures in society. Eventually, we could not help but place them in juxtaposition. According to Dr. Ted Engstrom, a long-time leader at World Vision, evangelicals felt strongly that our job was to populate heaven.
This came at a time when there was bold discovery in science and industrial technology, a time when humanity felt it could fix anything if they put their minds to it. Yet it was also a turbulent period, a time of world wars, global instability, and mass carnage. The twentieth century revealed that humans can create great things, but they can also unleash mass destruction, taking lives on a scale never before imagined.
During that era, evangelicals felt the world was spinning out of control, and to make sense of the global chaos, used Scripture for comfort and direction. You could hear it said: ‘We do not trust anything man-made to build the kingdom.’ My forbears, appropriately wary of humankind’s lack of ability to save itself, did not want their church to be tarnished with the liberal label. And so they largely dropped social engagement, in what has been called the Great Reversal.
This had unintended consequences as churches split over the theological shift, and in many places, our witness to the world was compromised. Evangelicals wanted to protect that which we held most dear, deeming it expedient to lessen the value of some biblical texts like the book of James, or verses on Christian unity or reconciliation, in view of our differences within the body of Christ. The holistic nature of our witness became less clear and in some cases completely lost.
The unintended consequence was corporate disunity in churches and divided fellowship in ministries. The worst part was that American evangelicals exported, in the words of theologian and social activist Ron Sider, a one-sided gospel thereby compromising our mission to the world. We often looked for a convert’s hand to be raised in registering saving faith, forgetting that there is a body behind it that might also need to be lifted up.
Twenty-five years ago the nation of Rwanda experienced numerous national crusades. Tens of thousands of hands were raised in revivals and evangelistic meetings. It was believed at that time, in somewhat conservative terms, that over 80% of the population of Rwanda had come to faith in Jesus.
However, 20 years ago, and in little over 100 days, over 800,000 people were slaughtered by their own countrymen in a genocidal frenzy of unparalleled proportion:
- How could a nation so rich in converts to the faith not stave off the most brutal mass murder of its citizens in modern history? How could ethnicity trump spiritual identity and lead them into repudiating everything that their Christian formation stood for?
- Could it be that they registered their faith with their heads and hearts, but left it unconnected to their fingers and toes? Is the sanctification process more than someone making a decision for Christ—is that just the beginning of the process?
Questions like these still demand an accounting in the global body of Christ. One of World Vision’s favorite verses are the words of Jesus as found in John 10:10: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (NIV). Life in all of its fullness was Jesus’ mission.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a chasm opened between personal faith and the expression of that faith to the world. The deeds of our belief became de-linked from our words and faith commitments, and the result was an incomplete witness to the world. We are still dealing with the unintended consequences of that one-sided gospel.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. Surgeon General noticed an abnormally large number of young men diagnosed with Kaposi sarcoma, a rare form of cancer associated primarily with older men of Mediterranean origin. The affected populace hailed from the gay communities of San Francisco and New York and as such was involved in risky sexual behaviors.
The title given to these research findings was GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), a tag that only served to intensify homophobia. With the creation of a medical moniker, the devastation of a feared mysterious syndrome became yoked to the gay community, already held in contempt by many in the church. Medical researchers soon realized they had created a stigmatizing name and changed it to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Evangelicals, like the rest of the world, were somewhat ignorant of what AIDS was. What we did know was that we wanted nothing to do with this group of people who brought it.
Homosexuality confronted our deepest understanding of our sense of self, our own creation narrative, and the way we relate to others. The science on this issue was incomplete, so people questioned whether same-sex attraction was something that you were born with or whether it was motivated by outside behaviors. Evangelicals were clear on what the Bible said on this issue, but less so with how to deal with someone who exhibited same-sex attraction. How do we walk alongside them, if we even walk alongside them at all? Flight or fight is usually what we do when we are afraid of something.
Those who remember this period have to admit to mismanaging this subject in a serious way. Some evangelicals, in our confusion and sloppy exegesis, tried to make spiritual sense out of the HIV infection by calling it God’s punishment for sinful behavior—in a phrase: you play, you pay. Our faith’s profession to love our neighbor, even our enemies, found an exception. We again delinked word and deed.
Thirteen years ago, World Vision launched a national advocacy campaign on AIDS in 18 major cities. It was a simple decision in that our own global community development work was being devastated, as we watched HIV gut communities of their heavy lifters—those in their 20s and 30s—leaving in its wake small children and the aged to sustain communal life. It was deemed an emergency decision to raise awareness so that the public, especially those in the faith community, could understand the difference between a virus and the people it inhabited; that we should fight the virus and love the person.
In gearing up for the campaign, World Vision conducted a national survey including a telling question to which the responses nearly stopped us in our tracks. The question went something like this: An organization asks you to give to a child who has been orphaned due to AIDS. Would you a) definitely give, b) probably give, c) probably not give, or d) definitely not give?
- 7% of those deemed to have no religious affiliation of any kind said that they would definitely give to an organization that is caring for children who are orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.
- The percentage of those who considered themselves born again that would definitely give was 3%.
In short, a little over a decade ago, conservative Christian compassion toward those impacted by AIDS registered less than half that of their secular counterparts, all because of a virus’s connection to a community we did not love or understand. What is more devastating is that we exported the stigma we related to a certain community here to those who had HIV in other parts of the world.
In Africa, a Pentecostal pastor led a World Vision Channels of Hope meeting, training ordinary community members who want to volunteer in care of those affected and infected by HIV. He said of his former attitude toward AIDS: ‘I used to preach if you have that disease (AIDS) in my church, I want you out of here. You got it because of sin, and you are making God angry and I want you out of here right now!’ A leader from America asked what happened to his church when he said this. He replied: ‘We lost all of the women. Many of them got HIV/AIDS on their wedding night. They were faithful to their wedding vows.’
AIDS and morality
AIDS is no respecter of persons. AIDS then and now rages in communities beset by poverty and wealth. It often intensifies around tainted transfusions, casual sex, extramarital affairs, and infected drug needles. However, it then blows out into the ‘moral’ populace: it burns through the purity of marital pledges; it finds its way over the ramparts built by communities and churches.
I have been numerous times in communities that registered an over 30% HIV infection rate.
What do you do with that as a follower of Jesus? Not that long ago they cried out in need, but we were not listening. We were holding to our theological construct that divine justice was being served. At the end of the past century, AIDS had become the biggest orphan and widow creator in history, so that death tolls reached more than 8,000 daily.
All the while a large part of the church sat idle, unwilling to exhibit what James 1:27 says is true religion: ‘taking care of orphans and widows in their distress.’ Paul asks in his letter to the Romans: ‘What can separate us from the love of Christ?’ Back then we would have said ‘AIDS.’
As apartheid came to an end in South Africa, one of our World Vision operatives involved with the struggle for freedom asked Bishop Desmond Tutu what more he could do. Tutu replied that he should go to Palestine. We took the Bishop’s advice and World Vision has been active in Palestine for the better part of 30 years, growing to become one of the largest organizations there.
Yet, for over 60 years, many evangelicals have clung to a very narrow theological narrative that weds Christian theology with a political ideology known as Zionism. This is a national movement to return Jews to Israel, which Jews perceive as their sovereign homeland. Evangelicals have used this theology in affirming biblical Israel as being the equivalent to the present political entity bearing the same name, with all of the rights, privileges, and promises directly conferred.1
Christian Zionists have tied what they have seen in numerous military victories and in the massive social work that is taking place to certain Bible verses, all to affirm the full circle of prophetic expression. To them, the strength of the nation of present-day Israel underlines the strength of our own Christian faith, as though it is an expression or a direct link. They have become so tied to these theological interpretations that they have labeled any critical comment against the nation-state as antithetical to Christian belief and even anti-Jewish.
This theological position has backed the largest and longest occupation of another people group in modern history, an oppressive Israeli legal system which Tutu and many other church leaders have called ‘apartheid on steroids’.
Justice and peace for all
In this context, what does justice and peace for all mean? What does is it mean when there is obvious economic and political disparity?
According to a 2009 report by Amnesty International, Palestinians on average get 70 liters of water per day, well below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 100 liters per day. In contrast, Israelis get 300 liters per day, and in settlements that figure escalates to 350 liters.
It should challenge people when they hear the average income (GDP per capita in 2010) for an Israeli is $26,000, but for a Palestinian it is around $2,100.
This is not a one-sided issue: the church needs to deal with the injustices found on both sides. Everyone, Palestinian and Israeli, should have the benefits of a life lived in safety and freedom. And so we need to challenge any party in this present conflict that promotes either violent reprisals or an apathetic response. As followers of the Prince of Peace, our means of confronting conflict are conditioned by the life and teaching of Jesus himself.
In part because this has not been our unified message or method as a church, we are presently experiencing the unintended consequence of a Palestinian church that used to be nearly 20% of the population, but is now hovers at a little over 1%, primarily due to the socio-economic impact of the present Israeli occupation. As one church leader told us: ‘We have felt abandoned by the global church. I don’t see a future.’
The litany of attempts to protect God in our theology is not branded Made in the USA or confined to our country’s timeline or borders. It was ill-conceived theology that launched the ships of the Spanish Inquisition and the legions of religious purifiers known as the Crusaders. Evangelism by the sword makes it hard to have conversations with Muslims or other unbelievers aware of this history. Even in the last century, amidst the horrors of apartheid in South Africa, many who voted to restrict the rights of the blacks were pillars in their church communities.
These consequences happen when we are tied to a particular theology that supersedes our call to love.
If I speak with the tongues of men or angels but I do not have love, then I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge and I have faith that can move mountains, and I do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardships that I may boast, but I do not have love, I gain nothing. – I Corinthians 13:1-3
What is your theology? It is not stale coursework in which if you gain enough of it you are guaranteed to get a book-lined office and mix with nice moral people. That is not what theology is or does.
The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships. It is broken relationships that make poverty possible. Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.
Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.
Faith and social action
Despite a history of mind-numbing theological dysfunction, the hallmark values of love, repentance, reconciliation, and passionate engagement still remain. In the last 25 years, we have seen evangelicals beginning to integrate personal faith and social action in ways that help people better understand who Jesus is. Stories are being told of reversing the Great Reversal and the demonstration of the holistic nature of the gospel message.
This change in attitude has already begun to show itself—witness the evangelical church’s nearly complete change of heart on the issue of HIV and AIDS. Promulgated by an awakened faith community, the U.S. government led by President George W. Bush initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), at its height guaranteeing $50 billion for those affected by the disease. The government took action because the church began to speak out. The AIDS infection rate, the death rate, abject poverty, human trafficking, and malaria are being impacted because the church is beginning to arise.
What about Palestine? As peacemakers we have been tasked by a justice agenda of love and sacrifice. I truly believe we can be pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, and pro-justice because we are adamantly pro-Jesus. We have arrived at a point in history in which this question could not be more pertinent.
It is a kairos moment for the church, and you are the ones who will lead us into it. What is your theology of social engagement, of the proclamation of the gospel as it deals with issues and places like AIDS or Palestine? Make it your life’s work to respond to these questions, because our theology is going to force you to give an answer.
The opinions expressed in this article do not represent the views or policies of World Vision. World Vision also published a response to comments they have received about this article.
1Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Christ at the Checkpoint: An evangelical shift in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ by Munther Isaac and Alice Su in the May 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.