I’ve always been interested in the idea of “paradigm shifts.” Paradigm shifts are those rare moments in life when something profound slams into your brain, spins you around in circles, and as the vertigo fades and life snaps into focus, you realize everything looks different. It’s a moment of disorientation, deconstruction—there’s usually some fear in there too—and after, you’re irreparably changed.
My most profound paradigm shift moment came in college while studying the Greek philosopher Plato. In the middle of my professor’s lecture on the Platonic idea of virtue, it hit me that what Plato was searching for—truth, transcendence, justice, the good life—was so very close to what Jesus offered in the Sermon on the Mount: a kingdom where virtue flows from a well of internal goodness, where justice and mercy rule in harmony, and where peace reigns. It was as though a reflection of God’s kingdom was dancing on the wall of Plato’s famous cave, and I so badly wanted him to turn toward the light.
My Southern Baptist upbringing taught me some wonderful things about Jesus, as well as introducing me to flannelgraphs, biblical theology, and Hydrox cookies. I am sincerely and deeply grateful for all of this, but not all the lessons were as positive. I was taught that we, the Protestant, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Culture-Warring, Inherency-preaching Christians, were the lone carriers of truth in an utterly depraved world. We lived, I was told, in a kingdom ruled by Satan, and every thought, philosophy, impulse, and emotion of the secular world were a perverted lie. They were sinners, and it was our job to save them without being contaminated by them. There was nothing to be found outside the church but a dying, depraved world.
I was taught that they were sinners, and it was our job to save them without being contaminated by them. There was nothing to be found outside the church but a dying, depraved world. The only logical action was John 3:16—along with a dollop of hellfire.
The only logical action, then, was to whisper, preach, or scream John 3:16—along with a dollop of hellfire—via sermons, door-to-door visitations, or signs at football games. Our gospel was simple: you’ve sinned, and you’re going to hell, but Jesus died for your sins, and if you accept him as your Savior you’ll go to heaven instead. There was no point saying much else, or worrying too much about how we said it, because God would either use this message to speak to their dead hearts, or not. We were just scattering seeds, and letting God sort out the rest.
And maybe, sort of, a little bit, this was all true. But as I sat in that college classroom thinking about Plato, I realized it also wasn’t. Plato was searching so earnestly for truth, and if only someone could have bridged the gap for him, explained to him how close he was…and if I wanted so badly for him to find the truth, how much more must God want that?
That’s why to this day one of my favorite moments in the Bible is when Paul stands in front of Athenian philosophers—those philosophers standing in the literal shadows of the Platonic tradition—and points to a temple to an unknown god, the god they feared they might not know about and thus offend, and says: “Man do I have good news for you.”
Why, I wondered, did no one tell me the rest of the good news: that we weren’t trying to bring Jesus some place he wasn’t, but uncovering where he already was?
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a bit of tension within evangelicalism these days. Last September, the highly-influential pastor John MacArthur fired a shot across the bow at us young, hipster millennials who think of social justice as a positive term. MacArthur started a blog post by saying, The besetting sin of pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals has always been that they shamelessly borrow fads and talking points from the unbelieving world. He gets less respectful from there.
John’s argument is that we evangelical “social justice warriors”—a dismissive label I actually quite enjoy—are knowingly and subversively smuggling Marxism into the church, undercutting the necessity of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, all while twirling our villainous, perfectly waxed and trimmed mustaches. Basically, MacArthur would greatly prefer it if we got off his evangelical lawn, and took our heresy with it.
It’s hard for me to be gracious toward MacArthur, who takes no qualms drawing a very tight circle around “orthodox” theology, and eliminating anyone who speaks in tongues, or is a woman in ministry, or believes that systemic racism is—you know—a thing. MacArthur, with what I hope are good intentions, is repeating the mistake of the Pharisees who were so concerned with enforcing godly behavior that they became strict moralists who missed the point entirely.
What concerns me is the sizable element of Christianity who can’t hear the term “social justice” without imagining a group of Bible-ignoring pantheists leading evangelicalism down a slippery slope into the gaping maw of a theology that says we can guide this world into God’s kingdom without Jesus’s death and resurrection.
What concerns me more than MacArthur, though, is the sizable element of Christianity influenced by him—including dear friends and family of mine—who can’t hear the term “social justice” without imagining a group of Bible-ignoring pantheists leading evangelicalism down a slippery slope into the gaping maw of a theology that says we can guide this world into God’s kingdom without Jesus’s death and resurrection. In fairness, there is a long history of Christians who did just this, turning the faith into something of Coke commercial, where if we just give enough love and pass it around the world will magically be perfect again. But just because a group has used vaguely similar terms once doesn’t mean that’s what is happening now. One can believe in the absolutely necessity of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the sole source of redemption, as the only way back to God, as the sole source of hope in the world, and be a social-justice-warrior-loving, maybe-more-liberal-than-you, fair-trade-coffee-preferring activist.
I’d argue, in fact, that if you aren’t passionate about social justice, you aren’t evangelical enough.
A few hundred years ago Martin Luther grumbled about the book of James being in the Bible, as “it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” While I don’t know any evangelicals who would say this today, the sentiment behind Luther’s statement is everywhere. James, you’ll recall, is the author who says things like “faith without works is dead” and that anyone who says they have faith in Christ, but doesn’t demonstrate it through charitable deeds is a fraud.
James’ point is that there’s no distinction between the belief and action, between the soul or the body, between the physical and the spiritual. Christianity is not gnosticism, which believes that the spiritual is good and pure but the body evil and tainted. Human beings are not spirits trapped in meat suits. To be human is to be body and spirit, fundamentally intertwined and inseparable. This is why the ultimate end of all things involves us having new bodies, and inhabiting a new earth. God’s plan isn’t to rescue us from this ugly, material world and into a perfect spirit world, but the redemption and restoration of it all.
So if that’s the case, and if Christians are supposed to live as citizens of God’s kingdom here and now, and if God’s kingdom involves the restoration of ALL THINGS, then it’s worth asking what God’s ultimate kingdom will be like, and to commit ourselves to conforming to it, today. What if Jesus didn’t come so a bunch of souls could flee to heaven someday, but rather launched a landed invasion on this earth, the first seeds of the kingdom of God at work, redeeming everything? Wouldn’t this make sense of how Jesus continually refers to the kingdom, as a small seed that becomes a giant tree, or small amount of yeast that makes the whole bread rise? Doesn’t this make sense of Ephesians 1:10 where we’re told that “all things” will be united under Christ?
Of course we know that this will be a constant battle, and that we are eagerly awaiting the ultimate redemption that will one day come, but we also believe the good news that God’s kingdom is at work now, bringing justice, freeing the enslaved, restoring hope. And as people see us doing that, as they see glimmers of the good news at work around them, we point them to Jesus and say “it’s all because of him.”
…we also believe the good news that God’s kingdom is at work now, bringing justice, freeing the enslaved, restoring hope. And as people see us doing that, as they see glimmers of the good news at work around them, we point them to Jesus and say “it’s all because of him.”
So if there is an avalanche of evidence that black men are incarcerated longer than white men for the same crimes, we speak up. If LGBT men and women are treated as disgusting or deplorable in the name of our God, we are filled with righteous fury. If snake oil salesmen masquerading as pastors stir up xenophobia and antipathy toward refugees, we protest. We can have good faith arguments on how to go about these things, but if these injustices have no place in God’s kingdom, we Jesus followers are duty bound to act. We don’t claim we can ever stamp out these injustices in full—any more than a fundamentalist plans to save every soul—but that doesn’t mean we can’t live out God’s kingdom, fully and completely, here and now.
The influential theologian Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This is not true someday, but now. We are Christ’s ambassadors, calling people to come back to God, yes, but also creating a kingdom that accurately represents this God. We are explorers, going into a land razed to the ground by the enemy, and planting trees, building homes, and digging for fresh water.
This is the best news of all. And I’m willing to be labeled a social justice warrior to tell it.
Joshua Pease is a writer, speaker, and former evangelical pastor living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. Follow him on Twitter.