Evangelicals and Social Action

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I've been doing a lot of thinking about why we Evangelicals are so behind on issues of social justice. In "American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving" sociologist Christian Smith conducted a nationwide survey and hundreds of detailed interviews with Evangelicals and found that the problem was not that we Evangelicals don't care about social justice or the poor - we overwhelmingly do. The problem had to do with how we view social change from within the lens of personal conversion. Over and over Smith found Evangelicals expressing the idea that real change needed to come "from the inside out", meaning that rather than reforming things on an institutional level, we believe that change should happen one person at a time, and as that person - say the CEO of a company, or a politician - has Christ in their life that this will lead them to acts of voluntary benevolence. This is not only a popular opinion, it has been expressed by many prominent thinkers and theologians with Evangelicalism for decades.

One contemporary example of this is Greg Boyd in his recent "Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church", Boyd takes on the current marriage between Evangelicalism and Conservative power-politics arguing that because all politics operate through the principle of coercion and control, they are opposed to the kingdom of God which operates individually “from the inside out”. Boyd advocates using “power under” to serve and support rather than “power over” to force and dominate without achieving any inner reform. There is much to admire in Boyd's stand - his advocacy of social welfare and care for the needy, his compassionate stance to those others judge, his rejection of violence, his critique of Conservative power politics co-opting the Gospel - but in the end what is lacking in Boyd's perspective is a guiding ethic that would offer a kingdom of God prescription for structural and institutional change that goes beyond mere individual transformation leading to voluntary benevolence.

What is absent from the Evangelical imagination, both in its leaders and laity, is any concept of a social or political ethic to guide these converted politicians, public officials, or CEO's in their work towards addressing the structures and systems that perpetuate societal injustice and suffering. Because Evangelicals view sin in the terms of individual failings, they are largely unaware of the systemic and institutional aspects of the social world. For example, a person caught in a cycle of poverty will not be able to escape it simply because they have been born again. Their conversion may effect them inwardly and personally, which can have a profound impact on the debilitating effects of poverty to a person's self-worth, which can lead to a host of self-destructive behaviours. However as important as these personal factors are, they do not change the external social structures that keep a person trapped in poverty. Similarly, if a CEO of a company is converted, this may lead to them refraining from dishonest or unethical business practices, but it will not effect the larger competitive world in which their business operates. So if that economy operates - as ours has in the past - on slave and child labor, an individual business owner who abstains from these practices is placed in a significant economic disadvantage in that market unless those social evils are addressed.

In "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Globaal Economy" Kevin Bales says that in fact child and slave labor is a part of today's global economy, and asks what we can do about it. The solution as you might have guessed needs to involve both us personally, as well as address the issue on a structural level. These slave companies in developing countries operate outside the bounds of law, and are not afraid to use ruthless violence to protect their profits. Companies who do business with them - say retail chains in the US like Nike or The Gap - opperating on the logic of economic profit say that they need to buy the cheapest product to stay completive. So they turn a blind eye to where the product came from, as long as the price is right. But public pressure can make a difference. When the public became aware that major retailers like Nike and The Gap were using slave labor in sweatshops, these companies were forced to change their practices because of consumer pressure.

One example Bales gives is Rugmark. If you own an oriental rug, there is a good chance it was made with child slave labor. Rugmark works with retailers to guarantee that rugs are made without slave or child labor. In order to get a "rugmark" label, the retailers had to agree to not use slave labor, and strict independent monitoring is set up by Rugmark to ensure compliance. Additionally, the retailers agreed to give 1% of the profit towards development projects. With that money, Rugmark set up schools for the children who were either former slaves or vulnerable to slavery. This way rather than simply shifting the slave market to another product, they worked to change the societal conditions that make children potential victims in the first place. Major retailers in the USA and Europe signed on, including Otto Versand Group, the largest mail order retailer in the world.

It is a complex issue that involves both our personal involvement and addressing the social structures that perpetuate the problem. That's the reality of evil in our world, and we as Evangelicals need to learn to think about applying the Gospel to the problem of evil on that kind of large scale as well. We need to move beyond a message that only addresses people as isolated individuals and think through what it would mean for Jesus to be Lord in all of life.

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At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stumbled on your blog, and have found much common ground and food for thought...your articles and essays on human suffering, intimacy with God and how can a loving God send people to hell definitely resonated with me. I agree that the issue of social action is a complex one. I also find that we american christians as a group currently do seem to put less emphasis on social justice, which is such a shame because in my opinion christianity without social justice is empty. I look to people like Bono who have made such strides with the One Campaign, DATA and even Jubilee 2000 as examples of what can be actually accomplished. I think our country in this sense has lost it's way to some degree and has lost sight of the "idea" that made us great. It will be difficult in the coming years for "the church" to be considered relevant if they continue to turn a blind eye.


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