4 Days 4 Justice: An evangelical social ethic?

The Rev. Mae Cannon is an important new evangelical voice for social justice, who we welcomed into ReadTheSpirit late last year to talk about her new “Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World.” Readers come to our online magazine every day to discover new voices like this—and to find the latest news about the many ways faith is reshaping our world. When Mae alerted us that she would participating in the 4 Days 4 Justice conference, we asked her to write a report for us.

Searching for an evangelical social ethic

By Mae Cannon

At 4 Days 4 Justice, progressive evangelicals gathered for fellowship and intense dialogue on what we might agree is “an evangelical social ethic for the 21st century.” I had the privilege of gathering with these pastors, academics and activists at North Park University. The Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park and one of the organizers of the event, described our goal as searching for “a biblical, theological, social ethic of justice for 21st century evangelicalism.”

The conference’s speakers included such influential men and women as:

In our time together, we took part in workshops, lectures and a roundtable discussion with these speakers and others including Peter Cha, Sandra Van Opstal, Leroy Barber, Noel Castellanos, Jake Diliberto, Jonathan Merritt and this author.

One surprise at this gathering? Everyone around the table was associated with the evangelical world—but the diversity of backgrounds, education, thoughts and ideas was startling. Just click on some of the links, above, and you’ll instantly see what I mean. All “evangelical.” Vastly different lives. Working in so many different arenas of life.

We asked ourselves: Could this type of gathering signify the emergence of a new kind of evangelicalism? We were men and women, people of color, academics and practitioners, justice advocates, Reformed theologians, leaders in racial reconciliation and community development, pastors and ministers from diverse denominations. We came to meet each other—and to wrestle, pray, discuss and act upon a holistic Gospel that is rooted in the foundations of Scripture and the commands of the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28) and to respond to the needs of the least of these (Matthew 25).

The justice movement is growing within the evangelical church—which means there is a growing need for these types of conversations. It is vital that the church have honest engagement with what the Scripture teaches about ideas of shalom, justice, righteousness and the kingdom of God.

During much of the 20th century, many evangelicals thought there must be a separation between personal piety, which we often called “righteousness,” and the many ways the gospel is meant to be lived out within society, or “justice.” But, Soong-Chan Rah said of this dualism: “Justice never replaces evangelism, in the same way that evangelism cannot replace justice.”

Native American pastor and leader Terry LeBlanc said he was deeply encouraged by this opportunity to converse about the reconnection of a whole Gospel. Terry said, “The tendency on the Right has been to focus on the proclamation for salvation; on the Left it has been to engage in social action—sometimes for the benefit of social transformation, other times for the pursuit of a popular agenda… If the outcome is not Christ-honoring and kingdom-building, we do a disservice to the Gospel.”

Pursuing and balancing this broader range of goals will be tough. But, LeBlanc said, our gathering helped to show this is possible. “It feels as if our emerging conversations have the potential to bring a holistic response to the needs of our peoples—be they Caucasian, Asian, African, Indian or Latino—and to do it together. That would give me hope—finding a way to create space for diversity without division, unity without uniformity, and justice that isn’t simply pushing the popular agenda.”

I was moved by the way Jimmy McGee summed up our conference. He is well known as an evangelical activist from Atlanta whose Facebook page calls him a “passionate follower of Jesus.” He also is known for his commitment to diversity. On his Facebook page, he proclaims himself as strongly committed to his own family and ethnicity and to “building authentic relations across ethnic communities.”

Here’s how he summed up the impact of our gathering: “As a participant, it felt stimulating and privileged for a holy partnership that is co-ed and multi-ethnic. The world ‘holy’ communicates so many varied ideas, but one definition that is often missed is the notion of ‘different.’ God requested this in the text, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16). He is a different God from all of the others, and He wants us to be ‘different’ as followers of Him. In the room with this eclectic cohort, I saw how challenging and beautiful ‘different’ can be. Our nation is changing. Different, holy leadership is needed to help us further on the journey toward the Beloved Community.”

THANK YOU Mae Cannon for this report! All this week, ReadTheSpirit has been publishing stories about the difficult challenge of truly honest dialogue about religious diversity. Our biggest story this week focuses on Stephen Prothero’s new book, “God is Not One.” We also reported on the DVD release of “The Messenger,” a look at the almost impossible task of talking honestly about the cost of our wars. And, www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue on difficult issues, tackles the controversial Arizona laws on illegal immigrants and a new bill that may end ethnic education in the state.

You can order Mae Cannon’s “Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World” from Amazon.

(Originally published in readthespirit.com)

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