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Those who believe that Christianity is being co-opted by a leftist ideology tend to throw around the term “social gospel”. To bring the gospel into conversation with social problems like racism or poverty, in their mind, is a distortion of the Christian faith. Jesus came to die for our sins by taking upon himself the wrath of God. Salvation, in this context, is personal—it is reconciliation with God for all who believe. Therefore, applying the gospel to social issues is to confuse justification and sanctification. The problem with this perspective?—it isn’t biblical.
Luke sets the gospel within a much larger political and social context. References to Caesar and Herod aren’t for historical information, they show the oppressive demonic forces opposed to God’s kingdom. Same with the religious leaders and their obsession with moral and religious purity. The political and religious context of Jesus’ ministry unmasks a web of systems that dehumanize and destroy. Otherwise, why would Jesus take the time to heal lepers, sending them to the High Priest to show they were clean? Why does the book of Acts refer to Paul’s conflict with the idol makers in Ephesus if the gospel doesn’t have socio-political implications? Doesn’t Paul undercut the dominant cultural categories of the day in Galatians when he writes in Christ there is no male/female or Jew/gentile or slave/free? More importantly, when he says in Ephesians that our struggle is no longer against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers, was he serious?
The gospel isn’t just personal because it’s not only about me and Jesus. Relegating faith to some abstract self untouched by culture is to render the gospel powerless, turning the cross into nothing more than ornamental decoration. It also provides justification for living however we want; or worse, it baptizes a white, Western, way of life as THE Christian way of life.
In my part of the world, those opposed to listening to the voices of African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and refugees, are the same people who put their trust in capitalism. They see the God of the bible present in the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith. They think they are somehow beyond any form of ideology even as they give allegiance to money and, implicitly, corporate power. The writings of French sociologist Jacques Ellul speaks about money, not as a neutral form of exchange, but as a demonic force—what the bible calls Mammon. According to Ellul, the prophetic task of the Christian community is oppose the “new demons” by renouncing the powers of this world by living a life of sacrificial love. This isn’t a soft form of love that social gospel opponents rail against, it’s a strong love that confronts the powers of this world. Speaking of the prophetic task of the Christian community, Ellul writes:
The Christian should serve as intermediary or mediator between the powerful and the oppressed. The Christian is the spokesperson appointed by God for the oppressed. Those who are imprisoned need an advocate. Those who have been dismissed from the world’s memory…need an intercessor…The Christian is necessarily on the side of the poor—not to incite them to revolution, hatred, and violence, but to plead their cause before the powerful and the authorities. If need be, the Christian must break down the doors of the powerful and declare the claims of love and justice.Ellul, Essential Spiritual Writings, 132
The Christian community must listen to the voices of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized. We must oppose every form of hatred, every form of racism and bigotry, and every attempt to silence. This begins with confession—listening to the poor and the oppressed, and confessing our participation in sinful systems that pay hommage to the idols of power and wealth. We must raise our voices against every injustice, every form of oppression, and every attempt to kill and destroy—following the way of Jesus Christ who by his death “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:15) Our task is to testify to this good news—the powers of this world have already been overcome.
Call it what you want—I call it the gospel.