A few years ago, while our youth mission team was working in an area that had been devastated by an earthquake, a young adult leader asked one of the pastors of the church in that territory: “What do you need right now to help your community here?” The pastor, wearing a suit and a tie in the midst of the ruins, replied: “I need a sound system because, with all this distraction, it is challenging to preach. When I preach, they can’t hear me.” Oddly enough, amid the devastation, disease, hunger, and death, our colleague’s first need was a set of speakers and a microphone so people could hear him preach.
When they heard those words, our team had the impression that they were interacting with someone who was more concerned with the message than with the people for whom the message had been given. They came together and asked me to work with another pastor who was very busy organizing food, water, medical help, and lodging for those who were left homeless and for others who were sleeping outside of their homes, afraid of being buried under the rubble if another tremor came and destroyed their already compromised homes. Every time I remember that story, which, unfortunately, our team had to experience, I realize more and more that words need a microphone, but actions don’t.
IS SOCIAL JUSTICE A DISTRACTION?
Serious concerns have been raised in the midst of what seems to be a wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans, religious crimes mostly perpetrated against Muslims and Jews, mistreatment of immigrants, the unjustified deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and those who did not catch the eye of the media. In the protests and movements that rose from these cruel actions, I have heard the following phrases:
• “Protesting against abuse, senseless crime, and discrimination is a distraction from what we should actually be doing.”
• “With all these racial issues, religious tension, and human suffering, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from our mission, which is to preach the gospel and proclaim the messages of the three angels.”
When I hear these phrases and many others, I wonder if we really understand our mission. I wonder if we, as God’s people, can be at peace with a gospel that proclaims the salvation of Christ for sinners, and eternal life in the future, while pretending to be blind to present human suffering. I have seen, with surprise and sadness, some use specific quotes from our pioneer and inspired writer Ellen White out of context to attack those who have seen it necessary to defend the lives of at-risk immigrants or our Asian, Muslim, Jewish, and African American brothers and sisters.
I have also seen the use of Scripture and theology to quiet protests against the crimes committed toward certain human beings. And I ask, are we okay with a “theology” that does not give us permission to speak up on behalf of the suffering? Shouldn’t we have a problem with looking the other way and ignoring the pain of a group of people so we can stay focused on our mission? Are these two positions mutually exclusive?
SOCIAL JUSTICE IS EVANGELISM
If you (I or our church) are willing to overlook human pain to stay focused on “the mission,” and if we think this is a distraction from the preaching of the three angels’ messages, then we have a lot in common with the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). They continued on their way after seeing the wounded and half-dead man on the side of the road.
If our mission is so vital that it does not allow us to take time to care for the needy, heal the wounded, feed the hungry, and speak up for those who are being discriminated against and mistreated, then our mission is not Jesus’ mission. Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”—Luke 4:18-19 (NKJV).
Would you become a member of a church that does not care when you are mistreated? Would you join a church that does not stand by you and advocate for you when you experience discrimination and abuse because of your skin color, immigration status, religion, or social position? Would you get baptized in a church knowing that its members do not care about you or the well-being of your family?
If you had been the man who was attacked and left for dead on the side of the road, which church do you think you would prefer to attend—the church of the priest, the church of the Levite, or the good Samaritan’s church? I know which church I would want to attend when I recovered. It would definitely not be the church whose mission and message was so important that they did not have the time or felt the need to take care of me when I needed them the most.
Do not expect to successfully evangelize people you are not willing to love, care for, and defend.
SOCIAL JUSTICE IS A PART OF THE THREE ANGELS’ MESSAGES
If we proclaim a message that does not give us room to advocate for those who are unfairly denied their human rights, our message does not come from Jesus. If our message is deaf to the needs of humanity, it will be voiceless and meaningless.
One of the great things about the three angels’ messages is that they are inclusive. “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people”—Revelation 14:6 (NIV).
In its entirety, the messages of the three angels and the gospel of Jesus are to be preached to all. That includes all races, all nationalities, and all languages. Clearly, if everyone needs to hear it, there is no place for exclusivity. If one (or several of the groups that have to listen to the messages) is being discriminated against, it is our duty, as bearers of the messages, to ensure that these groups are defended, loved, and cared for, so they, too, will have access to truth. If they do not see us as a community of love, they will never see us as a community of hope, faith, and truth.
So, next time you hear someone say that social justice is a distraction from evangelism and the three angels’ messages, tell them what Jesus said. Read the parable to them, and ask them which church they would rather attend—the priest’s, the Levite’s, or the good Samaritan’s?
And if that doesn’t convince them, remind them of this: words need a microphone, but actions don’t.
Jose Cortes, Jr., is an associate director of the Ministerial Association and leads evangelism, church planting, and Adventist/Global Mission for the North American Division of Seventh-day
This article, first published by the North American Division Ministerial Association on July 15, 2020, was modified and reprinted with permission.