Nearly 25 years ago, Samuel Escobar and John Driver co-authored a now-out-of-print book called Christian Mission and Social Justice (Herald). Both authors are part of the Anabaptist tradition, and both, not surprisingly, have spent a lot of time serving in Latin America at the crossroads of Christian mission and social justice. The book presents a bit of an overview of different Christian traditions in Latin America while offering a distinctly Mennonite perspective on events in the region. It’s a fairly quick read, and I found it really interesting. The authors write:
It is strange that ‘mission and social justice’ should be a subject of contention and that the two words should now so widely be considered as unreconcilable [sic] opposites. The curse of Protestant world mission in the past quarter-century has been polarization.
I think there’s a lot of merit to that critique, and I’m sympathetic to their claim that Mennonites “are in a key position to reconcile the conflicting forces.” I’m not part of the Mennonite tradition, but I have friends who are, and I have a lot of respect for the ways they are serving around the world, often inconspicuously but certainly no less meaningfully than the rest of us. Especially inspiring to me is the great work they’re doing in the western highlands of Guatemala.
Last year I read a book about Christian citizenship in postwar Guatemala, which raised some really important questions about what it means to be a faithful Christian in a violent, poor, unjust context. Escobar and Driver touch on these themes as well, summarizing some of the key contemporary social justice approaches adopted by Christians in Latin America. They’re writing in the late 1970s, mind you, but I think this survey is still instructive for us today. For the purposes of this overview I’ve given each option a short name along with a very brief summary of it.
- The just revolution option. Some liberation theologians took this view, going so far as to advocate violence in extreme situations, roughly akin to just war theory.
- The guerrilla option. Taking the first option a bit further, this one takes up arms with a near “holy war” mentality, disregarding any ethical or pragmatic scrutiny.
- The nonviolent struggle option. Without taking up arms, this option emphasizes nonviolence as the means to social change, but refusing to sit idly by in the face of violent oppression.
- The sociopolitical collaboration option. Some, especially Protestants, were focused exclusively on church growth and evangelism, and for the sake of stability, aligned themselves with those in power — regardless of government-sponsored abuses.
- The gradual change option. Protestants and Catholics alike took this view, emphasizing “family values” as a means of transforming the country slowly, without endangering the power structure.
Escobar and Driver go on to describe three main ways Mennonites in Latin America had been responding to these events in actual practice: (1) resorting to violence despite official pacifist views; (2) a privatizing/spiritualizing approach; and (3) active nonviolent social protest. They then propose general principles for a “strategy of struggle for social justice consistent with the Anabaptist vision of the church.” This vision emphasizes the church as a messianic community that itself bears witness to the coming kingdom, together living lives modeled after the life and teaching of Jesus, whose primary posture was that of a servant. Again, while I’m not part of the Mennonite tradition, I think there’s a lot of merit to this vision.
I know that for many evangelicals Christian mission and social justice are two very different things, and it would be considered very dangerous to conflate the two. I agree that distinguishing between evangelism and social justice is important (they’re related, in my view, but not identical). When you consider a region like Latin America or a country like Guatemala, however, you simply can’t focus on mission alone without also taking a stance on the justice issues among your neighbors. Seeking to do so after all, is itself a stance, probably in the vicinity of option #4 or #5. We should at least be able to articulate why the option we’re taking in practice is in fact the most faithful approach as we understand it.
None of this is easy to figure out, and I have no interest in prescribing how anyone should approach the very weighty issues they’ll encounter in particular violent, poor, unjust contexts. But it seems to me our churches and seminaries and Christian universities and mission agencies and development organizations need to make room for these kinds of conversations, seeing these not as distractions from the real work, but as matters of urgent importance if we’re to be faithful to the God we serve and to be good neighbors where he has placed us.
If you were living in a country with death squads and bombings, with mistrust and pervasive fear, how would you respond as a Christian? How do those five options sit with you? What about the Mennonite vision? What does your own tradition have to say about the relationship between mission and social justice?
[Photo credit: "Jocotenango, Guatemala A Holy Week processions passes village walls marked with 18th Street gang graffiti. Copyright © Donna DeCesare, 2001" via destinyschildren.org]