Clarion call to gospel-motivated activism is timely
Prophetic Evangelicals: Envisioning a Just and Peaceable Kingdom
Bruce Benson, Malinda Berry, Peter Heltzel, eds.
Prophetic Evangelicals: Envisioning a Just and Peaceable Kingdom is the first volume in the forthcoming “Prophetic Christianity” series, published by Eerdmans. The project’s contributors come from a variety of contexts: Latino and First Nations writers are represented; three are Canadian; one is a pastor, one director of the Latin American Theological Fellowship, and the rest are academics. Not surprisingly, the essays have a strong academic flavour to them, though educated laypeople (the intended audience) would not necessarily need previous familiarity with the material.
The purpose of this volume is to stimulate conversation about what it means to be an evangelical Christian in the contemporary era. The authors hope to help “recover and revitalize a sense of Christian faith among evangelicals that is biblically centered, culturally engaged, and historically infused.” Such a faith the editors and contributors would call a prophetic evangelicalism because it seeks to deliver a counter-cultural message of freedom from oppression and the good news of reconciliation that can be possible between all people because of the active rule and reign of God. The collection is hopeful that such a future of vibrant, prophetic evangelicalism could exist.
Eradicating systemic injustice
This volume has a heavily activist perspective: these authors believe the good news that Jesus came to bring the world is proclaimed as God’s people resist systems of oppression, racism, and division in our world. In fact, for these authors “the categories of liberation and reconciliation are so central to the announcement of the gospel that to ignore the pervasive issues of racial alienation and discrimination in North America is to fail to proclaim the fullness of the gospel.” Indeed, the actual focus of the church in the world should be on “eradicating the systemic injustices that are causing the suffering.”
Certainly these assertions are much more forthright than what many evangelical churches teach and believe, and therein lies the challenge the authors are confronting. But there is much that is familiar to the traditional evangelical, too: the affirmation of the necessity of both personal salvation through Jesus and church, and individual obedience to God, both of which are foundational for an activist witness to prove genuine.
In the essay simply titled “Hope,” Telford Work goes a little further to offer a matter-of-fact counterpoint to the activist enthusiasm found throughout much of the collection. Work reminds us that even in the New Testament canon, there is “a chronic crisis of confidence” over how history will unfold and how to live in and engage with the world; therefore, we should not be surprised that the church has struggled with confusion, disappointment, and defeated expectations ever since. “The only legitimate Christian hope,” writes Work, “is what is actually coming. All other ground is sinking sand.”
Though the call to activism is vitally important in the often confused, myopic, and apathetic evangelical subculture of North America, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that solving all the problems of the world are just a matter of advocacy and awareness. As Work writes: “We have embarrassed ourselves by being too hasty to describe this mystery in conventional terms of prosperity, power, and justice.”
As one might guess, these essays are not intended as mere exposition or entertainment, but as motivation to join the movement toward mission and care for the world swelling within evangelicalism. It certainly did that for me. In the weeks following my reading, I was burdened by a desire to live this out, although I am still figuring out what that would look like.
Though most of the contributions are good, the collection is a bit uneven. Essays by the editors (Wheaton College philosophy professor Bruce Benson, Bethany Theological Seminary professor Malinda Berry, and New York Theological Seminary professor Peter Heltzel) are thought-provoking and readable; Chris Boesel’s “News” is very complex and academic, with lots of explanatory footnotes and a sometimes unclear objective, followed directly by Ruth Padilla-DeBorst’s “Meditation on Mary” – an imaginative, narrative piece that seeks to take the reader into the mind of Mary, exploring how her story could intersect with ours. I can appreciate variety in essay collections, but the move between those two is unexpected and jarring.
This text is firmly rooted in Scripture. Each meditation includes reference to Scripture, used with respect to context. Other sources are appealed to throughout, such as Martin Luther King Jr., revivalist Charles Finney, documents from the Lausanne Congress, theologian Karl Barth, the South African Kairos Document against apartheid, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, black liberation theologian James H. Cone, and many others.
Though this book does not add anything new to the conversation per se – readers will have heard many of these ideas before – there is a unique power in this collection of voices. There is a timeliness to this call to the North American evangelical Christian community to be about the major issues of our day.
As Mennonite Brethren, this book matches well with our DNA and historical concerns. Certainly, as evangelicals, we need to hear this wake-up call; but as Anabaptists, who have historically concerned ourselves with speaking out against systems of violence and oppression and serving the poor and needy, this book is a welcome affirmation of the necessity of activism. It is a needed invitation to become part of a movement that goes beyond the walls of our churches to impact communities at home and around the world. I would highly recommend Prophetic Evangelicals to the thoughtful and discerning reader.