In a conversation about a session on evangelical involvement in social and environmental issues at a conference of Evangelical Scholars that I am at right now in New Orleans, a friend of mine who is a grad student at Wheaton College asked what I think is a very appropriate question: what is different about Christian involvement in these issues from secular involvement? She argued and I think she is right, that Christian involvement in these issues should be a reflection of the gospel message. What does that look like?
I think first of all that we have to frame the discussion by understanding what we mean by the gospel. A common mistake among evangelicals has been to adopt one metaphor among many used in the New Testament for redemption, namely a legal metaphor concerning the forgiveness of sins, and assume that is the entirety of the gospel. Its certainly a part of it, but not the end of the story.
A personal friend and former professor of mine named Dave Malick gave a presentation at this conference this morning in which he rehashed something he used to teach us in his classes- a way of charting stories known as the Mono-myth or Cyclical Story. It follows the four seasons and traces the fall from summer to winter and the redemptive movement (spring) out of this to return to summer. This cycle is I think what is captured by the gospel- in terms of the legal metaphor, we were created perfect, but have fallen via sin into death. But our guilt has been taken away by the substitutionary death of Jesus and therefore we rise again to life. In terms of the greater cycle of redemption, it seems that our sin carries with it the consequence of destroying the order of creation, bringing pain and misery, evil and brokenness into the world. Jesus has begun the work of redemption, a work that we continue and that he will finish at his return, of restoring the order of the world to the way things should be.
Another conference session I sat in on today (actually, the one that sparked this conversation) given by a scholar named Daniel Block is helpful for understanding this. His belief is that humans were created to be representatives of God, which implies a service to God, which, given the context of man’s creation in Genesis two, involves “taking care of the garden.” In contrast to our very frequent understanding of the earth as here for us to use, it is actually we who are here to care for the earth.
The same language used of man’s role in the garden is used to describe the Levite’s role in the tabernacle/temple, which gives us a way to extend Block’s argument beyond environmental issues and also argue that the people of God, as God’s representatives, have a similar obligation to care for the other people of the world.
What this move accomplishes is the laying out a redemptive theology that encompasses more than the forgiveness of sins. I think if this means anything, though, it must be something that is practiced, something that we do. So the question on the table is how, practically, do we reflect this redemptive mindset in our engagement with social and environmental issues? How does the way that we go about addressing these issues reflect the idea that we are acting as agents of redemption in service to the Agent of redemption, Jesus Christ?