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." Yes, 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 received the impression that they were talking with someone who was more concerned with the message than with the people to whom the message had been given. They got together and asked me to work with another pastor, who was very busy getting food, water, medical help and a place to sleep for those who had been left homeless or were sleeping outside their homes afraid of dying under the rubble of the already weak structures of their homes.
Every time I remember that story, which unfortunately our team had to experience, I realized that words need a microphone, but actions don't.
Is Social Justice a Distraction?
In the aftermath of the unjustified deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and the protests that have resulted from these cruel actions, among other things, I have heard the following phrases:
"... protesting against discrimination is a distraction from what we should actually be doing."
"... with all these racial issues, we allow ourselves to be distracted from our mission, which is to preach the gospel and proclaim the message of the three angels."
When I hear these phrases and many others, I wonder if we really understand our mission. 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. These days, I have seen, with surprise and sadness, how some very specific quotes by our pioneer and inspired writer Ellen White are used out of context (while excluding many other quotes) to attack those who think it is necessary to defend the lives at risk of our African American brothers and sisters.
I have also seen people using Scriptures and theology to silence the efforts of protesters against the crimes committed towards a group of human beings. I ask myself, “Are we ok with a "theology" that does not give us permission to speak up on behalf of those who are suffering?” Isn’t it a problem when we look the other way and ignore the pain of a group of people so we can stay focused on our mission? Are these really antagonistic to each other?
Social Justice is Evangelism
If you or 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. They continued their way when they saw the wounded and half-dead man on the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
If our mission is so vital that it does not allow us to take time to care of the needy, heal the wounded, feed the hungry, and speak up for those who are being discriminated against, 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 give sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19)
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 because of your skin color, immigration status, or social position? Would you get baptized in a church knowing that its members do not care about you or your family's well-being?
If you had been the man who was attacked and left for dead on the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which church would you have preferred to attend? The church of the priest? The church of the Levite? Or the good Samaritan's church? I know which church I would have wanted to go to when I had recovered. Definitely not the church of those who had a mission and a message 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 whom you are not willing to love, care for, and defend.
Social Justice Is in The Three Angels' Message
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 mute to their ears.
One of the great things about the Three Angels message is that it is 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." (Revelations 14:6)
The message of the Three Angels and the gospel of Jesus are to be preached to all. That includes all races, all nationalities, all languages. Clearly, as it says here, if everyone needs to hear it, there is no place for discrimination. If one of the groups or several groups that have to listen to the message are being discriminated against, it is our duty, as bearers of the message, to ensure that these groups are defended, loved and cared for, so that they also have access. 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 Message, tell them what Jesus said, read the message to them, and ask them which church they would like to go. 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.
Pastor 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 Adventists.