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There are few issues of theology that confuse me more than issues related to social justice. Those who advocate Christian humanitarianism, those who tell Christians that they are responsible before God to fight injustice, to feed the hungry, to free the oppressed, are able to provide a compelling case and they are able to tap into a deep vein of guilt. It is difficult to hear of poor and hungry children and not feel that the primary mission of Christians must be to feed such people. And yet when we look around we see that ministries or organizations that make such a task their primary calling so quickly fade into theological obscurity. The social gospel so often trumps the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Into the fray step Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson with their book Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross. They want to find that sweet spot between justice and gospel, that place where we can hold tightly to the gospel of Jesus Christ while still emphasizing the importance of social action.

Humanitarian Jesus is made up of two parts. In the first part, which seems to be written largely by Christian Buckley, the authors provide the theological basis for social justice. And here is where the book is at its best. The authors emphasize again and again (and again after that!) the importance of sound theology. They want Christians to know that first and foremost they must be grounded in the Bible. Buckley and Dobson understand the tension so many of us feel when looking at issues related to social justice. “Some of us resist or diminish temporal engagement because we are focused on the call of Scripture to proclaim the gospel, and see this life as a mere momentary passing. Others resist the gospel and the scriptural implications of death, heaven, and hell, and focus instead on the good that can be done on earth by being living illustrations of God’s great love.”

They say as well, “Christ was and is principally concerned with eternity and the reconciliation of the lost. Fundamentally, Christ came to earth to seek and to save, not to heal and feed. Just as Christ came to provide the only means for spiritual reconciliation with the Father, He calls the redeemed to the specific task of continuing His ministry of reconciliation.” They emphasize here and in so many other places that Christ’s most foundational task was to seek and to save the lost; he did not come primarily to feed people, but to save them. And we are to imitate him in this. They go on to say, “Jesus was a humanitarian, but of a unique kind. He healed to reveal true healing. He fed to reveal true food. He quenched thirst to reveal everlasting water. Christ’s actions were temporal, but His intended impact was for His every word and deed to be eternally transforming.” So here they set Christ as the model for the kind of humanitarian work they want Christians to commit to–work that points people to Christ.

As the book continues, the authors provide some friendly critique of the social gospel. They realize that many who emphasize the social gospel have very quickly left behind the true gospel. In the midst of doing humanitarian work, so many have lost sight of the work of saving souls and even the necessity of doing so. But where the authors seem to go just a little bit beyond what I see in Scripture is in their discussion of evangelism. “Evangelism,” they say, “includes the sharing of the gospel and the meeting of needs. It includes the challenging of injustice and the championing of the oppressed. … We don’t meet needs because it gives us the chance to share Christ, but because it is part of who Christ is, and if He is in us, it is part of who we are.” And so here they make humanitarian work a necessary component of evangelism.

Let me emphasize again that what the authors do very well in this section is emphasize sound, biblical theology–a theology that includes humanity’s fall into sin, that includes Christ’s atoning work on the cross, that includes both heaven and hell. This alone is enough to mark this book as very different from so many dealing with social justice. Before the authors want to call anyone to do humanitarian work, they want to call them to the gospel, not just as a message that saves, but as a message that gives direction to all of life.

In the second part the authors conduct a series of 15 interviews with people who are involved in some sort of social justice ministry or organization. Interviewees range from Ron Sider to Tony Campolo, from Francis Chan to Mark Batterson. I found these interviews a rather strange addition to the book. I felt that they added very little in terms of benefit; some were useful, some were not; some emphasized what the authors emphasize, others went the other way. Though the authors want to emphasize the primacy of sound theology, a guy like Tony Campolo has long since forsaken any kind of biblical theology. This section confused me and disappointed me. It felt at times like it was the easy way out in which rather than writing another 100 pages of material the authors could simply include interviews with a wide variety of people. And at other times it felt like it was directly opposed to the message of the rest of the book and especially so when interviewing people who have set themselves in direct opposition to the gospel that saves.

At the end of Humanitarian Jesus I am as perplexed as ever. Largely I still see things the way I did before. There is a time and a place for humanitarian work, no doubt. Christians can have great ministries serving the poor and the oppressed and in so doing can have remarkable opportunities to share the gospel. And yet still the history of Christianity shows that when Christians do this, the gospel quickly becomes secondary and the work itself becomes the gospel. I still see the Bible primarily emphasizing charity given to other believers; when I look at Acts and the epistles, this is what I see most–Christians helping other Christians as a sign of love and fraternity. Now of course there will be some who engage in humanitarian work outside the context of the local church, but it seems to me that the closer we come to making this a necessary part of the Christian mission, the more likely we are to see the gospel diminish.

I’m sure my confusion shows in that last paragraph. The more I read on this subject, the more perplexed I become. Am I saying that Christians should not engage in humanitarian work? Of course not. And yet still I do not see from the Bible that Christians absolutely have to as a necessary component of their evangelism. Maybe someone who reads this review can leave a comment and help me out of this mess of confusion.

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