A Feature Review of
Return to Justice:
Six Movements that Reignited Our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience
Soong-Chan Rah / Gary VanderPol
Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee
Rah and VanderPol’s book is an important brief history of an undercurrent of biblical justice found in American evangelicalism. It is a history of struggle for recognition, and provides key snapshots in an album of this continued Return to Justice. The book is born from the authors’ obvious experience and study, and seeks to reintegrate the bifurcation of evangelism and justice. The authors highlight and esteem known figures and institutions such as John Perkins, World Vision, Sojourners, and Samuel Escobar, among others. These key figures and their stories formed the historical backdrop and narrative for reinvigorating biblical justice as a key tenet of evangelicalism, challenging a dominant American, white male, middle-class status quo that has historically recoiled from social gospel “tendencies” and issues of biblical justice in preference and focus towards an individualistic approach of evangelism-by-proclamation and personalized salvation experience.
While, Return to Justice is critical of an over-individualized, dominant, and paternal model of evangelicalism, Rah and VanderPol go to great lengths to demonstrate the critical importance of the proclamation of the Gospel and evangelism as it has traditionally been understood. This is a welcome thread weaved throughout their book, truly rooting their work as evangelical. The last chapter recognizes how among evangelicals today that it is much easier to talk about issues of justice than it is to proclaim the Gospel. Can there be such a thing as an “evangelical social gospel?” The book alone demonstrates how much the pendulum has swung. Rah and VanderPol make no apology for focusing on justice, yet, Return to Justice’s consistent assumption that the preaching of the Gospel is integral to a truly evangelical justice. But, make no mistake, their challenge to the reader to take proclamation seriously is tripled by the challenge to press into a truly evangelical sense of social justice.
The authors take aim at the streams of dominant paternalism, with its truncated worldview, to squash small factions that sought to carry forth a holistic evangelicalism. Here, Rah and VanderPol do not hide their biases and highlight the struggle for many to find a voice of justice that was consistently suppressed in the evangelical community. Rah and VanderPol show how it took (continues to take?) a mirror held from below, in the case of African-American evangelical theology or from outside, in the case of the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, to reintegrate evangelism and justice. They criticize the thread of individualism and allegiance to the American Way as the continued wedge that polarized individual salvation and social transformation. Ultimately, Rah and VanderPol show that the demarcations of these two terms should actually be blurred and integrally weaved together.
Return to Justice is an easy read. Lacking, however, are modern-day vignettes that capture the continued spirit of biblical justice. John Perkins, Samuel Escobar, and others are old men (note the lacking presence of females) now, and while their legacy and prophetic voices continue to inspire, I am sure they too would wish to highlight the succeeding generations leading the way. For younger readers, the book leaves us inspired but without direction, and thus reads almost solely as a historical text, seeming to miss a chapter. Rah and VanderPol do touch on the current immigrant population’s contribution in the shaping current evangelicalism in the United States, but do little more than highlight an increase in numbers and minor potential impact. Here, a revealing story or two would be most inspiring.
Another critique is that while focused on evangelicalism primarily in the United States, more should have been said regarding the globalizing interaction among evangelicals throughout the world. Almost by accident, this focus on the U.S. history of justice in evangelicalism provides an insulated and nationalistic resource that misses the global influence and interdependence regarding the theologizing of evangelism and concept of justice. They do indeed include a strong section on the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, but mostly on its impact to evangelicalism in the United States. Here Return to Justice missed the opportunity to envelope the U.S. church’s story into a much grander narrative.
Overall Rah and VanderPol’s book is good. The authors are captivating, poignant, and serve as great narrators. Some obvious biases reflect their opposition to certain parties, but Rah and VanderPol take great pains to truly weave the threads of evangelism and justice to tell a story of misión integral. The book provokes reflection and the need for evangelicals to blatantly ask themselves where they as individuals and as a church continue to propagate the divide between justice and evangelism; where they tend to find dominant culture and class answers over and against truly biblical justice; and where they have let a passion for a holistic gospel of personal salvation and global transformation wane. It is a great book for new and succeeding generations of evangelicals to root themselves in a greater history and be inspired to carry forth with a truly evangelical perception of justice.