A Better Statement on Christianity and Justice: The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern
A recent statement entitled “The Gospel and Social Justice” has deservedly garnered much attention and opposition. For those who found the new statement wanting, then another declaration on Christians and justice, written forty-five years ago, may offer a better perspective.
In November 1973, a group of evangelicals gathered in Chicago to compose a documenting asserting the need for Christians to engage in issues of justice in the broader society. The result was “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.”
In the midst of the Vietnam War, the disillusionment with Richard Nixon’s leadership and policies, a growing gap between rich and poor, as well as ongoing racial strife, these evangelicals recognized the need not just for personal holiness but for social justice.
Ron Sider, one of the main organizers for the conference sensed an opportunity for socially-concerned evangelicals to coalesce, organize, and make their voices heard. David Swartz in his book, The Moral Minority, quoted a letter in which Sider wrote, “There is a new movement of major proportions within evangelical circles…It is still a minority movement, but it is widespread and growing. This emerging group of evangelical social activists…needs direction.”
The Chicago Declaration served as a “concise, hard-hitting manifesto that would articulate their social concerns to the evangelical world and the national media,” wrote Swartz.
A diverse group of fifty evangelical leaders—black and white, younger and older, pastors and missionaries, men and women—gathered over Thanksgiving weekend at a YMCA to draft the statement. Although racial tension, gender imbalance, and ideological differences permeated the collaborative composition of the Declaration, in the end, the attendees agreed on a final version.
(Read the full version and see the list of signatories here.)
The Declaration begins with a holistic vision of discipleship by stating
“…God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.“
The writers demonstrate repentance and humility in acknowledging the failure of Christians, specifically American evangelicals, in addressing injustice.
“We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society.”
They go on to exlain their stance against racism.
“We deplore the historic involvement of the Church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines.”
They also condemn economic inequality and greed.
“Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.”
The authors of the Delcaration decry any form of Christian nationalism and conflating patriotism with piety.
“We must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions objects of near-religious loyalty.”
The Chicago Declaration stands out for its unapologetic call for Christians to dismantle injustice in its institutional and systemic forms instead of focusing exclusively on personal holiness and evangelism. Christians have for centuries attempted to insert a gap between the gospel and justice. Sadly, it seems evangelicals in America have not, for the most, significantly shifted their stance on social responsibility. This Declaration, written in the last millennium, could have been written yesterday.
While it is tempting to create new declarations and specifically refute erroneous ones, never overlook the saints of the past who have already done this work. Christianity is thousands of years old. To address contemporary debates, sometimes it is not necessary to re-litigate but simply to re-discover.