- This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis, and a new centenary edition has been released this month by HarperSanFrancisco and includes responses to each chapter from figures such as Jim Wallis, Tony Camplo, Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.
- R’s introduction to the American situation: “We have now arrived, and all the characteristic conditions of American life will henceforth combine to make the social struggle here more intense than anywhere else. The vastness and the free sweep of our concentrated wealth on the one side, the independence, intelligence, moral vigor, and political power of the common people on the other side, promise a long-drawn grapple of contesting forces which may well make the heart of every American patriot sink within him” (xi-xii).
- Religion, specifically Christianity, is a vital force in the coming social conflict between rich and poor: “It follows that the relation between Christianity and the social crisis is one of the most pressing questions for all intelligent men who realize the power of religion, and most of all for the religious leaders of the people who give direction to the forces of religion” (xii).
- The writings of the prophets are the foundational biblical precedent for R’s program: “However our views of the Bible may change, every religious man will continue to recognize that to the elect minds of the Jewish people God gave so vivid a consciousness of the divine will that, in its main tendencies at least, their life and thought carry a permanent authority for all who wish to know the higher right of God. Their writings are like channel buoys anchored by God, and we shall do well to heed them now that the roar of an angry surf is in our ears” (2-3).
- Juxtaposing ceremony and morality, R emphasizes that the prophets focused solely on moral conduct, not on external matters of divine appeasement: “The prophets demanded right moral conduct as the sole test and fruit of religion, and that the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation. This they preached, and they backed their preaching by active participation in public action and discussion” (11).
- A summary of the significance of the prophets: “If anyone holds that religion is essentially ritual and sacramental; or that it is purely personal; or that God is on the side of the rich; or that social interest is likely to lead preachers astray; he must prove his case with his eye on the Hebrew prophets, and the burden of proof is with him” (43).
- R calls for a transformative ethic: “Ascetic Christianity called the world evil and left it. Humanity is waiting for a revolutionary Christianity which will call the world evil and change it…. Jesus was not a mere social reformer. Religion was the heart of his life, and all that he said on social relations was said from the religious point of view. He has been called the first socialist. He was more; he was the first real man, the inaugurator of a new humanity. But as such he bore within him the germs of a new social and political order. He was too great to be the Saviour of a fractional part of human life. His redemption extends to all human needs and powers and relations” (91).
- Anticipating the basis for the ecumenical movement: “Common work for social welfare is the best common ground for the various religious bodies and the best training school for practical Christian unity” (340).
- The prophetic role of the pastor: “The ministry, in particular, must apply the teaching functions of the pulpit to the pressing questions of public morality. It must collectively learn not to speak without adequate information; not to charge individuals with guilt in which all society shares; not to be partial, and yet to be on the side of the lost; not to yield to particular partisanship, but to deal with moral questions before they become political issues and with those questions of public welfare which never do become political issues” (412).
- An indictment of industrial society: “The force of the religious spirit should be bent toward asserting the supremacy of life over property. Property exists to maintain and develop life. It is unchristian to regard human life as a mere instrument for the production of wealth” (413).
- An attack on property rights, broadly defined: “The most fundamental evils in past history and present conditions were due to converting stewardship into ownership. The keener moral insight created by Christianity should lend its help in scrutinizing all claims to property and power in order to detect latent public rights and to recall the recreant stewards to their duty” (413). Presumably stewardship practically requires some sort of property rights, however.
- This would be news to missionaries around the world today: “The championship of social justice is almost the only way left open to a Christian nowadays to gain the crown of martyrdom. Theological heretics are rarely persecuted now. The only rival of God is Mammon, and it is only when his sacred name is blasphemed that men throw the Christians to the lions” (418).
- It must be noted that R was writing before WWI and WII: “Humanity is gaining in elasticity and capacity for change, and every gain in general intelligence, in organizing capacity, in physical and moral soundness, and especially in responsiveness to ideal motives, again increases the ability to advance without disastrous reactions. The swiftness of evolution in our own country proves the immense latent perfectibility in human nature” (422).
Jim Wallis: “I’m believing more and more that politics alone cannot overcome poverty and our other great social problems.” (See also: Pentecost 2007, featuring Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama.)
But, since the Sojourners forum isn’t the pulpit, Tony Campolo should have no problem with it: “It is time for us to name the hypocrisy of the Left in complaining about how the Religious Right is violating the first amendment while turning a blind eye to their own candidates’ use of churches as places to campaign.”
And for just how different the social gospel is from the Christian gospel, see Joseph Loconte: “The Christian confession of faith, by itself, offers no guarantee that either individuals or societies will be transformed. But, for believers, not even the smallest steps forward can be taken without it.”
In a much discussed op-ed for CNN last week, hipster church leaders Marc Brown and Jay Bakker (the latter’s profile, incidentally, immediately precedes that of yours truly in The Relevant Nation…a serendipitous product of alphabetical order) lodge a complaint against Christianity that doesn’t respect the call “love others just as they are, without an agenda.”
Speaking of Jesus, Brown and Bakker write, “The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.”
I’m sympathetic with their concerns that Christianity not become “co-opted by a political party” or only about “supporting laws that force others to live by their standards.” I’m less sympathetic with their emphasis on Christianity strictly as social gospel (the only mention of “hell” in the piece is as part of a rhetorical flourish at the piece’s beginning, having nothing to do with the biblical doctrine of everlasting punishment.)
In a piece for the Christian Science Monitor (HT: WorldMagBlog), Mark Totten writes that “a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.” On one level, this reflects the positive engagement of evangelicals with the totality of public life, something that is important given the extent of Christ’s lordship.
The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love” into the fabric of sin and salvation.
(Totten cites the work of Rev. Tim Keller, whose work is discussed in more detail here and here, as a case in point.) The key here is that in an overreaction to the social gospel, some Christians eschewed any and all political or social engagement. We need to be careful, however, that in response to what may be too little engagement, we don’t return to the errors of the social gospel and make Christianity all about material or social well-being.
So, instead of the “either/or” dichotomy that Bakker and Brown set up between traditional political issues of the religious right (e.g. gay “marriage,” abortion) and the “new” concerns of political evangelicalism (e.g. the environment, poverty), it’s really a “both/and” equation. And this “both/and” extends beyond the political realm to the theological, so that we have a socially conscious and active Christianity that doesn’t abandon orthodox doctrine and concerns about salvation.
Augustine, in his monumental work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), captures this relationship well (emphasis mine):
Now of all those who are able to enjoy God together with us, some we love as people we can help, some as people we can be helped by, some as ones both whose help we need, and whose needs we help to meet, while there are some on whom we ourselves confer no benefits, and from whom we do not expect any either. Still, we ought to want all of them to love God together with us, and all our helping them or being helped by them is to be referred to that one single end (1.29.30).
As Augustine elsewhere observes, “A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about” (Confessions, 3.2.3).
What does this mean in the context of Christian evangelism? That we not simply seek to bind up physical wounds, but minister to the whole person, body and soul. And real ministry to the soul entails that we relate the true situation of all sinners, for as Augustine also confesses, “my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner” (5.10.18).
Brown and Bakker write that Christians are to “love others just as they are, without an agenda.” If taken to an extreme, this claim is a radical departure from traditional Christian faith. For not only in the words of Augustine are we to love others as they might become brothers and sisters in Christ (“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account”), but also in the words of Jesus we are to show our love to one another by proclaiming the gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In preparing for the paper I’m giving this week on Bonhoeffer’s views of church and state, I ran across the following quotes, which nicely illustrate his view of the gospel and its relation to alleviation of social oppression and suffering. In his essay, “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” he writes,
It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace.
But even more important than feeding the hungry is the spiritual bread of the gospel. The physical bread derives its importance, in fact, from its value in “preparing the way” for the reception of the gospel. Giving mere bread is a penultimate thing.
Thus he writes, “Preparing the way is indeed a matter of concrete intervention in the visible world, as concrete and visible as hunger and nourishment. Nevertheless, everything depends on this action being a spiritual reality, since what is finally at stake is not the reform of worldly conditions but the coming of Christ.”
This coheres pretty well with a traditional view of the social responsibility of the Church as an important, albeit secondary, aspect of gospel proclamation. Richard Baxter once wrote,
Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies in order to the greater good of Souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men: God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily senses to the Soul.
It seems to me that Bonhoeffer and Baxter are in close agreement on these issues, in contradistinction to the so-called “social gospel,” which confuses the penultimate with the ultimate.