Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The "Social Gospel"

One more in the series, but this turned out to be more of an essay or a sermon than a Lenten devotion. Ah, it happens sometimes. :-)

Psalm 146

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;

Who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.

The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the LORD!


I know a young woman who escaped a Communist country. Life after arriving in the West was not easy, and my friend spent some time on the streets and then in various shelters before landing more or less on her feet. She began to attend a conservative evangelical church. One day she learned, to her shock and surprise, that the term "social gospel" was used in a derogatory sense at her church. She found that inexplicable and confusing, later relating to me that if it were not for the kindness and charity of strangers she has no idea what might have happened to her.

"The social gospel" was an epithet in my world too. It meant that too much emphasis was placed on charitable works and dealing with the ills of society and the eternal aspects of God's Kingdom were minimized. Was that really always the case? Sometimes. Probably not all the time--and all too often, I now believe, it was an excuse to bash people who were from different traditions--and to feel "righteous."

Where did this all begin? In the mid-nineteenth century, Rev. Washington Gladden declared that he was offended by the idea of a God who would offer his own Son on behalf of sinful humanity. A little later, Walter Rauschenbusch wrote two books which urged the church to leave behind "old evangelism" which was all about salvation from sin through faith in Christ, and to embrace a "new evangelism" which was about salvation from social ills and injustice. Of course, many churches and denominations reacted to what was seen as a misplaced emphasis, and the opposite swing of the pendulum happened (as is so often the case). Many churches strenuously avoided, and sometimes repudiated, any outreach or activity that did not include a clear, unmistakable call to repentance of sin.

Romans 1:16-17 says "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes...in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'"

I believe in God's power--not just the power of the human spirit, or the power of change (powerful as those are). I believe in the power of God, the power of faith, the power of the Holy Spirit to transform and make us "new creations." If the Gospel of Jesus is simply about social issues, then ministers are really social workers.

Some time ago, radio show host, Glenn Beck urged church members to flee congregations that promote social justice, saying, "Look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can..." Some angry church folks asserted that social justice is the very heart of the Gospel, while others said that Beck was right and that Christians should flee liberal churches that had abandoned the Gospel. (I think Beck's agenda is political, not religious. His remark, however, was foolish, unless it was calculated to get attention. Hmmm...)

God is just. The prophets, speaking for God, called the people of God to live justly, to care for widows and orphans and strangers in need. The one who pleases the Lord is he who will "keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice." Israel is told to "do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor." God "has established his throne for justice" and "loves righteousness and justice." Princes are to "rule in justice" and the Lord "will fill Zion with justice and righteousness." The prophet Amos declared, "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Micah reminded Israel: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). Today's passage, Psalm 146, emphasizes God's concern for those who might be in extra need of compassion and care.

The true message of the church is not social reform alone. In this season of pondering death and resurrection, our message must be about new life--life lived by faith and the power of God's indwelling Holy Spirit.

Nonetheless, the church is, in and of itself, a social reform movement. Why? Because it is made up of redeemed sinners who are called to faithfulness in following Christ. Following Christ is going to mean we sometimes get radical! We can debate just what that might look like as we seek to bring light to a dark world, and we may come up with different ideas of just what it means to be a disciple. Still, in every case, justice is our concern because it is God's concern.

Christians believe that injustice will not exist forever. The Kingdom of God will bring the end of injustice, the end of misery, the end of war, the end of wickedness of all kinds. We have much work to do in this world, but true justice will be achieved when God's purposes are complete. Meanwhile, the church must share the "Good News" and Christians must live out its implications.

How are we living out this call to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God?

1 comment:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I've wondered where this whole line of thought has come from. I've also wondered why it is that certain denominations seem to be the ones with the hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, and social service agencies, or at least, historically, they started these. I've wondered if the other groups had these or just went about things in a different way. Coming from a denomination that has the largest social service agency in the whole US, I have been steeped in the social service and social justice tradition. And I've admired another group for being consistently Pro-Life in all ways, not just anti-abortion. But then we all see the same situation from different sides.