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Why Do Church Members Need Education on Social Ethics?

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The ongoing task of ethical education is to provide each generation guidance for moral decisions.

For much of the history of the church, the tradition in ethical education has focused on individuals and the consequences of their personal decisions and actions.

But for well over a century, students of ethics have recognized the importance of social ethics.

The basic insight of social ethics is that ethical decisions are based not only on choosing virtues over vices but also are greatly influenced by the limits of social structures in which they live – their economy, politics, social class and so on.

The late Walter Rauschenbusch contributed significantly to the awareness and importance of the discipline of social ethics.

He began his career in 1886 as a pastor to German immigrants in New York City. He reports that his seminary training left him totally unprepared for offering a remedy to the suffering of his church members.

The seminary curriculum did not address causes of poverty. Rauschenbusch turned to analyses of sociologists, political scientists and economists, especially Henry George whose thesis in “Progress and Poverty” was “If the nation is producing so much wealth, why are so many in poverty?”

Rauschenbusch concluded that the most powerful factor creating people’s misery was the structural organization of the economic system in the United States.

The economy produced a society with a striking imbalance in wealth: 1 percent of the country owned half of the nation’s wealth while the remainder suffered lifelong deprivation produced by low wages.

Rauschenbusch believed that capitalism was based on greed and competition with inevitable winners and losers, but, in his view, this was exactly opposite the Christian values of compassion and love for others.

The structure of the economic system was flawed because there was no way to enforce just distribution of wages for workers, and most business owners would not voluntarily surrender their economic advantages.

Social ethicists called this condition a systemic problem; that is, inequity was built into the system of capitalism.

Rauschenbusch brought social ethics to conscious awareness and gave it theological understanding in his development of the idea of the Kingdom of Evil.

This ethical analysis of society was a massive leap in understanding the nature and power of evil.

Seminary had indeed failed to prepare Rauschenbusch for the economic reality of the Gilded Age; his conscience challenged church and nation to social redemption and a more just society.

But is this view part of the gospel? Drawing on 19th-century studies of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, Rauschenbusch believed that the good news (gospel) of Jesus originally envisioned both individual salvation and redemption of the nation.

A kingdom, after all, is a group, not an individual. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he began, “Our father,” not “My father.”

The message of salvation in original Christianity was not limited to sinful individuals; it also included their unjust societies.

Rauschenbusch’s insight established a powerful trend of social theologies that spanned the 20th century.

In his book, “Soul in Society,” Gary Dorrien helpfully identified their progression: the Social Gospel (Rauschenbusch), theology of realism/justice (Reinhold Niebuhr) and theology of liberation (Gustavo Gutierrez).

All of these movements brought social injustices to the center of theological reflections.

For Rauschenbusch, the key social-ethical issue was how to Christianize the political-economic orders.

As Barbara Ehrenreich has eloquently described from personal experience in “Nickel and Dimed to Death,” we still have not solved that problem.

In the 1960s, the emphasis shifted to equal rights for women and African Americans and other groups that claimed the message of liberation from suffering created by poverty, racism, sexism, militarism and so on. These injustices also have not been resolved.

The United States claims the lofty goals of “liberty and justice for all,” a sentiment repeated every time citizens take the Pledge of Allegiance. The Constitution also embodies support of these priceless values.

However, in practice, we have not achieved justice as a society, and in fact must work incessantly to address new forms of injustice, which appear with distressing regularity.

How shall we deal with issues of immigration? Trafficking? Minority sexual orientation? Proclivity to wage war? Payday lending? The environmental threat of global meltdown? And other current sources of injustice and suffering?

Finally, how can we present these issues in sermons, Sunday School class discussions and so on?

The esteemed Christian ethicist, James Gustafson, in his article, “From Scripture to Social Policy and Social Action” (Andover Newton Bulletin 9, January 1969, 160-169) wrote that although Rauschenbusch was not a trained ethicist, he proceeded like one by identifying the problem, motivating for change and offering an agenda for a better society.

Rauschenbusch was committed to informing people on critical social ethical issues of their day.

He helped to create local and even national organizations to promote the Social Gospel.

He wrote extensively, including five major books devoted to Christian social ethics; all carried the term “social” as well as “religion” or “Christian.”

In 1916, Rauschenbusch published “The Social Principles of Jesus,” a little primer on Christian ethics aimed specifically at college students.

There he wrote that he believed “the Jesus religion always sought an ethical and social outcome.” He asserted that “the will of God is identified with the goal of mankind.”

Rauschenbusch selected extensive gospel passages that addressed social issues and added his own commentary to these texts.

He ended each section with an extended series of questions (240 throughout the book of 12 chapters) about ethical situations that demanded answers.

The book was written for a three-month study by YMCA discussion groups (and soon distributed among soldiers in World War I). He probes students’ conscience by asking what decisions they would make and why.

Rauschenbusch’s strategies are still useful. However, additional modern pedagogical methods may also prove helpful.

Essentials tasks would include naming the ethical problem, explaining why it is sinful and what may be done about it.

As moral leaders, Sunday School teachers and ministers can do a great service to church members by regularly providing them with information on current social problems as well as viable guidelines for daily Christian living in the quest for a society characterized by liberty and justice for all.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on Christian ethics education. The previous articles are:

Why Your Congregation Needs Christian Ethics Education | Bill Tillman

Why the Church Must Recover the Gospel’s Political Claims | Curtis Ramsey-Lucas

Why Biblical Ethics Isn’t as Easy as Choosing Proof Texts | Myles Werntz

How Your Church Can Learn to Discuss Politicized Moral Issues | Libby Grammer

So You’re ‘Not Racist’? Here’s Why That’s Not Good Enough | Michael Cheuk

With Will Campbell, You Might Not Get the Ethics You Want | Mack Dennis

Bill Pitts

Bill Pitts is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of "The Reception of Rauschenbusch: The Responses of His Earliest Readers" (Mercer University Press).