I’m not sure how it happened.
I grew up in Baptist churches and attended a Baptist university.
Yet, I do not remember learning about Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) – a Baptist pastor who emphasized the social nature of the gospel proclaimed and embodied by Jesus – until my last year of seminary.
Maybe I missed it or wasn’t paying close enough attention, but Rauschenbusch is a name not easily forgotten.
I’m not sure how it happened that a born and raised Baptist could reach 25 before hearing about a Baptist social reformer who saw the fallacy of a gospel formulation that separated the physical from the spiritual and the individual from the collective.
Several years ago I attended Current, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual gathering for young Christian leaders. Brian McLaren was the keynote speaker whose messages focused on his book “Everything Must Change.”
The book’s title initially seems a stark hyperbole, yet the reader soon recognizes the global scope of social justice issues and is left with an overwhelming sense that everything must, indeed, change.
McLaren calls readers to ask, “How am I contributing to or revolting against injustices?” and “What does the gospel have to say about these things?”
When I asked, the gospel of personal salvation was found wanting – not because it was erroneous, but because it was incomplete, providing little focus on or guidance for addressing social concerns.
Recognizing that you are a sinner, accepting God’s favor by reciting a “prayer of salvation” and being baptized is the basic formula offered. This expression of the “good news,” while not incorrect, only focuses on the moment of repentance, not the life toward which you are turning.
Thus, it has little to offer here and now to the poor, hungry, thirsty, oppressed or outcast other than the “good news” that when they die they will go to heaven not hell.
While there is hope in this paradigm, it is primarily for life after death, which can lead adherents to neglect or forget to offer hope through the enactment of justice in the present.
This begs the question, “Is it good news to tell a starving person how to be ‘saved,’ but provide them no food?” (see James 2:15-16). Both words and actions are essential in my understanding of Jesus’ proclamation of good news, just as both individual (personal) and collective (social) redemption are involved.
In his sermon “City Which Hath Foundations,” Reinhold Niebuhr stated: “Biblical faith is … both this-worldly and other-worldly; but in Christian history the two emphases tend always to become separated, so that various ages are tempted to center their attention upon either the one or the other.”
He added, a “combination of this-worldly and other-worldly hopes is the only adequate religious expression of the human situation.”
Paul addressed the tension Niebuhr later described when he proclaimed, “If our hope is only for this life, we are to be most pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19, emphasis added). Perhaps we should reverse this statement on occasion to remember the present implications of Jesus’ message: “If our hope is only for the next life, we are to be most pitied.”
In “A Theology for the Social Gospel,” Rauschenbusch boldly declared, “The non-ethical practices and beliefs in historical Christianity nearly all centre on the winning of heaven and immortality. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God can be established by nothing except righteous life and action.”
Rauschenbusch recognized that the gospel was not about individual salvation alone, but holistic redemption that transforms individuals and social structures by embracing the God of love through the imitation of Jesus.
This is why Jesus constantly spoke about the Kingdom of God – a manner of life to be lived here on earth, which leads to the reconciliation of all creation through a nonviolent revolution characterized by love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, justice and solidarity.
Reconciliation with God happens when our lives align with the life of Jesus.
Redemption takes place when we accept the seeming foolishness of the Kingdom of God by feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:31-46).
Rauschenbusch and his “social gospel” are often referenced pejoratively; though, for me, his presentation of the gospel seems closely aligned with that of Jesus.
Hopefully the next generation of Baptists won’t have to wait as long as I did before discovering social reformers and advocates of justice like Walter Rauschenbusch because maybe there is a social (justice) gospel or there is no gospel present at all.
We need a gospel that speaks to the social concerns of our day.
Jesus’ did. Rauschenbusch’s did. Niebuhr’s did. Does ours?
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.