Christianity and the Social Crisis: Part 2

Here is my response to the second chapter of Christianity and the Social Crisis, “The Social Aims of Jesus,” and Tony Campolo‘s reactions to it.

I am thankful that Tripp included me in the list of responders to the re-release of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis.  I admit with some embarrassment that I might not have read it otherwise.  As I read through the table of contents, I immediately knew which chapter on which I would focus.  I chose Rauschenbusch’s section on “The Social Aims of Jesus” because I am interested in how we retain Jesus’ teachings in an ever-changing cultural, social, technological climate.

Rauschenbusch’s view of Jesus’ life and ministry, and our appropriate response to it, can be summarized in a line from Kevin Smith’s (ir)reverent comedy, Dogma.  Chris Rock’s character, Rufus, comments, “Jesus had a good thing going until man built a belief system around it.”  Rauschenbusch’s view of the Hebrew prophets carries something of this quip’s truth.  Jesus’ ministry continued the early emphasis of the Hebrew prophets’ care for the poor and oppressed and the necessity of creating just and equitable societies on earth.  Rauschenbusch argues that we cannot fully understand the life and work of Jesus apart from this rich religious history.

Throughout this chapter, Rauschenbusch focuses on Jesus not being a social reformer, his relation to contemporary movements, his purpose as an active proponent of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom’s impact on Jesus’ ethics, Jesus’ emphasis on conduct over ritual, his teachings on wealth, his social affinities, and his revolutionary consciousness.  All of these elements are deeply imbued with a social consciousness.  Despite Evangelical assertions to the contrary, I do not feel that Rauschenbusch avoids individual concerns but that they are rather implicit in his social emphasis.  The individual matters insofar as (s)he contributes to a healthy society.

Rauschenbusch realizes the tendency of subsequent groups and individuals to appropriate Jesus’ teachings to their particular ends or movements.  Rauschenbush rejects any efforts at this…unless of course they align with efforts to fight injustice and oppression.  Far from seeing Jesus as a violent revolutionary or the Kingdom of God arriving by some future cataclysmic event, Rauschenbusch places the responsibility squarely on contemporary Christians to bring about the Kingdom of God through gradual, peaceful, organic change.

Perhaps I can flesh out more of my thoughts on this chapter by responding to Campolo’s response.  Campolo begins by praising Rauschenbusch’s emphasis on bringing about God’s Kingdom in the here and now rather than waiting for it by and by.  He laments Evangelicals’ slow arrival at this reality and its assertion to work for the poor and oppressed.  Campolo, apparently speaking for the Evangelical community, finds four shortcomings in Rauschenbusch’s text.  First, Campolo writes, “He does not clearly affirm the traditional church belief that Jesus was fully God incarnate.  There is no doubt that Rauschenbusch affirms divine qualities in Jesus, but it is not at all clear that he views Christ as the second member of the Trinity” (77).  Here, it seems as if Campolo fails to see the forest for the trees.  Such a complaint runs contrary to the Hebrew prophets and Jesus’ emphasis of conduct over belief (ritual).  Does an Evangelical obsession with the necessity of believing in the Trinity trump modeling one’s life after Jesus’ advocacy for the Kingdom of God?

Campolo argues second, “[…There] is a sense in which Rauschenbusch fails to grasp the radical sinfulness of the human race” (77).  To counter this sinfulness, Campolo cites the need for “personal conversion in which an individual enters into a dialogical and transforming relationship with a living Christ” (78).  Ironically, I would argue that if one follows Rauschenbusch’s argument to its conclusion, she would experience a radical transformation with a living Christ, not only personally, but in her surrounding community as well.  Whether Campolo’s wish is exemplary of the Evangelical death grip on personal/individual faith or not, Rauschenbusch’s words counter:  “Theologians have felt no hesitation in founding a system of speculative thought on the teachings of Jesus, and yet Jesus was never an inhabitant of the realm of speculative thought” (72).  “Speculative thought” might be another way of describing an incessant emphasis on personal salvation.  Moreover, we cannot doubt that Rauschenbush was keenly aware of the prevalence of sin, given his life-long involvement in the most “sinned against” communities in this country.

Third, Campolo claims, “We Evangelicals also have trouble with Rauschenbusch’s view of Scripture.  […We] cannot accept Rauschenbusch’s belief that parts of the Bible need not be taken seriously since they are more reflections of the political pressures under which they were written than revelation from God” (78).  Once again, I fear that the Evangelicals are too easily offended here.  I do not think that Rauschenbusch does not take certain parts of the Bible seriously.  Rather, taking it more seriously than most Evangelicals, he chooses to major on the majors.  Again, Campolo might be letting a belief system stand in the way of a Kingdom ethic.

Finally, Campolo argues, “I do not believe there is necessarily a contradiction between Rauschenbusch’s idea that the kingdom of God emerges as individuals come together to form a movement through which God effects change and the traditional evangelical belief that God intervenes at the eschaton, bringing history to a dramatic and apocalyptic end” (78).  I see where Campolo is going here, although part of me believes this is the least significant complaint.  Though the promise of the eschaton might be a pacifier to some, it should not deter us from working in the here and now, tirelessly.  Moreover, this eschaton has been used to buffer so much suffering that I believe a temporary move away from it, a la Rauschenbusch, might be in order.

In conclusion, what we have here might be irreconcilable differences fueled to a great extent by a (dis)belief in Scriptural inerrancy.  Moreover, Rauschenbusch’s arguments for the social implications of Christianity can turn on him, as the Evangelicals consistently do.  Rather than focusing on the poor and oppressed, they champion anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-welfare, etc. all the while claiming, like Rauschenbusch, “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus” (42).