Responses to Christianity and the Social Crisis: Part 1

Corbin Boekhaus, also a recent graduate of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, begins the Rauschenbusch discussion with a response to the first chapter, “The Historical Roots of Christianity: The Hebrew Prophets” and Phyllis Trible‘s reflections.
What can I say, I love the prophets.  John Hagee, Perry Stone, Hal Lindsey, you name it.   I flip on the TV and I’m treated to the twenty-first century equivalent of Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.  Or so they would like to believe, but then again, one must understand that 99% of Christians are more likely to associate the prophets with “future-seeing” than with addressing issues of justice and inequity.  In reading Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, it would seem that this was clearly not the case in his day, for myriad of reasons.  Certainly the rise of dispensationalism, though present in Rauschenbusch’s day, was not widely popularized until Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth in 1970.  And of course by the time that Lahaye and Jenkins get a hold of it, it is popularized, novelized, and dramatized like crack cocaine for quick diffusion into the Christian mainstream.

So already, we American readers of Christianity and the Social Crisis find ourselves at a historical disadvantage.  It is certainly worthy of note that Rauschenbusch’s work was the best-selling religious publication from 1907 to 1910, highlighting its mainstream, not purely academic, appeal.  But today we have the Prayer of Jabez, Wild at Heart, and the Case for Christ.  What was once accessible to the layperson is now “peering through the glass darkly,” to borrow just a little irony from the apostle Paul.  Rauschenbusch offers some insight, however, into this crisis of meaning; people turn to Hagee, Stone, and Lindsey, because “those modern preachers who act as eulogists of existing conditions… are really so charmed with things as they are and have never had a vision from God to shake their illusion”(28).  Historian Bill Leonard pointed to similar hypocrisy in Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, that “while he believed that Jesus’ return was just around the corner, the buildings at Liberty University were constructed in brick—a fundamentalist paradox extraordinaire.” It is a paradox—nay hypocrisy—much like the religious developments Rauschenbusch points out in the Hebrew tradition.

Rauschenbusch flatly asserts that emphasis on personal holiness, even among the prophets of the exile, was always rooted to its pragmatic and decidedly social application of “national restoration.” Where that personal holiness becomes detached, it degrades into perfunctory “ceremonial correctness”(22).  Perhaps a different translation would read “modern-day Evangelicalism,” given its affinity for this detachment.  It is no surprise that Rauschenbusch identifies a Christian apocalypticism that “still rival[s] the rabbis in learned calculations,” (referring most certainly towards Hasidic forms of gematria) and which can lead to little but social paralysis.  To this end, the Hebrew prophets are an ideal starting point for Rauschenbusch’s commentary on the liquidation of the unity of justice and holiness in Hebrew thought.

But to another end, highlighting the prophets as the basis for “social justice” can engender certain difficulties.  I would suggest that the singular word association of “social justice” and “the prophets” is fused in the minds of most moderate/progressive/liberal Christians, with deleterious effects.  Perhaps this is a historical artifact of Rauschenbusch’s method, or perhaps his method echoes prevailing cultural and religious sentiments; in any case, the idea of the prophets as the basis of socially conditioned justice and holiness is only one such connection in the biblical traditions.  In the book Preaching Justice, Justo Gonzalez mirrors this sentiment with this contribution, “If I insist on preaching on Amos and James…they would be justified in turning me off….justice is so central to the biblical message that it appears everywhere, and if we see it only in the most explicit passages, it is because we have ruled it out of our theology to such a point that it is now a marginal and occasional subject”(87). Every text is a justice text; perhaps we are just a bit too lazy as homeliticians to discover the justice that “flows down like a river” (how many times have you heard that canonized little idiom?).  So in our quest to address the social holism of justice and holiness, we must voice a “good news” beyond soundbytes and the book of Amos.

But perhaps Rauschenbusch’s quip, “no true prophet will copy a prophet” offers a bit of corrective clarity on the point.  Those preachers who ascend the pulpit on “justice Sunday” to preach on the same passage out of the book of Amos are pretenders to the tradition, and they do a great disservice to their congregations—and the gospel. Regardless of the problematic nature of Rauschenbusch’s methodology, he is certainly a prophet by any account.  So let us leave the subject of prophets with a word of prophecy from the man himself:

How would we feel if a preacher should use a public gathering on Decoration Day or Thanksgiving Day to predict that our country for its mammonism and oppression was cast off by God and was to be parceled out to the Mexicans, the Chinese, and the negroes?  In the sense of our security and strength we should probably simply laugh at him.  But suppose that our country was bleeding through disastrous foreign wars and invasions, shaken by internal anarchy, terrified and angry at blows too powerful to avert, and in that condition a preacher should “weaken public confidence” still further by such a message? (27)

One hundred years later, one man’s supposition is now reality: immigration, xenophobia, “security and strength,” and disastrous foreign wars are just the beginning.  On the sixth anniversary of the events of 9/11—still “terrified and angry at blows too powerful to avert”—perhaps we need to relearn how to speak truth to power?