Learning from the social gospel

rauschenbuschThe future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity into history. The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history.

So Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order, published 1912. In his article “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America”, in A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas quotes this and responds: “Christian ethicists after Rauschenbusch will never write a line like that.”

It’s odd and fascinating to watch Hauerwas give a fairly sympathetic appraisal of a man who could write a line like that and who, as Hauerwas notes, more or less identified democracy as the Christianization of politics. The purpose of the essay is not to critique, but to explore a piece of the history of Christian ethics in America and understand its influence.

Rauschenbusch was the greatest, and one of the last, proponents of the Social Gospel movement, which argued against individualistic conceptions of religion and for social embodiment of Christian principles. The kingdom of God was a main theological touchpoint and the prophetic tradition, and its recovery by Jesus after laying dormant, its main Biblical and historical touchpoint. This was the movement partly responsible for Prohibition and for WWJD which, long before acronym bracelets, was the key phrase in social gospeller Charles Sheldon‘s In His Steps.

Hauerwas notes many interesting things about Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. As best I can represent them, one is the combination of “liberal” theology with personal piety: “That liberalism and pietism might be at odds is a later development that is inappropriately applied to Rauschenbusch and his social-gospel friends. Their ‘social work’ was but a continuation of their understanding of the significance of their experience of Christ.” The social gospel was about reform, “but it was equally about prayer, hymns, and devotional practices.” Witness Rauschenbusch’s Prayers of the Social Awakening, which includes prayers for morning, noon and night.

A second interesting point is that for Rauschenbusch, theology was history and ethics were journalism. There was a movement in history running through the prophets, through Jesus, through democracy for the poor and the common good. To do theology was to narrate this historical reality and his ethics were “theologically and morally informed journalism. He narrated the social realities of his day by redescribing them Christianly.” Seeing historical realities of justice embedded in the work of Jesus was essential. I’ll quote Hauerwas at length for an interesting comparison of Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr:

Beckley notes that Rauschenbusch never proposed any universal principles of justice; rather his emphasis on the importance of, as well as his understanding of, the content of justice was grounded in his analysis of socio-historical circumstances. This is certainly the case, but I think what must be further said is that justice does not play a central role in Rauschenbusch’s work. This may appear a scholarly quibble, but it is important if we are to understand the significance of Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice becomes the overriding term for Niebuhr, and for many who follow Niebuhr, exactly because they no longer share Rauschenbusch’s account of Jesus. Put simply, and in a manner that is simplifying, once you no longer have Jesus all you are left with is the dialectic between love and justice. (his emph.)

I can’t pretend to know how well Hauerwas is doing his analysis of Rauschenbusch, but I think it would be interesting to chart the modern incarnations or echoes of the social gospel movement on the axes Hauerwas points out. I’m thinking of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd, of the growing social justice and creation care concerns in conservative Evangelicalism, and the social stances of some of the mainline denominations (my own United Methodist church, e.g.). I have no desire for us to recapitulate Rauschenbusch, but I find the unabashed connection of social concern and practices of piety like prayer, hymns and devotion appealing. Do we see this anywhere now? My guess is yes for conservative evangelicals*; my guess for Sojourners is less so (although I’m not sure). For my own church (and some of the Sojo types too), I think there is a major temptation to subsume piety entirely  into social justice concerns, or (my church!) let them coexist in a sometimes-uncomfortable orthogonality.

A second question: how are current groups grounding their appeals to justice etc? Where are they on the Rauschenbusch-Niebuhr divide — working from a grounding in the historical person of Jesus, or off of principles of love and justice abstracted therefrom? I know this sounds nebulous, but I think it’s important. I don’t know where to place conservative evangelical social concern. My recollections of God’s Politics and my browsing of Sojourners websites convinces me that they are leaning heavily toward principles. At my own church, I think definitely the same — we are not connecting social concern with the particularity of Jesus at all.

Do I read things correctly? And tell me, what ought we be learning from the ways the social gospel reinvents and relocates itself? If we can never repeat with Rauschenbusch that Christianity is getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history, can we say why?

 

* See here for an interview with Rick Warren in which he discusses the social gospel. Follow links there for a response from Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson, who argues Warren owes more to his great-grandpa than he realizes.
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