Gospelling Socially

My thoughts were stirred toward the Social Gospel movement by a fantastic guest lecturer in my Philosophy of Religion class this morning.  So, I thought I might post a little from my old historical friend, Walter Rauschenbusch, an early twentieth century Baptist minister whose work I discovered while living in western North Carolina.  He taught at Rochester Divinty School in upstate New York.  It just so happens to be the place where I took my ordination exams for the PC(USA).  What Rauschenbusch had to say in the second decade of the twentieth century continues to ring eerily true in the second decade of the twenty-first, especially in light of the recent frustrations exposed by the convulsions of Occupy Wall Street:

The natural resources of the country are passing into the control of a minority.  An ever increasing number of people are henceforth to live in a land owned by an ever decreasing number.  The means of traffic are the arteries of the social body; every freight car is a blood corpuscle charged with life.  We have allowed private persons to put their thumb where they can constrict the life blood of the nation at will.  The common people have financed the industry of the country with their savings, but the control of the industry has passed out of their hands almost completely.  The profits of our common work are absorbed by a limited group; the mass of the people are permanently reduced to wage-earning positions.  The cost of living has been raised by unseen hands until several millions of our nation are unable to earn even the bare minimum which social science declares necessary for health and decency, and all families living on a fixed income have felt a mysterious and suffocating pressure.

All this was the necessary outcome of our economic system, but it was a sore surprise to most of us when the process began to culminate and we saw the end of our own doings…

…Sin is the greatest preacher of repentance.  Give it time, and it will cool our lust in shame.  When God wants to halt a proud man who is going wrong, he lets him go the full length and find out the latter end for himself.  That is what he has done with our nation in its headlong ride on the road of covetousness.  Mammonism stands convicted by its own works.  It was time for us to turn.

We are turning…

…Were you ever converted to God?  Do you remember the change in your attitude to all the world?  Is not this the new life which is running through our people the same great change on a national scale?  This is religious energy, rising from the depth of that infinite spiritual life in which we all live and move and have our being.  This is God.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order, 1916

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)


For those who are uninformed about what Occupy Wall Street is all about, read this article first:


Taken from a Facebook discussion, here’s why I think this joke is relevant:

Let’s look at the setting: The Temple. It’s a fair bet to say that it was in the outer court of the Temple, most likely in the Court of the Gentiles, which is the only section …of the Temple where non-Jews were allowed to worship (it reminds me of the balcony in my wife’s church, where slaves were segregated out and forced to sit apart from the rest of the congregation back in the day). The money-changers came in and set up their business in that section, forcing people to exchange foreign coin for Temple shekel (because the former had images of ‘foreign gods’ on them) in order to buy animals for sacrifice. I should add that this was done for profit.

It’s no accident that Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7 on his way in: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people”. This comes from a larger section of Isaiah where the prophet describes how non-Jews will be welcomed as part of God’s people. God’s wants to be known as the one who “gathers the outcasts”. Going back to Isaiah 2:1-5, God’s ultimate goal is to make Jerusalem into a multi-cultural center for education in agriculture, nonviolence, and spiritual enlightenment.

Jesus knew all of this and was angry that the powers-that-be had taken the one small place that non-Jews had in the Temple (the one place that could fulfill the divine vision), and had taken it away from them in order to keep their profit-making machinery going. Jesus intended to give it back.

So, without the approval of the authorities, he set up an unlawful occupation of the Temple courts. Every day for that last week of his life, Jesus and his followers gathered in that section to teach and learn. He was fulfilling Isaiah’s vision to make Jerusalem a multi-cultural center for education in agriculture, nonviolence, and spiritual enlightenment. The powers-that-be questioned his authority and tried to shut it down, but were unsuccessful. In the end, the text tells us that this was the point where they started the conspiracy to have Jesus killed. He was too much of a threat to their power.

Occupy Wall Street isn’t a perfect reflection of this action. I’m not arguing that it’s particularly Christian in nature. However, it’s appropriate to note the similarities between the two: A powerful populist movement of marginalized people (i.e. “freaks and geeks”) sets up an illegal occupation of a symbolic power-center in protest against profiteering schemes that rob people of their God-given rights.

To the extent that this works, the authorities lash back with violence and death (hence the crucifixion). Or, as Gandhi put it: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”