A chaplain’s reflections on the social gospel

We are all very conscious as we approach Nov. 11 that one hundred years ago the world was plunged into a world war, the consequences of which are still affecting us. I note also that, in November 1914, the Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch published a small but significant book, Dare we be Christians.  Not many people are familiar with Walter Rauschenbusch and perhaps even fewer have read his works, but in their own way they sowed the seeds of a different vision of Christianity, which was influential in the worlds of both church and politics and have significantly influenced me.

Rauschenbusch worked as a minister for several years in New York City in the last decades of the nineteenth century, in the area known as Hell’s Kitchen. There he saw poverty, crime, alcoholism, despair, and corruption, which he described as the challenges of the industrial era. After leaving parish ministry to teach theology at Rochester College, a small seminary in upstate New York, he carried the memories of his pastoral experiences with him. These experiences shaped his understanding of both the gospel and the church. His works, widely read at their publication but now largely unknown, challenged both the existing economic order and the church’s mission. Instead of a gospel that called for the conversion of individuals, he called for nothing less than the conversion of the socio-economic order. The later words of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer capture the essence of what Rauschenbusch tried “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”

The early twentieth century was a time of great conflict within the Protestant churches of North America. The ideas of fundamentalism were enunciated in the first decade and the split between fundamentalists and modernists quickly became apparent. Challenging the evangelical revivalists who called only for personal salvation, Rauschenbusch wrote of the sins of society and the need for a systemic re-ordering of the world. For Rauschenbusch, the crisis of the emerging modern world needed a new way of doing theology and a way of ordering the socio-economic systems in which people lived. Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of the God was a call to reorder the world in such as way as to give dignity to all people. He wrote, “Because the Kingdom of God has been dropped as the primary and comprehensive aim of Christianity and personal salvation has been substituted for it, therefore people seek to save their own souls and are selfishly indifferent to the evangelization of the world.” Out of his thinking and writing, the social gospel movement emerged, influencing, among others, such people as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and Tommy Douglas.

It was the work of Walter Rauschenbusch, in enunciating the need for structural and systemic change that led other progressive Christians to attempt change in a radical way. In the year that Dare we be Christians was published, Atlantic Baptists met and in a bid to move the social agenda forward, proposed that “the resources of the earth being the heritage of the people, should not be monopolized by the few to the disadvantage of the many; women who toil with men should have equal pay for equal work with men; employers and employees are partners in industry and should be partners in the enterprise; there should be a living wage as a minimum in every industry.”

While what he wrote was theology, Rauschenbusch wrote in the late Victorian rhetorical style that left no doubt about his meaning. He wrote, “There was nothing mush, nothing sweetly effeminate about Jesus. He was the one that turned again and again on the snarling pack of His pious enemies and made them slink away. He plucked the beard of death and He went into the city and their temple to utter those withering woes against the dominant class.” Truly a prophet of the social gospel movement, ultimately his name and his works fell into obscurity largely because of the First World War. Rauschenbusch could not personally support the decision made by the American government to go to war against Germany. In the time of heightened patriotism and nationalism of the World War One period, his vocal opposition to war, his unwillingness to demonize Germany and his refusal to lend support to the war effort, meant his work slipped into disrepute. Despite being deeply affected by America’s entry into the war and slipping into depression, he completed his last work, A Theology for the Social Gospel, which was published in 1917, shortly before his death. He did not live to see the end of the war.

His standard phrase, indicating the need to live a gospel that brought real, material change to the world and all its peoples, was that “the Kingdom is always but coming.” One hundred years after Dare we be Christians, the words that were intended to be an assurance of the coming of a new realm seems less a promise now than a complaint and the love that he wanted instituted in all levels of society sometimes seems to be diminished in the world that I see, through stained glass.

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