Dennis L. Johnson
In the New York Times on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020, an Op-Ed appeared by historian Jon Meacham which he titled, “Jesus May Be the Best Hope Against an Amoral President,” and he observed “history suggests that religiously inspired activism may hold the best hope for those in resistance to the prevailing Trumpian order,” in which the teaching of Jesus is mocked by the President at the National Prayer Breakfast and those gathered at the breakfast for prayer laughed along. In his Op-Ed Meacham referred to John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr., as followers of Jesus whose words and actions inspired their words and actions, calling America to accountability in the mid-1960’s. Meacham specifically noted the recognition given by Dr. King for the formative influence on him by the early 20th century American pastor and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the most compelling voice and central shaper of the Social Gospel. After reading Rauschenbusch’s 1907 best-seller, Christianity and the Social Crisis,” in which Rauschenbusch said that Jesus called his followers to be attentive to the spiritual needs of the individual and the material needs of society, Dr. King wrote, “The Gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being.” As quoted by Meacham, King, reflecting the impact of Rauschenbusch, went on to say, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” I gave Meacham a grateful “Amen!”
Then, in the New York Times two days later (July 28, 2020), conservative columnist David Brooks wrote about his willingness to cast his 2020 presidential election vote for democratic liberalism in resistance to Donald Trump and the “moral rot” he spreads. Brooks included in the intellectual roots of traditional democratic liberalism the Social Gospel movement. Another “Amen!”
I found this most interesting. In 48 hours two esteemed voices on the history and culture of America lifted up in the urgent struggle for the soul of America today the significant role of Walter Rauschenbusch who was the formative influence in the development of the Social Gospel and whose theological reflection fueled a movement blending the individualistic gospel and the social gospel in the spirit and name of Jesus, what Max Stackhouse, the late professor of social ethics, named as one of the most important theological-ethical movements in American Christianity.
In the history of my own soul-formation, Walter Rauschenbusch has been a spiritual guide for the past 40 years. He offers spiritual guidance as a fellow traveler to those who share the road on the inward journey of solitude, the outward journey of service, and the common journey of solidarity. A more than hundred years after his death, this caring pastor and social prophet and seminary professor, this authentic Baptist given a commemorative day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (July 2) continues to chart the course for what it means to follow Jesus in personal discipleship and social transformation from the way things are to the way things ought to be. The life he lived, the sermons and lectures he delivered, the books and articles he wrote, the letters he composed, the prayers he offered can move us to live in God more fully, more freely, more fearlessly and guide the conversation in what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus and meet the needs of our generation,
His eleven years (1886-1897) as pastor of the Second German Baptist Church in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on New York City’s West Side formed and informed his personal spirituality and social spirituality, his journey inward and movement outward. The extreme poverty of his ministry setting, along with the disease-infested, inhumanly crowded tenements, the crime and unemployment and malnutrition challenged him personally. In an 1887 letter he said he was obsessed with two questions: the spiritual care of his congregation and the social conditions of the city that separated the rich and the poor. He was once asked to intervene on behalf of an elderly parishioner who was pushed out of a New York City hospital because he lacked money to pay the bill, ultimately resulting in the man having a leg amputated. He ached over the number of funerals he had to conduct, especially for children who were victims of the disease-infested tenements. His first funeral was February 24, 1887. It was the funeral of a young child. Looking back over those eleven years as a pastor in Hell’s Kitchen, he said, “Oh, the children’s funerals! They gripped my heart—that was one of the things I always went away thinking—why did the children have to die?” The young pastor came “to save souls” and soon realized that there was more to be saved than souls. It was an awakening that would continually challenge him as a professing follower of Jesus and as an American, and he used that awakening to persistently confront all professing followers of Jesus and all Americans.
It was, what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” when all that glittered on the surface with the excessive wealth in the hands of the few “have’s” covered over the agonizing poverty and misery of the many “have-not’s.” Colossal fortunes. Lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. Industrialization. Big business. Government bending and bowing to the interests of that big business. Urbanization. Massive immigration and rural migration to urban centers. The impact? Alienation, social isolation, loss of community and cultural identity. Workers exploited to generate wealth. Tenements overcrowded, infested with disease and death, landlords indifferent to the dehumanizing conditions while charging exorbitant rent. Raise of populism and nativism. Anti-immigrationism. The Gilded Age.
It was time and the time, said Rauschenbusch, to discover the Jesus of the gospels and live his holy ways fully, freely and fearlessly. He was a faithful follower of Christ and a prophetic voice of protest. His messages in the pulpit and discussions in the classroom, his prayers and presence, his being and doing turned heads and touched hearts with the gospel mandate to work for and live for and pray for God’s reign of justice and love, solidarity and kinship, peace and justice here and now, as Jesus taught us to live and work and pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. His discipleship and spirituality and theological framework are vital, in the words of another Baptist—Harry Emerson Fosdick—“for the living of these days,” our days, days of viciousness and violence, chaos and crisis.
In his often overlooked 1916 book, The Social Principles of Jesus, written for college students in a Bible study format, Rauschenbusch identified three convictions that “were axiomatic within Jesus, so that all his reasoning and his moral imperatives were based on them, just as all thought and work in physics is based on gravitation. These convictions were
the sacredness of life and personality,
the solidarity of the human family,
and the obligation of the strong to stand up for all whose life is impaired or whose place within humanity is denied.
It can not be questioned that these convictions were a tremendous and spontaneous force in the spirit of Jesus.” (190) These convictions of Jesus made visible as the Jesus-spirit on earth today are guiding words of Rauschenbusch not only for his time but for our time and all time.
As professor of church history, Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants Tessieri, observes, “In American society today, we lack a shared understanding of what public life, common good, and other communal phrases mean, especially in terms of faith and living life in God…We cannot look out only for our own self-interest and expect this world to be a place worth inhabiting.” This is where Walter Rauschenbusch emerges from a century ago to be a timely guide for the living of these days in the time of our life. He brings the insight and wisdom that in God we are all connected, that when one is diminished all are diminished, that each life and personality is sacred, that the strong and privileged are to lift up the pressed down and displaced, that loving God means loving all of God’s creation and each person we encounter, that one’s personal life in God calls for compassionate service to others and standing for the solidarity of humanity, that we are to be living expressions and reminders of the image of Christ within us, through us, and among us. “Why else,” he asked, “Why else do we call ourselves Christian?” (Dare We Be Christians?, 54) “We love and serve God when we love and serve our neighbors, whom God loves and in whom God lives. We rebel against God and repudiate God’s will when we set our profit and ambition above the welfare of our neighbors and above the kingdom of God which binds them together. Sin is essentially selfishness…In some germinal and rudimentary form salvation must turn us from a life centered on ourselves toward a life going out toward God and others. God is the all-embracing source and exponent of the common life and good of humankind.” (Theology of the Social Gospel, 48, 50) But things these days are not as they ought to be, they are not the way they are supposed to be.
In his collection of Prayers of the Social Awakening, the closing prayer is “for the cooperative commonwealth,” in which he prays, “O God, save us, for our nation is at strife with its own soul and is sinning against the light which thou aforetime hast kindled in it. Thy Christ has kindled in us the passion for kinship, but the social life we have built, denies and slays kinship.” A prayer for today as our nation is at strife with its soul, and is sinning against the divine light which has been kindled.
When we witness these days the diminishment of others—and the distorted delight to diminish; the divisiveness among us—and the desire to divide; the domination of others by the privileged—and the determination to dominate; the use of fear to force loyalty and maintain control—and the delight to stoke fear; the hatred of those who disagree or who are different—and the eagerness to hate; the accusatory condemnation of the poor and homeless—and the zeal to condemn; the pompous parading of white supremacy and nationalism—and the fervor to swagger; the addiction to power and detachment from humility—and the corruptness to retain it;
the cruelty of the mob spirit, especially in the mindless, spineless, blind loyalty to false gods and little lords—and the pride in the mob; the obsessive greed for “more”—and the covetousness to keep it; the unrestricted cruelty toward God’s creation, our home—and the profit in the cruelty; and the presence of so much more causing God to weep, the words of Rauschenbusch to another time to meet the needs of those days remain prophetic and pastoral words to our time to meet the needs of these days. Just listen.
“Christianity stands for the doctrine that we must love one another—everyone, without distinction…It does not call on the strong to climb in isolation across the backs of the weak, but challenges them to prove their strength by lifting the rest up with them…It stands for the solidarity of humanity in its weakness and strength, its defeat and conquest, its sin and salvation.” (Dare We Be Christians?, 57, 58)
“Character is formed by action, but after it is formed, it determines action. What someone says and does, that one becomes; and what that one becomes, he or she says and does. An honest and clear-minded person instinctively does what is kind and honorable. But when a person for years has gone for profit and selfish power, you can trust the person as a general thing to do what is underhanded and mean. Since selfish ability elbows its way to controlling positions in business, politics, and society, the character reactions of such people are a force with which the kingdom of God must reckon. They are the personal equipment of the kingdom of evil, and the more respectable, well-dressed, and clever they are, the worse it is.” (The Social Principles of Jesus, 152)
“The mob spirit is the social spirit gone mad. The social group then escapes from the control of its wiser and fairer habits, and is lashed into action by primitive passions. The social spirit reacts so powerfully on individuals, that when once the restraints of self-criticism and self-control are shot back, the crowd gets drunk on the mere effluvia of its own emotions. We know only too well that a city of respectable and religions people will do fiendish acts of cruelty and obscenity.
There are radical mobs and conservative mobs. Well-dressed mobs are more dangerous than ragged mobs because they are far more efficient. Entire nations may come under the mob spirit, and abdicate their judgment.
Rarely are mobs wholly spontaneous; usually there is leadership to fanaticize the masses…Sometimes the crowd turns against the oligarchy; usually the oligarchy manipulates the crowd.” (Theology of the Social Gospel, 254)
For Rauschenbusch, as a follower of Christ, the social issues of his days were not merely social problems that required political solutions. They went deeper than that. They were profoundly spiritual and moral and would not be reversed by tinkering with the system here and there, now and then. “Mending the social order is not like repairing a clock in which one or two parts are broken. It is rather like restoring diseased or wasted tissues, and when that has to be done, every organ and cell of the body is heavily taxed. During the reconstructive process every one of us must be an especially good cell in whatever organ of the social body we happen to be located. It is not this or that thing our nation needs, but a new mind and heart, a new conception of the way we all ought to live together, a new conviction about the worth of a human life and the use God wants us to make of our own lives. We want revolution both inside and outside.” (Christianizing the Social Order, 465)
As Walter Rauschenbusch was dying of cancer at the age of 56 in the summer of 1918, heartbroken with a World War taking place, which he opposed and for which he was abandoned by many friends and supporters, his son Paul said in a letter to him two days before his father died, “I look forward still, father, to our walking and talking and working together some time in the not-so-distant future, when the world steadies to its keel again. It has listed far to port for a time, but life is still worth living, and there’s a better time ahead, when the off-shore gust has been safely weathered.”
Yes, we have listed far to port for a time but life is still worth living. There is a better time ahead if we can weather safely the off-shore gust that has listed us far to port for a time. So, for the steadying of our keel and the restoration of the American soul, historian Meacham points us to the spiritually inspired figures of John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose understanding of whole gospel for the whole of life, the well-being of the person and the well-being of society, was influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch. And columnist David Brooks points us to the Social Gospel movement shaped theologically by Rauschenbusch who said, “The main thing is to have God; to live in God; to have God live in us; to think God’s thoughts; to love what God loves and hate what God hates; to realize God’s presence; to feel God’s holiness and to be holy because God is holy; to feel God’s goodness in every blessing of our life and even in its tribulations; to be happy and trustful; to join in the great purposes of God and to be lifted to greatness of vision and faith and hope with God—that is the blessed life.” And this is the life with which we shall together weather safely the off-shore gust and steady to our keel once again.