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The 'Social Gospel,' which never went away, is back

The Britannica's definition of the "Social Gospel" begins this way: "Social Gospel, religious social reform movement prominent in the United States from about 1870 to 1920. Advocates of the movement interpreted the kingdom of God as requiring social as well as individual salvation and sought the betterment of industrialized society through application of the biblical principles of charity and justice."

Social-Gospel-DefinedRight above that on the Britannica page, however, is a link to this CNN article with this headline: "There’s another Christian movement that’s changing our politics. It has nothing to do with whiteness or nationalism"

That article makes a persuasive case that a modern adaptation of the Social Gospel is back with an unexpected force and that one place it's made a recent difference is in the negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three car manufacturers, in which the U.A.W. won significant benefits for its members -- benefits that non-union carmakers now are beginning to offer to their workers, at least in part.

Many theologians would agree that the roots of the Social Gospel go all the way back not just to Jesus but to the Torah he learned as a child. In response to those Jewish roots, Jesus urged his followers to pay attention not just to where they might spend eternity but to their home here on Earth and to the many unjust systems that oppressed most citizens of that backwater land in the Roman Empire.

A passage from the New Testament book of Matthew, in the 25th chapter, has become a key marker of this updated Social Gospel, especially the section in which Jesus says to his followers that "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." And, sort of dumbfounded, those followers ask when any of that happened. His answer has become guidance for today: "(T)ruly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me."

Many Christian congregations, including my own, have adopted that idea from Matthew 25 as a way to focus on building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and paying attention to other goals such as environmental stewardship. Here, in fact, is the Matthew 25 resource page for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Such a focus differs from some branches of Christianity that seem to focus almost exclusively on personal salvation. I heard a preacher recently on a Christian radio station say that the most important question for any person in the world to ask is whether he or she is going to heaven. That approach differs from the kind of Christianity described in the Rev. Dr. Mike Graves' new book, Jesus' Vision for Your One Wild and Precious Life, in which he argues that Jesus came to teach us how to live instead of coming just to die.

"(W)hile it's plain and obvious that we aren't born just to die," Graves writes, "a lot of people, think Jesus was, that dying was his purpose in life, making Christianity all about death and the next life. Not me. I don't for a moment think Jesus came just to die. I believe he came to live, and for the way he lived, he was put to death."

Indeed, Christians are called to live fully and generously, the way Jesus did, and not to be so focused on heaven that they're no earthly good, as my late friend the Rev. Bob Meneilly used to say.

As the CNN piece to which I've linked you says, "The Social Gospel was a Christian movement that emerged in late 19th-century America as a response to the obscene levels of inequality in a rapidly industrializing country. Its adherents took on the exploitation of workers and unethical business practices of robber barons like oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. . ."

Today followers of the Social Gospel continue to be interested in those issues but also in such matters as racial equity, gender justice, environmental repair and others. They tend to recognize that in addition to individual sin there is corporate, social or communal sin that creates whole systems that work against Jesus' teaching about the need for love of God, love of self and love of others.

In fact, a renewal and adaptation of the old Social Gospel movement is in no way turning against or away from the teachings of Jesus, I would say, but is, rather, an effort to make them active and life-giving in today's circumstances.

As the CNN piece notes, "The Social Gospel movement is making a comeback. Some may argue it never left."

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The United Methodist Church continues its unraveling in a schism over how to interpret the Bible on LGBTQ+ issues. The latest churches to disaffiliate from that Mainline Protestant denomination are from Georgia, as this Guardian piece reports. "So far," the report says, "7,286 of about 30,000 United Methodist congregations – many in the U.S. south and midwest – have received approval to disaffiliate from the denomination since 2019, according to an unofficial tally by the United Methodist News Service." It's all sad and unnecessary. My long essay about how to interpret the Bible on this issue is here. But here's a pretty good general rule for all religions: If a religion teaches that some people are to be treated as second-class citizens and barred from full participation in that tradition, you can be sure that religion is getting it wrong.

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P.S.: I was grieved to learn of the recent death of Art Simon, founder of Bread for the World (and brother of the late Illinois senator, Paul Simon). Art and I shared a friendship with a long-incarcerated man in Missouri and, because of that connection, developed an email friendship over several years. Art was a Lutheran pastor with a heart for the needy. We could use several million more Art Simons. Sigh.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Over the years the subject of the relationship between science and religion has come up on this blog. In response, my childhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has asked me to give you his take on that subject. It's a take with which I disagree, but it's not unusual that we old friends don't agree on everything. In fact, that makes life more interesting. If you want more from Markandey, here is his recent description of Christianity and why, as an atheist, he rejects it. If you want to respond to his words, you may email him at [email protected].


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