The Church as it Could Be – Social Justice Hub

June 11, 2009

Some time back I was speaking with a more conservative friend of mine. The subject of Rick Warren, the evangelical mega church pastor and author of “The Purpose Driven Life” came up. Now, I’m not a huge Warren fan on many issues, but I was speaking favorably of a plan of Warren’s that had  been recounted in a Time magazine interview at that time. In the article, Warren posited the idea that globally, the Christian church could become a central hub of help and support for the community around it. Theological arguments and differences can become so big and divisive that Warren was laying out an area of overlap for all churches to focus on. Poverty, sickness, hunger, depression and other global problems can and should be addressed by the local church. Warren envisioned a system in which each church in a given town could provide shelter and food for the area homeless and poor, basic and preventive medical and dental attention for the sick (after all, there are church going doctor’s and nurses), counseling for the depressed and so on. My friend made a comment similar to ones that many conservatives often make. “If you’re going to be mainly concerned with feeding and clothing people around the world, simply focusing on physical and bodily needs and forsaking the spiritual business of saving souls you may as well just join the peace corps.”

For many conservatives, the church should only be concerned with evangelism in the sense of “soul winning,” and “preaching the good news.” Save their souls, for there’s a better place in heaven and this world’s just a dirty old pond for us to fish folks out of. That’s 19th and 20th century evangelical thought in it’s most basic and concise form.

Yet isn’t it obvious that “preaching the good news” is synonymous with caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, loving the outcast and welcoming in all to the fold? Isn’t that how one breaks the Kingdom of God into the present world in the highest form of outreach that one can do?

I commend Warren’s plan in this case. There are areas in which I would take it much further than he, but I feel that’s okay. I’m sure Warren would be fine with me and “mine” keeping a more liberal theological stance for ourselves as long as we share in the common goal of doing God’s physical work on earth.

Of course, it sounds too simple. Much more simple than it is, unfortunately.  For many people, faith is wrapped up in a few key concepts that tend to leave the true heart of Christianity out. For some, anything that challenges their belief in biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement or dispensationalist rapture theology is unacceptable, and often heretical. A quick scour of the internet doing any sort of theology research will load you up with plenty of angry refutations of Borg, Crossan, Funk, Rob Bell and even NT Wright, for their larger probing questions as well as their most basic thought that push far outside of those few “key” concepts. It all comes down to how someone understands the concept of salvation and how someone reads the Bible. It’s worth noting that dispensationalist and rapture theology is largely absent from the Bible in any notable way and only began to be taught in the past 150 years or so and that substitutionary atonement is but one of many interpretations of New Testament thought, not the sole doctrine it’s thought of in certain circles. So bear with me for the sidetrack, but I think a quick summation of this particular doctrine is necessary at this point.

Substitutionary atonement holds pretty much the following: Humankind is sinful, people are born full of sin and earth had become so base and vile that a great sacrifice was required to pay the debt that such sin had created. This debt was so large that only a Godlike sacrifice would suffice. So God became incarnate in the human flesh of Jesus whose entire purpose in life was death, to die on the cross so that the debt could be paid in blood. Now, since that debt has been paid, humans can receive forgiveness and the gift of salvation. Salvation understood in the context of this particular framework is explicitly life after death in heaven and this gift is received by praying a certain prayer once one becomes knowledgeable and thus accountable for their sins.

This may seem like one of those theological tangents that are so divisive that I mentioned earlier. This article is concerned with the local church being a “social justice hub,” so why mention such a thing? Well, such a mindset helps explain why such a seemingly agreeable cause can be considered “radical’ or “liberal” by many Christian groups.  I myself am much more in tune with a more “participatory atonement,” one in which as a  Christian I  don’t rely simply on Christ to die and rise to pay my debts in my place but instead feel that we ourselves must metaphorically die to our old way and rise again to a new way of living, to “pick up our cross daily,” so that it’s never a matter of finished and complete. No, we must constantly die to the ways of the established order, the order in which greed, money, empire, violence, injustice, self interest, anger, bitterness, spite, and war reign and instead rise to live to a new and alternative order, one in which peace, justice, love, compassion, truth, honesty and progress reign. In this sense the world is not a “dirty pond to fish people out of,” no, it’s a wonderful creation full of immense possibility in which we are called to break this alternative kingdom into being, a world in which we do our best to spread peace and non-violent justice everywhere we go. In this sense, salvation isn’t just a gift that provides us a ticket out of this world once we die and so we must simply bide our time till this all falls away, no, it’s instead a means to provide us with inner peace, comfort, guidance and preparation so that we can set about making things here and now the way they ought to be with the belief that we will one day find it so. (Not to mention I also feel Jesus’ life and teachings were very important, not just his death)

It’s understandable how looking at things from a way never before considered can be upsetting to people. Universal inclusion, acceptance, non-violence, equality, an open and evolving interpretation of scripture, environmental preservation and responsibility, and being open to new discoveries every day are challenging to those that have boiled spirituality down to a matter of a “get out of hell free card,” an upcoming violent battle of end times, a well defined and boxed in list of do’s and don’ts. Not to mention that the politicization of a certain religious thought has led to a tie-in with capitalism and republicanism causing peace and justice issues to seem just a bit too “socialistic” for some.

Not to be snide, but all are free to think how they want to, read scripture in the manner they choose to, rally behind whatever causes they are drawn to. Yet knowing that for even the most far-right Christian who holds to their concepts I’ve mentioned earlier, the call to “plead the case of the widow” and “defend the fatherless,” the call to feed the hungry and nurture the sick, to love the outcast, this call is not defined to either liberal or conservative. This is universal, basic, heart of Christianity material. To ignore it is to ignore the entire person of Jesus and his teachings.

So I can let go of my difference of opinion on many issues with Warren and still support his universal cause of outreach to the less fortunate. I feel that this is the call of the church in the modern era to remain relevant.

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6 Responses to “The Church as it Could Be – Social Justice Hub”

  1. dwhamby1 said

    Great article. Here is my comment–

    Matthew 25
    The Sheep and the Goats
    31″When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

    34″Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

    41″Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    44″They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

    45″He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    46″Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

  2. oranjas b orangas said

    this is excellent work. i hope you continue with it and reach a lot of people. i think your message is important.

  3. Brad Gullette said

    I think it is the call to everyone, no matter creed or race or what have you. The answer to this life lies in compassion for all things living and sentient- for the Creator is in all of them.

  4. alissa said

    Amen.

  5. dave said

    Many times when we are trying to mimic Jesus as our Rabbi we lose something powerful. We might ask ourselves that trite question of “what would Jesus do”, but we only ask it when faced with a decision. So really we usually end up with something more like, “Jesus probably wouldn’t do this”, and you fill in the blank. But that doesn’t tell us what Jesus DID. That’s why I hate the WWJD stuff. It’s not about if Jesus would have done this, or that. It’s about following His example as a teacher, a rabbi. As a Christian, my rabbi is Jesus. Jesus HEALED people. Jesus spoke life to people. Jesus FED people. Jesus gave comfort to families. Jesus stood up and exhalted those who were put down. Jesus was a non-violent, revolutionist liberator; not a republican. If I am to follow Jesus, I am to do those things, and see the potential that we all have and strive to help others see that potential inside themselves.
    Good post Dustin.

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