Nearly a century ago an American Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote A Theology for the Social Gospel in which he proposed that the life and teaching of Jesus would be better portrayed if the “four institutionalized spiritual evils in American culture” – individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism – were replaced by collectivism, socialism, internationalism and pacifism.
A few years ago I would have adamantly repudiated such a doctrine and seen it as embracing communistic ideals and forsaking the centuries-old teachings of the church. I am most grateful to one person in particular, Frances, who “gave me permission” to question what I had believed for decades. She told me, which I did not know, that various interpretations of the Bible were taught in theological colleges and universities. I was astounded! I experienced a great relief from the guilt I was battling that I was denying God’s word. I realized that what I was questioning was not God but the teachings about God by other people.
Whilst there are many aspects of living in a socialistic country I would be unhappy about, I also know there are aspects about Jesus’ life and teaching that are far more socialistic than the comfortable Christianity many of us have been taught. Our understanding of love and compassion has also been romanticized and devalued, which doesn’t help us in understanding the difficulty and discomfort of what it means to love God as Jesus did.
For example, did Jesus and the first century Christians live their lives thinking about themselves, their welfare, goals and happiness with little interaction or concern for those in their communities or the world at large? Did they seek personal wealth and benefits from the gospel they lived and taught, making it profitable for them and those closest to them regardless of those less fortunate than they were? Did they close ranks against the Jews, Gentiles, the marginalized, widows, orphans or women? Did they encourage separation, animosity, division, revolt, violence, hostility and aggression?
Or did they encourage and share whatever they had be it good news or a meal, fair play and compassion to those less fortunate, understanding, going the extra mile, taking up one’s cross even if it meant dying as Jesus did, forlorn and rejected and alone on a cross?
How much closer have we, as Christians, come to living the way Jesus lived?
During the Apartheid era in South Africa, I supported the National Party for a while believing there was imminent danger that the country would be infiltrated and come under communist rule. Such was the indoctrination of the government and the fear they instilled in many of the white population. Only after an eye-opening experience did I realize we had been duped and betrayed by our own government. However, the welfare of the majority of South Africans has changed little in the last 22 years despite our country having a democratic government run by the African National Congress. The majority of South Africans are still impoverished in many ways.
I wonder if South Africa’s history would be very different today if many more Christians practiced their faith in line with Rauschenbusch’s understanding of Jesus and his teachings.
If you were a Roman in Jesus’ day, or one of the Jewish religious elite, you were lucky. You would probably have lived pretty comfortably with the wealth, resources and privileges your status afforded you. The poor and voiceless were less fortunate and subjected to the unfairness, indignities and harshness of those better off than themselves, much as it still is today throughout the world.
I was listening to an audio book by Richard Foster entitled Longing for God in which he suggests that the image of God for many of us is the faith or the teaching we had about God in our youth. Our social, political and other beliefs are often based on our experiences and what we’ve come to believe and value within our own cultures, as well as from people and institutions whose opinions we value.
On this reasoning alone, we need to constantly reflect on and examine our experiences and the information passed on to us. If we don’t we are not our own person but a mere clone of someone else and what they believe. Somewhat like sheep, blindly accepting what their faith or culture stipulates. Also, when imitating great persons, like Jesus or Nelson Mandela, it is our responsibility as maturing adults to ensure our hearts and minds agree so that we don’t become confused and deeply discontent. It is fine to accept what other people believe and encourage us to believe, as long as we examine our consciences and can agree on what we are giving our allegiance to. To be authentic, we need to own the truths we live by, continually review them. Unfortunately we are often “too busy”, lethargic or quite happy to be an unthinking clone or sheep, preferring to ignore anything that might threaten our comfort or upset our way of life. Sometimes it takes a crisis to reassess our values to realize how we may need to live them differently.
Jesus’ gospel was not a comfortable one. He not only ran into trouble with officials in government and the Jewish hierarchy, but also with the less generous, compassionate, greedy, frightened, pompous and self-righteous people around him – people like us. Our complacency and insensitivity can make it hard for us to share our good fortune with anyone outside our clique, be it family, faith or country. Maybe this is because we don’t have the kind of heart, mind and lifestyle that made it possible for Jesus, but so hard for us.
Many will argue against a social perspective of Jesus’ life and message. I have also, in different ways, criticized this approach, thinking that it is political and shouldn’t be preached from the pulpits of religion.
What is the dictionary’s definition of ‘political’? One definition is: “relating to the balance of power in relationships, especially in a group or organization”. Marcus Borg writes about Jesus’ stand against domination of any kind and that it was his refusal to conform to the status quo of ‘live and let live’, of ‘don’t rock the boat’ and of his defense and compassion for the underdog, that landed him on death row.
Think of any abuse and in it you will find some form of domination, some preference for self above another. We are told to love God, our neighbours and enemies as ourselves. The love that we want is the love we must also wish for and exercise towards others. Jesus showed us how it can be done.
Maybe updating our Christianity is a matter of returning to what was important to Jesus and not to what has become important to us as individuals, or as members of any faith, group, culture, country. What we call ourselves, how we define ourselves and our beliefs are not what is important. What is crucial is a loving and caring lifestyle and a relationship with God, others and ourselves that supports, identifies and imitates the uncompromising compassion and fair-mindedness of Jesus. Maybe a problem we perpetuate is aligning ourselves to anything that classifies us as this or that, rather than as a person who, with all humanity, seeks to love and live as demonstrated in the life of Jesus and others like him, with integrity, honesty and commitment.
I am most grateful to Bruce Cooper for his time and expertise in editing this article for me.