There were two things I was hoping to escape when I joined a Pentecostal church: social-climbing Christianity and social justice Christianity. Silly me: I’ve achieved neither of these. I deal with the former on an irregular basis. I think my church people and pastor are aware of my rants on the subject but up to now the one point of blow-back has come from South Africa.
It took longer for me to realise I had a problem, but the latter has stuck to me like flypaper. There are people out there in my church and churches like it who are very big on this subject. I’m tempted to say that they’ve not gone as far as their, say, Episcopal counterparts, but the more I read the less I’m inclined to make that sweeping generalisation.
I’m as aware as anyone–and more than most–that the New Testament doesn’t support the middle class model that passes itself off as God’s plan for the normal Christian life. But after all of these years I still don’t believe that the Christian’s first aim is to, say, meet the Millennial Development Goals, as the Episcopal Presiding Bishop does. This piece is my attempt to explain my rationale on this subject, and perhaps to help others who wrestle with it.
As with many other problems, I look at things from a multi-faceted view, so some of the rationale will come as a surprise to my conservative readers as well as my liberal ones.
Starting with Karl and Fred’s ideology might seem to be a strange way of beginning this diatribe, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was very relevant. The Cold War’s ending wasn’t as obvious as it is now, and could have turned out differently if a few things and people had changed here and there. And had the peace movement–Christian and otherwise–succeeded in its goal of unilateral disarmament, Marxism in one or more of its flavours would have been the only “social justice” game in town, and Christian social activism would have been at an end.
It’s easy to forget now, but Marxism’s great claim to fame has traditionally been that it is “scientific socialism” as opposed to the “utopian socialism” that was its counterpart. Put another way, Marx and Engels trumpeted their brand of left-wing ideology as based on science, which when coupled with their materialistic and deterministic assumptions, meant that history would always end up going their way. (That, boys and girls, is the origin of the “wrong side of history” or the “ash heap of history”, as Leon Trotsky put it). In any case, Christian social activism was and is a utopian proposition, buttressed at various times by post-millennialism or simple naïve moralism (more about that later).
Helping Marxism’s case was a better understanding of economics than almost anyone in the Christian left then and now, especially as it regards the business of the surplus value of labour. Friedrich Engels managed a subsidiary of his family business in Manchester, England, from whence my great-great-grandfather came to the US to start our family business. In both cases contact with the actual workings of business, irrespective of whether one thought it was good or bad, made it quickly clear that many on the left–and this was and is certainly true of the Christian left–were complete babes in the woods about economics, how it worked, the problems it caused, and how these problems might be solved. To say that this trashed any credibility of Christian social activists is an understatement.
Hand in hand with that is Marxism’s emphasis on economic equality and the solution of the class struggle. Conservatives decry attempts at class warfare on the left, but the core difference between American liberalism and Marxism is the former’s obsession with “justice” of just about every kind except economic: racial, gender, environmental and now of course the LGBT crusade. The Christian left followed its secular counterpart on this. The result now is that, after fifty years of activism, the income and wealth spread between top and bottom in our society keeps growing, with liberals stupidly wondering why. It was Marxism’s strongest critique against American liberalism then and it certainly is now; even that quintessential Christian leftist, Jim Wallis, gives evidence that he’s figured that out.
The upshot of this was that, if offered a choice of Marxism or the Christian left as the only two choices out there, I would have picked Marxism in a heartbeat. Why? Well, Christian leftists are in the habit of denying the basic truths of the faith, so the eternal destiny of both looked to be the same. If you’re going to commit your life to such an enterprise, commit it to one where you can use force to get your way and one that at least built industrial powerhouses and not trying to turn the world back to the Stone Age. Happily there were other choices.
The Issue of Morality
One of Marxism’s tenets is that morality has no objective existence; any system of thought that depends upon it is doomed to failure. That is a logical outcome of atheism’s purely materialistic and naturalistic view. The fact that New Atheists have tried to hide this fact doesn’t change it.
It’s still a frequent article of faith among liberal Christians (and Unitarians) that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher and not really divine as the New Testament claims that he is. That view has been relentlessly attacked by conservative Evangelicals, and rightfully so. It was an important attraction to a portion of Christianity for which I had little regard.
Ultimately, however, this is the strongest point Evangelicals make whether they follow-up on it or not: Christianity is not, at its heart, a moral system. If it were so, our salvation would depend upon our adherence to a legal code of a rule system, and it does not. It depends upon Jesus’ finished work on the Cross and the blood shed therein, and our acceptance of same.
Christian social activists were and are intensely moralistic people, as are many of their secular counterparts. The problem with that is that it often leads to self-righteousness, something the New Testament both anticipates and condemns. We see this in superabundance these days amongst activists of all kinds, religious or secular; they are blindly self-righteous ad nauseam. Why would I want to join up with such a group of people with this kind of result?
The New Testament
Now we come to the really problematic part of Christian social activism: the New Testament doesn’t support it. At all. Nowhere. Zip. Nada. There is no place where Our Lord exhorts us to petition the government to alter the structure of society for a more just result, which is the heart of Christian social activism. The church must do what it can do to relieve the suffering of those around it: that more than anything else transformed Christianity from the religion of the Upper Room to the official religion of the Roman Empire. But petitioning the government for a redress of grievances did not get the job done in ante-Nicene times.
Faced with this obvious fact, the Christian left turned to the “prophetic witness” of the Old Testament, only to shortly find that the Religious Right had done the same thing. Both are operating under the implicit assumption that this country is a de facto new Israel, something else that doesn’t have Biblical support.
Putting a Wrap
Given all of this, we’re back to Lenin’s favourite question: what is to be done? For me, the more straightforward response was to head to the church where the poor were at, with the rear view mirror response. But, as noted at the top of this piece, that hasn’t worked out according to plan.
Some of the problem is perception. Social activists in Pentecostal churches look at their North American denominations and see what looks to be a middle class church. Although it may look that way from the view of the “Global South” wealth is a relative term. Most Evangelicals in general are on the wrong side of the “equality divide”; the sooner they figure that out and get past the shame-honour reaction, the better for everyone.
Today our elites bawl incessantly about democracy and the rule of law, both of which are necessary prerequisites to proper Christian social activism (especially when it comes to making the results stick). But we live in a system where the moneyed at the top increasingly dominate the proceedings, short-circuiting the process in various ways. One of them is to fund social activist causes, partly to assuage their own guilt and partly to control the process and take the focus away from themselves.
It’s hard to know how long the Lord will let any of us stay on the earth. I would like to think I will live long enough to see the day when Christians will stop letting the secular left lead them by the nose and develop a social consciousness that gets beyond the “make the government do it” mentality and focus on what we are supposed to do ourselves. It’s gratifying to see the rapid growth in Evangelical churches in disaster response and other direct action; it’s certainly made the difference for many people waiting for the government to make a move.
But whether I do or don’t, I have no regrets about not getting caught up in the Christian left. The New Testament presents to us a new way of living which is better than any kind of legalism or moralism out there, and we are ill-advised to do it differently:
Therefore, Brothers, since we may enter the Sanctuary with confidence, in virtue of the blood of Jesus, by the way which he inaugurated for us–a new and living way, a way through the Sanctuary Curtain (that is, his human nature); and, since we have in him ‘a great priest set over the House of God,’ let us draw near to God in all sincerity of heart and in perfect faith, with our hearts purified by the sprinkled blood from all consciousness of wrong, and with our bodies washed with pure water. Let us maintain the confession of our hope unshaken, for he who has given us his promise will not fail us. (Hebrews 10:19-23)