The Social Implications of Salvation

People take to the streets on April 7, 2008, in Mahalla, Egypt (Wikimedia Commons, Jameskbuck).

People take to the streets on April 7, 2008, in Mahalla, Egypt (Wikimedia Commons, Jameskbuck).

One of the basic presuppositions underlying Walter Rauschenbusch’s whole theology, and one that he amplified in all his writings, was that humanity’s relationship to God could not be reduced merely to an atomistic individualism, but that men and women were solidaristically involved with all of humanity. People were seen as being involved with the corporate life of humanity, and therefore the Christian could never be an antinomian. No person could claim to have “faith” in God and repudiate the moral law. Religion and ethics were to be viewed as inseparable. “Rauschenbusch’s concept of social salvation,” Christopher Evans declares, “was inseparable from his major contribution to American theology: his reinterpretation of the Christian doctrine of the kingdom of God.” In writing The Righteousness of the Kingdom (which he penned before his other well-received books and which was not published until 1968, long after his death), Rauschenbusch reveals that he believed that the teachings of Jesus were revolutionary, especially as they related to the Kingdom of God on earth and the sanctification of this life. He expounded that view this way:

It [the Kingdom of God] includes a twofold aim: the regeneration of every individual to divine sonship and eternal life, and the victory of the spirit of Christ over the spirit of this world in every form of human society and a corresponding alteration in all the institutions formed in human society. These two are simultaneous aims. Every success in the one is a means for a new success in the other.

Rauschenbusch said that his main purpose in writing A Theology for the Social Gospel was to show that the social gospel was a vital part of the Christian concept of sin and salvation and that any theology that failed to give a significant place to the social factors and processes in sin and salvation would be incomplete, unreal, and misleading. He insisted that one of the rudiments of the Christian faith was that love to God must have its counterpoise in love for others: “Men tell us that religion ought to have an ethical outcome and that love to God is inseparable from love to men. They say it as if that were a new discovery. It ought to be a truism by this time.” He reiterated this point by saying,

No man is a follower of Jesus in the full sense who has not through him entered into the same life with God. But on the other hand no man shares his life with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all relations of his life and reconstructs everything that it touches. Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus.

The Christian’s aim, Rauschenbusch believed, was not to pass through an evil world in safety, leaving the world’s evil unshaken; rather, it was to seek a moral and religious transformation of humanity in all of its social relations. Christianity was to be an invasion of one’s whole life or none of it. Rauschenbusch would be in agreement with the statement that “God is not the benign manager of a hotel of heaven, the final resort for the respectable who practice private purity. He is a living God who requires evenhandedness and integrity, justice and mercy.” “We love and serve God,” Rauschenbusch stated, “when we love and serve our fellows, whom he loves and in whom he lives.” Because of his concept of an altruistic Christianity, Rauschenbusch put more emphasis on the immanence of God than on transcendence. He believed that God was transcendent, but he felt that any view of Christianity that overemphasized the transcendence of God made God remote, therefore minimizing the relationship of salvation to this world and causing neglect in social reconstruction.

Rauschenbusch interpreted the nature of sin as being not simply a private matter between a person and God but as a solidaristic concept that unified humanity in a common involvement in the Kingdom of evil. This called individuals to an awareness of their personal responsibility for the common sin of humanity in which all share and to which all people contribute. The doctrine of original sin was also treated as a social concept. He saw sin as being transmitted along the line of social tradition and assimilation rather than merely along biological lines. The belief in a satanic kingdom was also reinterpreted to denote a solidaristic concept of evil so that humanity would continue to be concerned only with transient individualistic sins. Rauschenbusch’s doctrine of sin was expanded to include the concept of collective and social sins, and thus he also called for an expansion in the scope of salvation. “If evil is socialized,” he insisted, “salvation must be socialized.”

Rauschenbusch’s concept of salvation, therefore, seems to be a natural theological outworking of his doctrine of sin. His social gospel had called for an expansion in the scope of sin, and his concept of salvation was also expanded to include social redemption. “There are two great entities in human life,—the human soul and the human race,—and religion is to save both.” Salvation was conceived as being concerned not only with a reformation within individual lives but also with a reformation of social forces and entities. Redemption would not be complete until there was a regenerated society as well as regenerated individuals. The Kingdom of God was envisioned as the organism through which social redemption would be actualized in this world.

The Kingdom of God is still a collective conception, involving the whole social life of man. It is not a matter of saving the social organism. It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven . . . . But Jesus never fell in the fundamental heresy of later theology; he never viewed the human individual apart from human society; he never forgot the gregarious nature of man. His first appeal was to his nation.

Each individual personality was of eternal value for its own sake, but one’s religious individuality always needed to be interpreted as a part of humankind and to be seen in terms of social solidarity. Christianizing the social order in Rauschenbusch’s opinion was, therefore, not like repairing a clock in which one or two parts might be broken and repaired individually. Rather, it was thought to be like the restoration of diseased or wasted tissues that put every organ and cell in the body under heavy taxation. “The conception of race sin and race salvation become comprehensible once more to those who have made the idea of social solidarity in good and evil a part of their thought.”

George Marsden in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture, notes that conservative evangelicals thought that the threat from the social gospel theology challenged traditional Christian belief. “The Social Gospel presented, or was thought to be presented,” Marsden alleges, “as equivalent to the Gospel itself.” The evangelicals who had warned that the social gospel interests would inevitably undermine concern for right belief and salvation of souls, he continues, believed that they now had confirmation for their claims.

Rauschenbusch had little patience with any view of Christianity that did not see it as a transforming force in the present world. To deny the social implications of salvation was to him a complete misunderstanding of the very purpose of salvation itself. Salvation was concerned with both the personality of individuals and the collective personality of humanity. Therefore, Christianity was to offer to the individual person victory over sin and death, and to humanity it was to offer a perfect social life with justice, equality, and love. In Rauschenbusch’s opinion, salvation could never be completely understood until one realized its social implications. He asserted that although Jesus was not a social reformer in the modern-day sense, he directed his message to people in a way that was profoundly social. “Jesus nourished within his own soul,” Rauschenbusch argued, “the ideal of a common life so radically different from the present that it involved a reversal of values, a revolutionary displacement of existing relations.” Salvation was always to be interpreted in light of the solidaristic comprehension furnished by the social gospel. “A full salvation demands a Christian social order which will serve as the spiritual environment of the individual.”

This is an excerpt from chapter 6 of A Revolutionary Gospel: Salvation in the Theology of Walter Rauschenbusch by William Powell Tuck.

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