Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Is the social gospel creating another group of outcasts?

A good friend of mine Phil Shepherd has suggested that the social gospel, or what I call liberation theology, creates another group of marginalized people.  When we concentrate on the poor and marginalized, and preach an incarnational approach to working alongside of them, we will alienate, and make marginal those that are not poor, those that are not willing to give up the security of wealthy living, or even upper middle class life.

Well let me start out by saying a few things.  First off I do completely believe in the social gospel, or liberation theology.  I believe that we should focus on the poor, that it is not only a calling but sacramentally mandated for all.  I believe that this is part and parcel of the kingdom of heaven, or empire of heaven, or economy of God.  It is part of our discipleship, not a "special calling" for certain people.

Secondly, Phil is one hundred percent correct.  If you believe and practice this ethic, you will alienate people.  You will marginalize people.  You will scandalize people.  You will trade one group of rejects, for another.  This is the truth, I am not going to deny it, nor try and make an excuse as to why it is not true.

But let me address this issue.  God's love expressed in the "good news" of the kingdom of God, is not the same good news to all people.  Because to some, God's kingdom is a deliverance from slavery.  To others, it is a deliverance from mastery.  For some it is a economy of life giving care and deliverance, and for others it is a radical call towards sacrifice.  I would say that it is good news in both circumstances, but it may not seem so for the one who is called to the good news of sacrifice.  The rich young ruler who was told to give up all of his prestige, security and wealth, to join the new world of discipleship, did not take the gospel as good news at all.  He saw it as incredibly bad news, news he could not accept.  And he was marginalized.

In fact Jesus seems to have no problem marginalizing people.  Calling people sons of the devil, white washed tombs and poisonous snakes is not exactly welcoming and affirming language.  Jesus had no problems drawing lines in the sand, and saying, you are not among us, and if you don't change you will by the very nature of your life draw judgment upon yourselves.  Jesus created a marginalized class.

In fact a careful examination of some of the passages dealing with hell, are a perfect case for this.  In the New Testament we find a few words for the English translation hell, but the predominant ones are hades, and Gehenna (the lake of fire).  But when Jesus is talking about Gehenna, as the final destination of some people, he is not doing it in an other worldly context.  There was a trash dump outside of the city called Gehenna.  It was kept burning at all times (eternal fire), there was a constant influx of maggots and worms (the worm was not quenched) and dogs fought over what was found there (gnashing of teeth).  If you were poor, a sinner, a race traitor (tax collector), ritually unclean, or a gentile, you were not buried in a Jewish cemetery, but your body would be dragged out and thrown into Gehenna.  Jesus now addresses the rich, the powerful, the holy, the people that would never be thrown into the marginalized trash dump, and says if they don't repent, they will find themselves in the place where the marginalized are thrown.  In other words, Jesus flips it.  You who are looking forward to a place of peace and rest, are actually judged as unworthy in the eyes of God because of your status.  This is radical, this could be called class warfare very easily.  But it is also the gospel story. 

So what do I say to my friend Phil?  Yes, the discipleship I follow leads to marginalization of others.  But does this mean that God does not love, nor care for these others? no, not at all.  He wants to save them from their lifestyles that will not work in the future kingdom of God.

Isn't it the same thing, marginalizing one group is just as bad as marginalizing another? No, it isn't.  Because unlike the lgbtq community, the poor, the racially vilified, the mentally ill or whatever other group you are talking about, the rich, the powerful, and the secure, can easily move out of their position, into one of solidarity.  The rich can become one with the poor, and in the process be generous, and helpful.  But the poor cannot just decide to be rich.

So what does all this mean?  The truth is I am rich compared to many in this world.  It means I am on a journey towards simplicity, and sustainability.  My issue is never with those on a journey, but those defending their positions, which keep them complicit in the kingdom of the world.



S.Hamm said...

I believe you said once to be Biblically conservative is to be socially liberal.
Everything in the gospels are "social" Jesus Himself said "what you do unto the least of these, you do unto me" I think He makes it pretty clear where He stands on the issue towards the poor and needy.

Mark Van Steenwyk said...

Amen. Jesus called both the Rich and the Poor. Both are necessary in Jubilee. The Rich are called to share everything they've accumulated (almost certainly at someone's expense in the long chain of commodification), and the Poor are called to liberation. But the invitation to both is one of mutuality.

David said...

I was enjoying reading this thoughtful and well-written piece until I got to this:

"It means I am on a journey towards simplicity, and sustainability."

Sustainability is the way of the world. I thought Christians were interested in a new Heaven and Earth.

john jensen said...

we are to live now, as if heaven is already here. If in the future kingdom, we will live within our means, then we must live within our means now. Sustainability means that we understand God's idea of Sabbath and jubilee. Not over producing, letting the land rest ect. This is not a worldly value, but a next worldly one as well.


rev said...

amen John