Back in May I challenged the Wall Street Journal to a duel (in jest, of course) to defend the honor of Walter Rauschenbusch. An op-ed piece in the paper had argued that Rauschenbusch’s work wasn’t Christian in character.
Rauschenbusch was the major proponent of the Social Gospel, a theology that, in the words of The Rauschenbusch Center, “emphasized that sin is not just a private matter between a person and God, but in the spirit of the prophets, there are also social sins against humanity that must be addressed for Christianity to have any relevance.”
Believe it or not, people have been arguing about Rauschenbusch’s work for a hundred years now. The WSJ article was in response to the republication of Rauschenbusch’s 1907 book Christianity and the Social Crisis.
Paul Rauschenbusch, Walter Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson and associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University, edited the re-release which includes essays from leading modern theologians and religious activists responding to Walter Rauschenbusch’s book. Paul Rauschenbusch was kind enough to have a copy sent to me and I took in along this week on vacation.
My own theological beliefs are deeply indebted to those who preached the Social Gospel early in the last century. There are, of course, valid criticisms of Rauschenbusch. He was too optimistic, his theology was too tied in with national goals, and he wasn’t as sensitive to the issues of race and gender as we would be today. In other words, he was a product of his time. But in re-reading Christianity and the Social Crisis this week I’m struck once again by what is right in his work: a deep and abiding belief that God calls God’s people to be more concerned with matters of justice than the practice of worship. Our common task is to build up the Kingdom.
“Rauschenbusch understood that we would never perfect this world,” writes Paul Rauschenbusch, “but he also knew that was not an excuse not to try.” Christianity and the Social Crisis remains current despite it’s age as a challenge to the church and to all who claim the title Christian.