Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More Thoughts about Social Justice and Faith

Written for the August, 2013, church newsletter:

Dear Friends,

An extraordinary event is coming up for the Eggebeens - a reunion of a group of pastors with whom Donna and I began our life in the PCUSA. For all of us, it was our first time in ministry - we were all young, and all fresh out of seminary, and now we're all retired, at the end of our separate journeys, yet out time together in the West Virginia Mountain Project shaped us for the rest of our lives.

With one of the couples, we've been fortunate to stay in touch; with the other two, only marginally. But we're all getting together this September in San Jose where one of the couples live. The other two couples are traveling respectively from Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

We're writing reflection papers, and here's something I recently wrote:

Ever since my first pastorate (1970-71) in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia, I realized that Christianity and justice belong together, that Christianity has the wherewithal to deal with economic questions and the power to challenge the powers-that-be. 

Yet, I also learned, that American Christianity, under the Reformation notion of "salvation for eternal life," has been used to quiet people's unrest in the present order by offering them a sop for some future joy.

For those who lived in the powerful regions of the nation, with large homes and shiny cars, enjoying fine choirs and eloquent preachers, this was a convenient kind of Christianity. They, too, would be going to heaven, but, in the meantime, they were at liberty to enjoy the fruits of their labors - that such fruit was plucked out of the mouths of babes and out of the hands of sweat-drenched workers was of no account to them. Perhaps this is what God ordained.

These experience and observations have been the energy of my theology and sociology throughout my ministry. A Christianity that has the power to do something and chooses not to, opting for some sort of "inner peace with eternal hope" is no Christianity at all. And it's no wonder that most of the Western World, where this kind of Christianity has had the greatest influence, is rejecting it. And it can't happen soon enough.

With that, here are some further reflections: I have spent my entire ministry trying to put one-and-one together - social justice and faith in Jesus. 

Even in seminary days, I recall thinking: strong faith in Jesus equals strong social justice; they walk hand-in-hand with one another. 

To separate them does several damaging things: 1) though social justice can stand on its own - we all know what's right, and what fair means - nonetheless, without a faith-foundation of some kind, social justice can lose its bearings and its energy, though social justice without faith fares a whole lot better than faith without social justice. 2) Faith without social justice is no faith at all, but only Marx's "opiate of the people," mostly used by the comfortable to insulate themselves from reality, and to "calm the rabble," lest they demand from the comfortable their fair share.

No doubt, social justice doesn't need faith to survive, and God be praised for that. God sees to it that social justice can stand on it's own (though I believe social justice without faith is like song lyrics without the music). And if someone asks me, "What kind of faith" I reply, "Just about anything that has a transcendent dimension to it - that of a scientist in awe before the universe or a child's prayer before bedtime, and it's to be found, as well, in all the religions of the world."

As for faith, God designed faith in such a way that it needs social justice to be faith, and without social justice, God sees to it that faith becomes deeply twisted and malignant. Sadly, it creates terrible conditions for those who practice faith without social justice, and does great harm to those who are the objects of faith-preaching without social justice.

Of this kind of Christianity, God is cleansing the world, I believe. The demise of Western Christendom is very much the result of God's housecleaning.

I eagerly anticipate our reunion and hearing from my colleagues their stories of faith, hope and love.

Pastor Tom 

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