Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Wednesday Meditation: the "Everyday" Social Gospel

Today's thoughts are a response to something I heard in the NPR "prosperity gospel" story discussed below. One mega church congregant, explaining his attraction to the "prosperity gospel" to the NPR reporter, said something that took me aback. The pastor of his new church, in contrast to the pastor of his old social-justice-oriented church, preaches a message that he can really apply to his life. He preaches, not abstract theology, but a down-to-earth lesson that you can really take to work with you on Monday morning.

I've wondered, over the past few days, what this congregant meant in this indirect critique of the social gospel. It seems to me, he could have meant any of three things: (1) the social gospel is innately too highfalutin for ordinary people to apply to their own lives or (2) proponents of the social gospel don't do a good enough job of explaining how it applies to ordinary people's lives or (3) the social gospel does apply to ordinary people's lives, but not in a way that is necessarily easy or desirable.

I certainly do not believe that #1 is true. I do believe, however, that those of us who promote the social gospel perhaps talk too much about the distribution of Gross Domestic Product and not enough about individual philanthropy, too much about "rights" and not enough about personal kindness. So today I want to talk about one of Jesus' social justice teachings that can perhaps only be applied by everday people in their everyday lives:

"Give to the one who begs from you; and don't turn away the one who tries to borrow from you." Matt 5: 42.

"Give to everyone who begs from you...." Luke 6: 30.

I see beggars on the street, holding signs, every time I go out. I'm sure that I am alone neither in this, nor in the fact that I do not find it in my heart to give to "everyone" who I see. We are too often too rushed with our own cares to stop, too worried about our own financial situation to care, or too concerned with what the beggar may do with the money to sympathize.

We should all keep non-perishable food in our cars, bookbags or briefcases. We should make a point to leave an extra five minutes in getting to our destination so as to make time for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. These are simple steps that we can take to implement Jesus' simple, yet somehow difficult, teaching on giving to beggars.

But I wonder whether a lesson like this would satisfy our convert to the prosperity gospel. I wonder whether by "apply to my everyday life," the congregant really meant, "make my personal situation better." If this is the objection (ie, #3), then I'm not sure the social gospel can ever really answer it. As Paul said, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." Phillipians 2:4. The point of the social gospel is not to make our personal situation better, but to make others' better. This is the heart of Jesus' ethics. This is what makes Christianity, true Christianity, different from self-help philosophies.

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