When I was in seminary one of the required courses for the Master of Divinity degree was "Liberation Theology." As I have told many people, this was one of the best and most interesting classes I took in school. While I disagree with many of the doctrines that radiate from liberation theologies, it was a well instructed and hugely enlightening class.
(As a side note, the school that I attended was a historically black seminary and so it was a privilege to, not just talk about liberation theologies with a group of outsiders but to dialogue with people who are on the inside of it. In fact, our professor for this particular class studied under James Cone, the author of Black Theology. We faced racial problems head on and all sides of the issues were represented and appreciated. In many ways, in some of our classes we felt that, even in our small group, we were making further progress towards true brotherhood and Christian love.)
Let me move on. As part of this class we learned about and discussed what is known as "the Social Gospel." The grandfather of this theology was Walter Rauschenbusch, a pastor in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City at the turn of the 20th century. This "gospel" has gained much media attention over the past year due, in large part, to statements made by Glenn Beck regarding terminology such as "social justice." The basic idea of the Social Gospel is that God shows special favor towards the poor and marginalized. Thus, it is our duty as Christians to usher in God's Kingdom on earth by taking action to bring equality among economic classes. Now, if we left it at that it would be near impossible to argue with. There is no doubt in my mind that we have a responsibility to meet the needs of the "have nots." You cannot read the Bible and come to any other conclusion. However, it goes much further in its implications. For starters, Rauschenbusch, and others, believe that to change people's hearts and ideology you must first change the system. Therefore, the reasonable solution is a form of socialism where institutions, such as government, force equality. The natural outcome of this is prejudice against those who have in favor of those who have not. Enter Leviticus 19:15.
This verse, found in the Law, states, "You must not act unjustly when rendering judgement. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly (HCSB)." While the Bible is clear that we should do everything in our power to look out for the poor this verse indicated that it is not to be done at the expense of justice towards anyone. My issue with the Social Gospel is that it turns the wealthy into the enemy rather than the source of aide to the needy. Rather than preach a Gospel that changes hearts and minds so that those with resources freely give out of obedience to God, they are demonized and forced to give. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, "Each person should do as he has decided in his heart-not out of regret or necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver." In light of these verses I see the Social Gospel doing a few different things:
1. It takes the job of conviction out of God's hands and places it in man's. This should be enough to give us pause. The bottom line is that the Social Gospel is saying, "We don't trust God to work in people's hearts to move them to give to the needy so we must do it." Where is the trust and faith?
2. It creates dissent and strife among people. As I said before, the people with the resources become the enemy rather than a partner and source of relief.
3. It removes the joy from giving and potentially eliminates the possibility of the wealthy receiving a blessing from their giving. Nearly anyone that you talk to will say that if they have the ability, they love to give. I have had the pleasure of serving at a soup kitchen a few times over the past few months and it really is a blessing because I get to do out of love for my neighbor and love for God. When I was in the military we occasionally had to do KP (work in the mess hall). It was atrocious! I didn't want to do, I was compelled to do it and not by God but by the commander.
Overall, I believe that my biggest issue with the Social Gospel is that it solves one injustice by creating a new one. Yes, God cares for the poor and downtrodden but, spiritually, He makes no distinction and one injustice is not better than another in His eyes. Unlike the Social Gospel I believe the way to see real and lasting justice in our world is to see God change people's hearts. The system is driven by ideology it does not drive it. Just as culture does not create morals, it is created by morals and they exist apart from systems and culture. A person does not become a Christian just because they live in a Christian community, it is the state of their heart that makes them one. So justice and equality can only come by the effect that God and Christ have on a person's heart. I read, just last night, that holiness is not something that "rubs off on others." That is, when the Israelites were given the Law the unclean things that the priests touched did not become clean, the priest became unclean. If we look at Leviticus 20-21 we see repeatedly that God says, "For I am the Lord who sets them apart." The same thing applies to our world today, if we want equality and justice it is going to be something that God does, not man. However, we do have a role to play and it is surrendering to God and acting as the salt and light of the world.
Furthermore, because we as humans usher in God's Kingdom by creating equality it becomes something that we do rather than God. This begins to hint at works righteousness. It is as if God has done all that He is going to do and the rest is up to us. Jesus, then, only set an example for us and nothing more. What effect did the cross have? Did it do nothing other than offer us a model of perfect servant leadership? The message of the entire Bible is that humanity has been helpless to do anything on our own outside of God's grace and power. Yet, suddenly because of our advances in theology we have it all figured out and can say to God, "alright, we've got it from here." History has shown that all of our attempts as justice apart from God have failed miserably. Why? Because they have not addressed the root problem which is sin. Only Christ has addressed that issue in a way that will work and it is a way that insures that God gets the glory, not us. If we can, in some way, bring about God's Kingdom on earth then we would have everything to boast about. How can this possibly be the plan? In the end, if we think we are doing something that is God's will and the result would be room for us to boast, it is dead wrong.
I will leave you with this. Justice is not the enemy, no matter what pundits say. It is something that God deeply desires to see in our world. However, it must come through the transformation of people's hearts, minds and lives, not through additional programs and legislation. Can you transform someone's heart, mind or life? Of course not. Only God can do that. Finally, we must be extra careful in our theology so that we don't find ourselves solving one injustice with another one. "Judge you neighbor fairly."