Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church by Walter Rauschenbusch; edited by Paul Raushenbush (New York: HarperOne, 2008. 400 pp)

Walter Rauschenbusch was the leading proponent of the Social Gospel Movement whose mission was to reform society to meet the social needs of the poor through the ministrations of the institutional church. PBS recently called him “one of the most influential American religious leaders of the last 100 years.”

Paul Raushenbush, great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, was associate dean or religious life and the chapel at Princeton University and current religion editor at the Huffington Post. He has served as an associate minister at the Riverside Church in New York City and has been involved in ministry to street youth in Seattle and Sӑo Paulo, Brazil.

An Allegory of the 19th Century

Walter Rauschenbusch begins the fifth chapter of Christianity and the Social Crisis with a poetic allegory of the 19th Century. Upon the end of that century, Rauschenbusch imagines the 19th century descending into “the vaulted chamber of the Past”, where previous centuries congregate to discuss the perils and pieties of their respective eras. With unprecedented material success accumulated in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the 19th Century metaphorically pats its own back. Interjecting, the 1st Century enquires whether or not the 19th Century has solved the problem of hunger. Hearing this question, the 19th Century lowers its head realizing that another hundred years have passed without any progress on the core issues of human suffering.

By this metaphor, Rauschenbusch pursues the notion of a social gospel. Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century is an updated edition of Rauschenbusch’s original publication titled, Christianity and the Social Crisis which graced best-seller lists 100 years ago. Inventively, Walter’s grandson, Paul has included responses at the end of each chapter from influential theologians.

The Social Aspect of the Gospel

In Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch begins with a reappraisal of the gospel. Since Christianity had for centuries emphasized the personal salvation of human beings, Rauschenbusch reassesses this principle citing the gospels.

While he refuses to completely ignore the future salvific aims of Jesus, Rauschenbusch asserts that Jesus carried revolutionary social aims. He writes,

“Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master” (42).

Historically speaking, the aims of Jesus were social in nature. When he spoke of the Kingdom of God, he did not mean a heavenly future exclusively; Jesus also situated the Kingdom of God in the present, an attainable society toward which disciples must work.

The Failure of the Church

Given this position, Rauschenbusch decries the classic self-serving and individualistic tendencies of the Church. Instead of focusing on social justice, the church looked inward. Rauschenbusch warns,

“The Church was able to offer the most enticing eternal rewards to those who gave to her. Thus she discouraged the giving of aid from man to man and encouraged the concentration of giving on herself. To some extent this systematized charity, and an ever larger percentage of the gifts never reached the poor” (152).

In other words, by linking eternal rewards to service of the church and by lining the church coffers with money instead of giving alms to the poor, the Church neglects the social aims of Jesus and replaces them with a hollow theology of personal salvation and increasing monetary power. Clearly, Rauschenbusch possesses a low view of the Church institution.

The Social Crisis 

Walter Rauschenbusch

Without the church acting in accordance with the marginalized of society to pursue social reconstruction, the economic reality of the early 1900s is harsh, to put it nicely. With capitalists holding monopolies on private property, the majority of Americans carry the work of their hands as their only economic bargaining chip.

Throughout Christianity and the Social Crisis, Rauschenbusch illustrates many depressing scenarios for the economically powerless. Speaking in terms of which I am acutely aware, he notes,

“I can conceive of nothing so crushing to all proper pride as for a workingman to be out of work for weeks, offering his work and his body and soul at one place after the other, and to be told again and again that nobody has any use for such a man as he” (195).

Such words resonate in our current setting with many recent college graduates encountering the worst job market in decades.

The Church, the State, and the Social Utopia

With these harsh realities in mind, Rauschenbusch believes that an alignment of the church with social reconstruction offers opportunities to unlock a social utopia. A man of pristine optimism, Rauschenbusch suggests,

“Theology must become Christocentric; political economy must become anthropocentric. Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it put man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that” (301).

This view, later defined in Christian-communistic terms, suggests that the Church acts as a partner with other social institutions. Together, all can work toward the social utopia where people do not suffer from want or need.

What about Communal Evil?

Nevertheless, Rauschenbusch’s belief in the goodness of humanity blinds him to the possibility of communal badness. In a response to the final chapter of Christianity and the Social Crisis, Jim Wallis argues,

“It is fair to say that [Rauschenbusch] not only failed to anticipate any of [Communism’s sordid] history but also generally missed communism’s potential for collective evil. His almost utopian dreams for the future, at the height of the progressive era and at the beginning of the century, reveal a naïveté about human nature and sin that was characteristic of the time” (344).

Although many Evangelicals find Rauschenbusch’s Christology to teeter dangerously on the edge of heresy, I am not too concerned with Rauschenbusch’s views on the divine nature of Jesus. From a perspective at the dawn of a new century, the glaring mistake in Rauschenbusch’s ideology is his optimism. Given the opportunity to operate society from collective principles, the communist methodology to date has failed precisely because of humanity’s capability for collective evil.

The Crisis Continues

Walter Rauschenbusch recognizes the failure of the 19th century. Even though many hailed the wealth accumulated in that century, Rauschenbusch knows that further work must be done to accomplish the social aims of the gospel. With beautiful prose and timeless arguments (for the most part), Rauschenbusch recognizes the importance of social aims in Christianity. Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century is a must read for all Christians and could even inform the opinions of those who do not hold Christian beliefs.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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