Love & Justice (3) – Rauschenbusch’s Theology for the Social Gospel

by Travis Pickell

Periodically, in the history of the church, there comes a time when the dominant way of looking at things becomes limited and begins to obscure essential elements of the gospel of Christ. When this happens, the voice of a prophet is desperately needed. Walter Rauschenbusch was such a prophet. Against a version of the Gospel that can be describes as “merely personal,” he rightly pointed to the “social gospel” and its necessary implications for the communal life of a society. “The social gospel calls for an expansion in the scope of salvation” (11, emphasis added).

Rauschenbusch’s Theology for the Social Gospel is important for any study of the relationship between love (agape) and justice in the Christian tradition. Rauschenbusch holds together love and justice by subsuming both under two key concepts: “solidarity” and “the Kingdom of God.” I will examine each in turn.

For Rauschenbusch, one of the chief characteristics of sin is selfishness, seeking after one’s own welfare at the expense of the welfare of others. Because this is the chief characteristic of sin, it must also be that from which Jesus saves. Redemption, according to Rauschenbusch, necessarily reorients our aims from our own welfare to the common good (98-99). This means that solidarity is the mark of a true Christian (109).

According to Rauschenbusch, religion and ethics [or love and justice?] are not separate realms but are “blended” (14). This is only the case, however, where the idea of the “Kingdom of God” is recognized and sought after (140). My own interest in Rauschenbusch’s work lies, in particular, in his idea of the Kingdom. What is its nature? For Rauschenbusch the Kingdom is that which Jesus preached and initiated in his life. The Kingdom of God is defined as “humanity organized according to the will of God” (142), and according to Rauschenbusch this entails freedom for all, love, unity, and non-exploitation. This Kingdom is both a “realm of love” and a “commonwealth of labor” (54). This means that all exploitation, whether political or economic, is excluded from the beginning. This kind of injustice has no place in a society ruled by love (273).

Rauschenbusch’s idea of the Kingdom highlights the relationship between ethics and eschatology: how is human action conditioned by conceptions of the relationship between time and eternity? It is at this point that ambiguity creeps in to Rauschenbusch’s theology. For Rauschenbusch the kingdom is both “now” and “not-yet.” It was “initiated” by Jesus, but it is not fully realized. As an ideal toward which we should strive, the Kingdom is “always pressing in on us” (141). So far; so good. This tension, I believe, is present in any Christian conception of the Kingdom, and rightly so. For it gives attention to the promises of a “new age” that was present in Christ and in his life, but also promised in a more fully realized way at the parousia. This “in-betweenness” was recognized as early as Augustine, who rejected the idea that the Christianization of the Roman Empire could be equated with the coming of the Kingdom of God.[1]

The ambiguity lies in whether the Kingdom of God is a historical reality or not. Contrary to popular belief, even though Rauschenbusch declares that the social gospel “expands the scope of salvation,” he did not believe that social life and social institutions could be completely redeemed, for the Kingdom has no consummation in history (227). If the Kingdom can never be completely achieved, then perhaps the Kingdom occurs to the degree that social institutions are organized according to the will of God. This, however, would seem to reduce the Kingdom into an ideal toward which we strive, and this is something that Rauschenbusch rejects. “The Kingdom of God is not a concept nor an ideal merely, but an historical force” (165)—one that Jesus “establish[ed]” (150) on earth. Rauschenbusch advocates “millennial hope” (224) in a Kingdom that occurs developmentally (225), but “has no final consummation” (227). Such a view resonates with a Scheiermacherian picture of an historical development of the God-consciousness of humankind through the organic growth of the church, a process that approaches consummation asymptotically without ever reaching fulfillment. This, it seems to me, does transform the Kingdom in an ideal to be pursued, rather than a reality to be hoped for. In the Old and New Testaments, the picture of the Kingdom seems more like the latter than the former.

Rauschenbusch was a prophet of social consciousness. The spirit of prophecy is needed from time to time, as it was in Rauschenbusch’s day. But the prophet, because of his polemical and rhetorical attitude, necessarily highlights some things at the expense of others. Rauschenbusch rightly opposed a “merely personal” gospel. While he did not, therefore, propose a “merely social” gospel, his invective leads in that direction, and became influential in some expressions of Christianity that equate the good news of Jesus Christ with an ideal of social justice, without the hope that the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ will find its fulfillment, by the power of God, here on earth. To hold together both of these impulses, Rauschenbusch needs a much more robust Christology, one that acknowledges the cosmic Christ of Colossians 1:16-20: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and though him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

[1] C.f. Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, 1989.