Now again, perhaps you, like me, want to point out that the broad-based social transformation that we see among Christians and the cultures they inhabit is not what we should be focusing on.* In other words, the real focus of the Church should be on getting out the message of Christ that gives persons hope that transcends their earthly circumstances – forgiveness, life, and salvation from sin, death, and the devil. And along with this we say, “of course positive social change will happen as a result of preaching the undiluted pure Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners – of God’s justifying the wicked (Rom. 4:5) in Him!” When we see Paul preach, for example, when does he ever focus on matters like this? Does he not simply focus on Jesus Christ, what He has done, and the forgiveness and new life in His name that He brings? I have even heard one Lutheran pastor posit that while Paul preaches to non-Jews in Athens the only reason he did so was because some people in a marketplace got into a conversation with him about his beliefs. This may be saying a bit much, but if one looks at the book of Acts, it certainly is true that other than visiting existing synagogues, Paul seems to have not modeled much “activism” at all – much less social activism – even as he was undoubtedly “always prepared to give an answer” and was pleased to get those opportunities.
Again, I think that we can say that given faithful preaching of the word, positive transformation of societies really is a given as well, as “nation-building” starts in Christian’s homes – “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” – with each household possessing a king and queen. And as it extends outward, it should actually begin with other “nations” or houses, that is families within one’s local church, or congregation – as Paul says, we first focus on the family of believers. This of course, would include those believers whose houses are broken, or are far from their houses, and have not started their own house, i.e. single persons. All in all, we see how the “Kingdom of God” here is primarily identified with, begins in, and is grounded in the sphere of the church, composed of all the parts of the body. That said, in hearing the Word of God and responding in worship, the fruits of the Christian faith overflow not only in congregations but also into the world – such that even non-Christians are recipients of the “leftovers” of the feast of their Christian neighbors (like the feeding of the 5,000). And perhaps this will start more with those in the most need – the working poor – as they are able to more quickly realize the help, support, and encouragement the church offers in a world that is increasingly selfish, callous, and lacking respect for each person’s dignity. And as they spend time with those in the church, they hear the Gospel which gives faith, hope, and life.
The church, for example, first cares for its own wounded but when it sees needs among its neighbors, it also, like the Good Samaritan, should delight to help, and often does. As the church offers this kind of physical assistance, N.T. Wright’s words from his book (above) seem worthy of some reflection:
“As we should have realized all along, the ‘lifting up’ of Jesus on the cross is his exaltation as the kingdom-bringing ‘king of the Jews,’ because the kingdom that is thus put into effect is the victory of God’s love. Kingdom and cross fully joined” (p. 231).
The service of the King’s ministers and their proclamation of His cross can never be pulled apart. That is “How Jesus becomes King”.
This helps me make sense of how the Gospel and social action should be seen as working together. Still, here is the question that sticks in my Lutheran mind: once large groups of people begin moving from darkness to light, is assistance also not necessary to help cultures take active steps to transform themselves politically to accommodate the Christian way of life – whether we are talking more or less radical changes? After all, while not becoming radical Protestants who would consider rebellion against our rulers not sufficiently Christian or friendly to Christianity, surely we can at least imagine saying that we must obey God rather than men in circumstances beyond simply the freedom to preach the simple message of Christ crucified and risen – and taking stands as we are called by our circumstances to do so!**
“People with strong convictions lead reform movements. Skeptics are, by definition, unsure in their beliefs. A lack of conviction does not inspire people to die for their beliefs and values. Fundamental reforms require the faith of ardent believers, so certain of their convictions that they would take up their crosses and go to the stake for them. Fanaticism can, of course, lead to bigotry – unless one is following a God who sacrifices himself to serve others and commands you to love your neighbor as yourself. Conviction that God is on your side makes you a powerful person.” (p. 345)
Can we say words like those and also keep taking the focus off ourselves and looking to our Lord? How can we afford not to? I think confessional Lutherans should especially take those words to heart – as we insist on a keeping the jars of clay in the forefront, holding up Christ crucified whenever we can. I encourage you to read Mangalwadi’s book. It is a very interesting ride. I hope to post a couple interesting excerpts from it sometime relatively soon.
*Mangalwadi, it seems to me, gives mixed messages here. The whole book, discussing as it does societal transformation, flourishing and prosperity, seems to inevitably make the Gospel a means to this end, as opposed to seeing such things as a likely by-product of Christian righteousness (see 321, paragraph 2 for an example of this). That said, he also says things like this: “Christians’ choices in favor of sexual purity, stable marriage, and care for children, orphans and widows aided civilization but were not caused by concerns for civilization. Their motive was to please God by obeying His word” (p. 286)
**Ideas about “inalienable human rights” come to mind. See Mangalwadi’s discussion of this on pp. 347 and 348 and his related discussion on human dignity on pp. 71, 72.
Good Samaritan pic: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Good_Samaritan_Sicard_Tuileries.jpg