Monday, March 14, 2005

Orthodoxy Under Attack (for the past 150 years)

As we approach Holy Week, it is a good time to see what it means, historically, to be a Christian. Popular fads come and go (see article by self-styled “born-again Christian” and left-wng radical Jim Wallis, below), but as the psalmist wrote, “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9, KJV. For almost 1,600 years the parameters of orthodox Christianity were defined by a small number of creeds, chief among them the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed, or the Icon/Symbol of the Faith, is a Christian statement of faith accepted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and major Protestant churches. It gets its name from the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), at which it was adopted and from the First Council of Constantinople (381AD), at which a revised version was accepted. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed).

Here is the full text of the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

One hundred and fifty years ago a new movement arose in thee social upheaval attendant with the United States’ rapid industrialization. It was a secular socialistic movement whose founders cloaked their new ideas in the mantle of Christianity. This is what is today known as the Social Gospel Movement. How this previously unheard of amalgamation of Gospel truth and the utopian social mysticism of Fourier and Saint-Simon came to be lies in large part in the fact that in 19th Century America Protestant theologians were the most credible public thinkers. It seems bizarre to us today, but a century and a half ago the tone of public discourse was set by eminent preachers such as Henry Ward Beecher. So, it is entirely plausible to imagine why these proto-socialists would adopt the demeanor and trappings of such men—it gave them automatic credibility among the burgeoning middle-class and thus an outlet for their new ideas. Wikipedia puts it succinctly: “The phrase Social Gospel refers to a liberal movement within American Protestantism that attempted to apply biblical teachings to problems associated with industrialization. It took form during the latter half of the 19th cent. under the leadership of Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, who feared the isolation of religion from the working class. They believed in social progress and the essential goodness of humanity. The views of the Social Gospel movement were given formal expression in 1908 when the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America adopted what was later called “the social creed of the churches.” Advocated in the creed were the abolition of child labor, better working conditions for women, one day off during the week, and the right of every worker to a living wage. With the rise of the organized labor movement in the early 20th cent. the Social Gospel movement lost much of its appeal as an independent force. However, many of its ideals were later embodied in the New Deal legislation of the 1930s.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Gospel)

Nowhere in the Social Gospel movement is found anything resembling a historic creed of Christianity. In fact, by positing that man is an inherently good and ethical creature, and that man is justified by works alone, the Social Gospel preachers flew in the face of 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy: See, for two of myriad examples, Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” and Ephesians 2:7-9: “7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9not by works, so that no one can boast.”

This entire concept is absent from the 19th Century origins of the Social Gospel movement, just as it is in today’s manifestation.

The Social Gospel movement is on one hand a primitive sort of non-scientific socialism, steeped in a weak “do-goodism” and thus ideal for today’s sentimental leftist romantics who find this sort of thing appealing. On the other hand, the Social Gospel movement is a Christian heresy, due not to it’s emphasis on a mawkish “can’t we all just get along” ideas, but, rather, to it’s insistence in the non-sinful nature of man and the validity of salvation through works.

As traditional American—indeed, all Western—culture withers away with alarming speed, so too disintegrates traditional Western Christian culture. It can be said with certainty that Social Gospel tenets have all but replaced the historical traditions of the Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States. The reasons for this are complex and will be the subject of a future post in this blog. So it is with sadness and sorrow that we read the article below, from the left-wing AlterNet web site. To atheists, deists, left-wingers, nominal Christians, liberals, Communists, Socialists and radicals of all stripes what the author writes seems good, fair, and “compassionate”. It may be many things. But it is not Christian:

What Jesus Wouldn’t Do

By Jim Wallis, AlterNet

Posted on March 9, 2005,http://www.alternet.org/story/21428/

The politics of Jesus is a problem for the religious right.

In Matthew’s 25th chapter, Jesus speaks of the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, prisoners, and the sick and promises he will challenge all his followers on the judgment day with these words, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, concludes from that text that, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!” How many of America’s most famous television preachers could produce the letter?

The hardest saying of Jesus and perhaps the most controversial in our post–Sept. 11 world must be: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” Let’s be honest: How many churches in the United States have heard sermons preached from either of these Jesus texts in the years since America was viciously attacked on that world-changing September morning in 2001? Shouldn’t we at least have a debate about what the words of Jesus mean in the new world of terrorist threats and pre-emptive wars?

Christ commands us to not only see the splinter in our adversary’s eye but also the beams in our own, which often obstruct our own vision. To name the face of evil in the brutality of terrorist attacks is good theology, but to say they are evil and we are good is bad theology that can lead to dangerous foreign policy. Christ instructs us to love our enemies, which does not mean a submission to their hostile agendas or domination, but does mean treating them as human beings also created in the image of God and respecting their human rights as adversaries and even as prisoners. The words of Jesus are either authoritative for Christians, or they are not. And they are not set aside by the very real threats of terrorism. The threat of terrorism does not overturn Christian ethics.

The issue here is not partisan politics, and there are no easy political solutions. The governing party has increasingly struck a religious tone in an aggressive foreign policy that seems much more nationalist than Christian, while the opposition party has offered more confusion than clarity. In any election we choose between very imperfect choices. Yet it is always important to examine what is at stake prayerfully and theologically.

This examination among evangelicals became clear in the 2004 Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, an unprecedented call to social action from the National Association of Evangelicals. In contrast to the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson era, evangelicals are now showing moral leadership in the fight against global poverty, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and sustainability of God’s earth.

These changes represent both a reaction against overt partisanship and a desire to apply Christian ethics to a broader set of issues. Many people of faith have grown weary of the religious right’s attempts to narrow the moral litmus test to abortion and gay marriage. For example, when likely voters were asked in a 2004 poll whether they would rather hear a candidate’s position on poverty or on gay marriage, 75 percent chose poverty. Only 17 percent chose gay marriage. Any serious reading of the Bible points toward poverty as a religious issue, and candidates should always be asked by Christian voters how they will treat “the least of these.” Stewardship of God’s earth is clearly a question of Christian ethics. Truth telling is also a religious issue that should be applied to a candidate’s rationales for war, tax cuts, or any other policy, as is humility in avoiding the language of “righteous empire,” which too easily confuses the roles of God, church, and nation.

War, of course, is also a deeply theological matter. The near unanimous opinion of religious leaders worldwide that the Iraq war failed to fit “just war” criteria is an issue for many Christians, especially as the warnings from religious leaders have proved prophetically and tragically accurate. The “plagues of war,” as the pope has referred to the continuing problems in Iraq, are in part a consequence of a “Christian president” simply not listening to the counsel of religious leaders who tried to speak to the White House. What has happened to the “consistent ethic of life,” suggested by Catholic social teaching, which speaks against abortion, capital punishment, poverty, war, and a range of human rights abuses too often selectively respected by pro-life advocates?

The religious right’s grip on public debates about values has been driven in part by a media that continues to give airtime to the loudest religious voices, rather than the most representative, leaving millions of Christians and other people of faith without a say in the values debate. But this is starting to change as progressive and prophetic faith voices are speaking out with a confidence and moral urgency not seen for 25 years. Mobilized by human suffering in many places, groups motivated by religious social conscience (including many evangelicals not defined by the religious right) have hit a new stride in efforts to combat poverty, destructive wars, human rights violations, pandemics like HIV/AIDS, and genocide in places like Sudan.

In politics, the best interest of the country is served when the prophetic voice of religion is heard—challenging both right and left from consistent moral ground. The evangelical Christians of the 19th century combined revivalism with social reform and helped lead movements for abolition and women’s suffrage—not to mention the faith-based movement that directly preceded the rise of the religious right, namely the American civil rights movement led by the black churches.

The truth is that most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion—progressive religion. The stark moral challenges of our time have once again begun to awaken this prophetic tradition. As the religious Right loses influence, nothing could be better for the health of both church and society than a return of the moral center that anchors our nation in a common humanity. If you listen, these voices can be heard rising again.

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/21428/

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