Is “Social Innovation” Sufficient? A Call for More Radical Social Action

Is “Social Innovation” Sufficient? A Call for More Radical Social Action


Recently I have attended talks by several very bright, creative, socially concerned Christians. All that they said can be described under the umbrella concept of “imaginative social innovation for solving wicked social problems.” The speakers were Christians deeply involved in research into and creative thinking about especially urban problems in contemporary America: intergenerational poverty, racism, school dropping-out, teen pregnancy, police violence (especially toward African-Americans), food scarcity and insecurity, etc., etc. Every speaker well exposed the problems and suggested helpful partial solutions. In the end, however, all the solutions I heard fall into the categories of reform and social innovation/community development. This is a step beyond charity, perhaps a giant leap beyond charity. But I question whether any of this goes far enough to address and solve the social problems boiling just beneath the surface of American society (especially urban society).

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

For many years now I have been teaching about and cautiously advocating liberation theology. I have written about that much here. Let me clear up some common myths. Liberation theology is not communism and does not (usually) advocate violence. Leading Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez (whom I have met and heard speak and whose books I have read and taught out of) limits Christian liberation theology to denunciation of existing social orders that are oppressive and annunciation of God’s new social order which favors the weak, the poor and the oppressed.

Please do not get me wrong; I have never taught about or advocated liberation theology uncritically; I see some glaring weaknesses in it and always point those out to my students (and readers of my writings on the subject). But that is not my purpose here. What I want to ask here is whether perhaps what we need in urban America is more than social innovation, reform, community development. I believe we do; what we need is real equal opportunity under the law for all people regardless of any circumstances in which, with which, they were born.

Another myth about liberation theology is that it necessarily advocates enforced equality of all people. What I see in liberation theology is real, urgent insistence that public policy be radically changed to guarantee that every child born has real (not imagined) equal opportunity to thrive and live a human life without hunger, homelessness, unemployment, or ignorance. The key word there, that many people miss, is “opportunity.” Also many Americans labor under the illusion that all children born in America have equal opportunity for those things. That is a myth. For many people “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” (the Horatio Alger myth) is not a realistic possibility because the social cards are stacked against them.

The aim, the goal, of liberation theology is not violent revolution but radical change in the social structures that stack the cards against some people and in favor of others. How does this differ from social innovation/community development and charity? Well, for one thing, it requires strong advocacy for political change at every level of government such that social policy comes to the aid of the weak members of society and they are not left to the creative, imaginative aid of community organizers who depend on grants from foundations to establish initiatives aimed at alleviating childhood food insecurity (for example). Those are great things; I am in favor of them. Much greater, however, would be government guaranteed child care for working parents who cannot afford such. Much greater also would be government guaranteed jobs for all people who want to work but cannot find private employment. These KINDS of policies were hinted at, if not directly advocated, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) an early version of which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt promoted in 1941 (“Four Freedoms” including “freedom from want.”)

My students often asked me how liberation theology differs from the Social Gospel (Rauschenbusch, et al.). I answer that it is more radical in going beyond reform to revolution and then explain that “revolution” does not necessarily mean violent overthrow of any government. Social and political revolution can and should happen in and through democracy. (On the other hand, I find it ironic that many critics of liberation theology who accuse it of favoring violent revolutions in some countries then go on to celebrate our own American revolution of independence from Great Britain!)

In my considered opinion, churches and other religious organizations that are deeply involved in charity and social innovation/community development ought to go the next step and openly demonstrate against public policies that hurt the weak and the poor and openly advocate for public policies that guarantee every child born in America an equal opportunity to live a decent and fulfilled human life insofar as they are willing to use the provided opportunities to achieve that.

Now, having pleased the liberals and radicals, let me speak out of what may seem to some the “other side of my mouth.” I also believe that adults unwilling to help their children make use of publicly or privately provided opportunities to live decent and fulfilling human lives ought to lose custody of their children. Such children ought to be placed in well-paid foster care and the neglectful parents ought to be required to work to pay for their children’s foster care until they are willing and able to care for them themselves.

I do not believe in traditional “welfare,” either. I believe everyone who receives (non-entitlement) public support and who is not disabled ought to work for it even if that means picking up trash in public places. In other words, I favor something like the public works programs of the Great Depression era that resulted in the facilities of most of our national and state parks. However, along with that, we must, as a society, provide child care for those who work and cannot pay the exorbitant costs of private day care for their children and provide free job training for more productive and satisfying work for those willing to use it and aim for that.

Only the truly physically or mentally disabled should live on public support without having to work and even many of them could do some kind of work while receiving public support. My reason? Not out of any sense of vengeance or retribution but because work is dignifying; living “on the dole” is not dignifying; allowing it is inhumane (except in the cases of children and the truly disabled).

(As an evangelical Christian I was profoundly influenced in my social-ethical thinking by evangelical social ethicists such as Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and the group he was associated with in the 1970s that published The Post-American which evolved into Sojourners. That group included Jim Wallis, Donald W. Dayton and other young, progressive evangelicals—as described recently in Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice by Brantley W. Gasaway (University of North Carolina Press) and Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by David W. Swartz (University of Pennsylvania Press). Sider’s manifesto “An Evangelical Theology of Liberation” was published by Christian Century in 1980. This is the spiritual-ethical-social-political “crucible” in which I was formed as a youthful Christian student during my seminary years (1975-1978). Very few people today know that this movement ever existed. The two books I cite above attempt to remind people of it. While in seminary I took an elective course taught by a liberation theologian at the “Shalom Center” which was an extension of Luther Seminary on the campus of Augustana College.)

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