One Sunday a woman in her late eighties, battling deteriorating health and looking for a shoulder to lean on, said to my student, “You know, I appreciate the pastor’s preaching on social justice. But now that I’m dying, I’m not that concerned about it any more. I wish he would just tell us now and then what he thinks happens to us when we die.”
How did we end up in a world in which some churches emphasize nothing but transcendent hope and others emphasize nothing but the political implications of the Gospel?
In a month marked by death, loss, cries for social justice, and outrage at the death of both citizens and law enforcement officers, it is a question worth asking, because without an answer the church will either be bewildered by the world around us or frustrated by the demise of our dreams at the grave.
There are fairly lengthy historical explanations for why we face this dilemma. But I’d like to focus on a series of false alternatives that drive the choices that churches and their clergy make:
One: Contrary to what we have been taught, the Gospel is not about a choice between “pie in the sky by and by,” and earthly, political wellbeing in the moment. That choice and even the phrase, “pie in the sky,” was imposed on the Gospel by the International Workers of the World (or the “Wobblies)” as they were known, in 1911. It might have made a great rallying cry for union members, but it’s hardly an accurate reading of the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is a comprehensive world-altering, life-changing event that begins in this world and is completed in a renewed heaven and earth in the world to come.
Two: The Gospel is not about a choice between spiritual renewal and social renewal. It’s about both and not because we are both spiritual and social, but because the world in all its dimensions – spiritual and social – is the work of God.
Three: The Gospel is not about a choice between inner renewal and social engagement. A journey inward leads to a journey outward. Our prayer lives are not meant – in the first place – for our own comfort or wellbeing. They are meant to make us available for the work of God. Likewise, from the Christian point of view, a journey outward without a journey inward is one made for all the wrong reasons, however noble.
Four: The Gospel is not about a choice between individual conversion and social change. Christians have often been at the forefront of social change, but we are also clear about the human condition. Apart from God, we might do some good, but we cannot count on the triumph of good. That is why we live in a world that, by God’s grace, is marked by love and justice, but that is also why collective change is never a substitute for individual conversion.
Five: There is no discontinuity – moral, spiritual, personal, or social – between this world and the world to come. It’s popular to think of talk about heaven and hell as reward and punishment, doled out in the next world in response to actions taken in this one. That’s not the case. As C.S. Lewis famously observed, the essence of heaven is the presence of God, the essence of hell is God’s absence, and we get more of what we wanted in this world in the world to come.
We can hold these false alternatives together and speak to our world with hope and authority or we can join the ranks of the bewildered. But our company will be cold comfort.