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Christianity and social justice

1 April 2008

Many years ago I was sick in Cape Town and was offered hospitality by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and he lent me a book that he said was far too radical and evangelical for most South African Christians to cope with. It was called Up to our steeples in politics by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway, and was about Christian involvement in the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960s.

In one of his letters to the Christian in Corinth, St Paul uses the imperative, katallagete: In Christ’s name, we implore you to be reconciled (katallagete) to God!” (2 Cor 5, 20). This word, directed to Christians and the Christian communities, is of interest to “the world” only if the world finds it interesting, or if God should, in his own purposes, decide to interest the world in it. This book is primarily an effort to understand the implications of Paul’s imperative, katallagete, for Christians at the end of the 20th century.

We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.

This book is a series of statements about our understanding of why St. Paul uses the imperative form of “to reconcile” and how that “why” speaks clearly and unmistakably to what the world defines today as social issues and political problems. It is, for that reason, a discussion of our conviction that the Christian communities have failed in their calling, their ministry, because (at their liberal best) they sought to do for the world what God has already done for the world in Christ: the work of reconciliation.

This book talks about our conviction that “already the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Lk 3, 9) because the Church is trying to share shirts and food with the poor as imperative programs of social action, programs the Church apparently believes are required by a law of God. We are trying to argue in these pages that St Paul’s imperative – Be reconciled to God! – means that God wants not doing, but being, not welfare, but witness. Sharing? Yes! Not as a program, but as a parable, a thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.

In our day, we in the Church have tried to do God’s job, while at the same time rejecting the only job God puts before us. We have tried to reconcile people and groups of people by using every gimmick and technique that culture uses to sell its automobiles, deodorants, civil repression and international warfare. We have tried surveys, group dynamics, T-groups, political activism, sociological and psychological processing, and all the well-known foolishness of church socials, retreats, picnics, bowling alleys, swimming pools, skating rinks, gymnasiums, counseling centers, marriage-and-the-family instruction, relevant ministries and updated theological schools – all pleasant, on occasion even controversial, but having nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the mission of Christians as ambassadors of, witnesses to, what God has done for all men in Christ.

But we in the Church persist: we are still hopeful that though all these means we can build a kingdom in which all things will be set right between man and man (and occasionally between man and God), refusing to recognize that these means are an attempt to build a kingdom by our guidelines and blueprints, by our sociology and politics, not by what God’s reconciliation has already done for the world in Christ. In this book we are trying to confess that the goals of the contemporary Church – that is to say, the Church of St John’s by the Gas Station, the Christian College, the denominational and interdenominational seminary – the goals of these Christian communities are blasphemous. The reconciliation the Church is seeking to accomplish today by these subterfuges has already been wrought. The brotherhood – the “one blood” of Acts 17, 26 – that the Church makes its goal today is already a fact. And because this is so, that very fact judges our goals and our efforts to achieve brotherhood by social action as blasphemous, as trying to be God. Instead of witnessing to Christ, the social action of the Church lends support to the totalitarianism of the wars and political systems of the 20th century. By its social action, the Church permits and encourages the State and culture to define all issues and rules and fields of battle. The Church then tries to do what the State, without the Church’s support, has already decided to do: to “solve” all human problems by politics. And this is specifically the political messianism of contemporary totalitarianism and of Revelation 13. “Politics” by definition can only “adjust” and “rearrange.” It cannot – as politics – “solve” anything. But the Church’s social action encourages the very movements in the contemporary political processes which are moving us straightaway into 20th-century totalitarianism.

Excerpts from Up to our steeples in politics by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway (New York, Paulist, 1970). I was prompted to post it by a question over on Emerging Africa about postmodernity and social justice, where the poster asked about the relationship between postmodernism and social justice.

I found the book tremendously stimulating, but I also found the first chapter much more useful than the rest of the book. Much of it was taken up with details of Christian involvement the US civil rights movement, but the introduction was very applicable to South Africa at that time. And it probably still applies today as well.

It also helped to propel me in the direction of the Orthodox Church and away from Western activism, with its reminder that the Christian faith is about being rather than doing — which is something that the Orthodox Church has never lost. At that time Western Christians were fond of saying things like “we must think in terms of function rather than of status” — in other words, doing is more important than being. I used to say things like that myself, until people like Campbell and Holloway pulled me up short and made me think twice about what I was saying.

The book was a reminder that “what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us”.

They also said that they were prejudiced in thinking that the Bible was a good book, which meant that we should take its conceptions at least as seriously as we take our own.

And that is the point about the difference between modernity and postmodernity. Modernity, being wedded to rationalism and individualism, leads to the belief that we know better than all previous generations. Ideas are rejected not because they are wrong, but because they are outdated. The Bible is not relevant to modern man because its writers had an outdated worldview.

But the Bible is relevant to postmodern man, because unlike modern man, postmodern man is willing to take its conceptions seriously and not say “but this is the 21st century”, as if anything from any other century could not possibly be taken seriously.


This post is part of a synchroblog, and you can see the other synchrobloggers’ posts here:

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 April 2008 6:29 pm

    Interesting difference between modernism and postmodernism. I remember that when I was busy with my research concerning the relationship between postmodernism and Christianity in postmodern literature (Masters study) a number of people commented on how postmodernism allows a new breathing space for spirituality in general because of what you point out here. Which should/would make our postmodern reality an opportunity rather than a threat to our faith…

  2. 1 April 2008 11:25 pm


    I’ve never regarded postmodernity as a threat to our faith, nor postmodernism. Modernism has been something of a threat, for the reasons I suggested. And it has been said that the Orthodox skipped modernity and went from premodernity to postmodernity with nothing in between . It wasn’t for lack of trying. From Peter the Great everyone tried to force modernity on the Orthodox Church, culminating in the Bolsheviks. None of them really succeeded.

  3. 4 April 2008 7:40 am

    Not surprisingly, Dr. Holloway moved toward Orthodoxy away from his deep Southern Baptist roots. Though I don’t think he was ever formally received into Orthodoxy, I believe he was Orthodox of the heart. He attended my home parish often in is last years and I, a former undergraduate student of his, had the great honor to sing at his funeral, performed by an Orthodoxy priest.

    I am so glad Will and Jim, each remarkable men in their own right, touched your life.

  4. 4 April 2008 9:52 am

    Death Bredon,

    I’d love to know more about them.

    Theo Kotze told me a little about Will Campbell, and also about Clarence Jordan, who was involved with a Koinonia Community in Georgia or somewhere. They sounded like interesting people.

  5. 16 April 2008 8:43 am


    I like your crit on modernists devaluing other centuries (and other cultures) due to the myth of progress.

  6. 16 April 2008 9:49 pm

    “Be reconciled to God! – means that God wants not doing, but being, not welfare, but witness. Sharing? Yes! Not as a program, but as a parable, a thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.”

    Great thought provoking post. Thanks for the quote above. I love thought of our sharing, giving, and social action being a parable of the Gospel.

  7. 16 April 2008 11:37 pm

    I would add that “modern man” thinks he is taking the Bible seriously when he takes his own rationalization of the Bible seriously. Thus, “modern man” can reject what Scripture actually says and hold strongly to certain systematization of religion and consider himself obedient. Good post.


  8. 23 April 2008 6:10 am

    Hello Steve,

    Jesus tells me that being and doing are one.

    He said, “Feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep.”

    One can’t be Christian and not do it. His Church (his one-body politic, his state, those of his same spirit, his kingdom) will do it.

    God bless.

    Tom Usher


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