Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, and the Social Gospel (Part 5)

  • The Social Gospel and the Gospel of Jesus

For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. (Mt: 26:11)

Jesus himself turns the second half of this sentence upside down in the very last verse of Matthew’s gospel:  “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.  For social gospel thinking, this reversal raises an important question:  what are you going to do about the poor?  And the answer is not simply to give to the poor who are always with us, but to correct the institutional structures that establish a permanently impoverished class as a part of the economic landscape.  Even large-scale charity is still charity; it does not provide a way out of poverty and dependency, but rather perpetuates those things.

All four of the canonical gospels give an answer to the question what are you going to do about the poor? in the episode of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.  The Temple was a ‘den of thieves’—moneychangers allowed only one currency to purchase sacrificial animals, and the exchange rates were apparently unacceptably high in Jesus’ mind.  Both the priestly class and the Roman government benefited from this, so the religious and political establishments were equally guilty of perpetuating economic injustices in the name of God.  It should be noted, however, that Jesus did not destroy the moneychangers, or confiscate their coinage.  And he did not command the end of the sacrificial system of Temple worship (although Christians believe that the need for that system was superseded by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross). Economic life, including religious use of monetary instruments and processes, is a part of human existence—but it needs purification so that the benefits do not go to a few while many are excluded from access to the needs of social existence.  The ‘overturning’ of the tables in the Jerusalem Temple is prefigured in the Annunciation, and Mary’s song of hope that the powerful will be brought down, that the lowly will be lifted up, and the hungry fed (Luke 1:52-53).

One thing is important to note, that is too often overlooked:  for neither of these two main proponents of social gospel thought, is there a simple equation between Christian social theology and socialism in the sense of complete common ownership of all goods, or even precisely equal distribution of goods held in common.  Both Rauschenbusch and Temple recognize that private ownership and management of many goods and much property will yield better results (such as fairer wages for workers, and better quality products because performance will be rewarded).  However, they held that some things should not be privatized because they are essential to human life (things like clean water), and there needed to be some regulation on private industry to insure a living wage, safe working conditions, adequate (paid) time away from work, and prohibitions against child labor.  The underlying concept between acceptable and unacceptable capitalism is the biblical idea of stewardship.  Christian social theology is rooted in ideas that all people are children of God, and as such, they are entitled to a share in the goods of human life.  As God’s children, they also have a responsibility for caring for the created order.  They are to use it wisely, so that it is made as fruitful as possible without depleting it unnecessarily, insuring that both present and future needs can be met.  Good stewardship is, by gospel standards, not bad business—indeed, it is exceptionally good business in the long run.  The stewards Jesus sympathizes with most are not soft-headed, they don’t give away the shop.  In exploring the idea of good stewardship, Rauschenbusch looks at Luke 12:41-48:  the appropriate exercise of power, and management of wealth, is to always be looking toward advancing the owner’s interest (and of course, the owner of all wealth is ultimately God).  It is not just for the manager’s benefit, but the steward had the responsibility of “controlling the welfare and happiness of all”, even if the manager had total control for the time being.[1]  The important difference between a good steward and a bad one can be summed up by the ideas of accountability and justice (with a good dose of shrewdness, as in the parable of the unjust steward, Luke 16:1-13).  Even dishonest wealth is to be handled with the master’s interests in mind; most, if not all, earthly wealth had some element of impurity to it.  Temple was particularly emphatic on the point that it was impossible for the Church to avoid the use of worldly wealth if it were to do any good on earth, and it was not a question of whether the Church could amass money and property, but how it did so, and how it used what it acquired was the important thing.  Sometimes, as in the parable, it might be necessary for the manager to take a smaller profit than what is strictly permissible, to insure that the owner gets his due, and to maintain productive relationships with trading partners.  The point is not that the manager cannot benefit, but that she or he must not benefit unduly, either at the expense of the master or of those lower in the organization.  Indeed, the good steward will ‘take the hit’ and profit a bit less so that the aims of the owner are advanced.  And if the owner is God, that means that God’s people are treated justly.

[1] Rauschenbusch, Social Principles, pp. 98-100.


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