Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gospel to the Poor (6)

The previous post in this series was on Luther Lee and others.

With chapter 9 we are getting close to the end. I frankly don't know how common it is for churches to have food pantries for those who might wander by looking for food, but I certainly grew up with it in the Wesleyan Church. Despite often being very conservative on issues like governmental welfare, the Wesleyan pastors I grew up with saw it as important to have these sorts of things available at the parsonage for the needy.

Now mind you, there were also the stories of abuse. The person who called yesterday and was given yesterday. Then calls again today forgetting where they were in the phone book. There is an old Latin expression though that exposes yet another common fallacy of logic like the various fallacies associated with labelism that I mentioned last week: "Abuse is no excuse." If last week I mentioned the fallacy of jumping to conclusions (hasty generalization), presuming everyone is a certain way because some are a certain way (fallacy of composition, sometimes called prejudice :-), this is the fallacy of diversion, of changing the subject.

The question of whether we should try to help the poor is one question. The question of whether some will abuse our attempts is a different question. And the question of how to help them is yet another. The answer to the first question is so well established biblically that it is beyond reasonable doubt. The answers to the second and third are where practical complications come in. But it is the fallacy of diversion to think they in any way undermine the fundamental Christian concern for what has long been called "social justice." The term is not so important--to focus on the term is again a diversion, a changing of the subject. I suspect, however, it would be rather inappropriate to abandon the term just because of some passing comments by the uninformed on television. He and that hype will pass. Social justice goes back to Deuteronomy, Jesus, Christianity throughout the centuries...

... and evangelicalism in the 1800s, as Dayton discusses in his chapter 9. It is not to be confused with the social gospel, which was a form of liberal Christianity in the early 1900s that rejected personal salvation, miracles, and historic Christianity but retained the Christian emphasis on helping those in need. This is an important point. Those who promoted the social gospel lost their historic faith and were only left with a general concern for humanity. But the faulty thinking that has often gone on here absolutely boggles my mind.

Their concern for the poor and for humanity was not some evil aim that cropped up because they were liberal. Rather, this was all that was left of their Christianity after they had lost their faith in the historic tenets of the faith! Like I said, I am dumbfounded with the way many Christian groups came to dismiss concern for the poor because "the liberals" were concerned for the poor. Death by association. If the people who don't believe Jesus was God are concerned for the poor, then it must be wrong to be concerned for the poor. Heaven help us!

This of course is not our Wesleyan heritage, to drive a wedge between personal salvation and social justice. Abolitionist drives after the Civil War were channeled into a fight against prostitution and alchohol. But the flavor of these quests were not of sticking it to the sinner--not at all. The flavor was to rescue girls who were part of the "white slave trade" and to pull the drunkard out of his stupor.

This is, by the way, an interesting difference between the fight against homosexuality today and the fights of the 1800s. There is a potentially significant difference between the fight against abortion and the fight against homosexuality, for example. Many think of the "fight against sin" in terms of speaking against. But the evangelical social activists of the 1800s were "speaking for" in their speaking against. They were speaking for the slave, for the prostitute, for the drunkard or at least his family. The abortion movement fits this pattern--speaking for the unborn. The flavor of the homosexuality fight seems different. It does not tend to speak for anyone as it speaks against. It seems a distinction worth some reflection.

The Free Methodist Church, a sister denomination I hope we will one day merge with (and with whom we once came very close to merging with, if not for a parliamentary maneuver by a general superintendent), was founded both in favor of the freedom of the slave and against the practice of the day of renting pews. The effect of renting pews was to give the wealthy the best seats and to sequester those without resources to certain pews that by their very nature said, "I'm a nobody." Prior to the Civil War there were also special pews for African-Americans whose name I won't mention here.

Free Methodists again withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church over this issue. By the way, it is pretty clear from these chapters why groups like mine often have not thought much of the Methodist Church, and it wasn't originally because they were "liberal." In fact, their siding with slavery and with burgeoning capitalists looks rather conservative from the standpoint of debates today. It was later that some Methodists would go theologically liberal, after we revivalists left their fold. We can all rise above our history, of course, and as I've said, am not anti-Methodist today.

B. T. Roberts saw following Jesus' example in relation to the poor as an essential sign of a true church. "It may be that there cannot be a church without a bishop... There can be none without a gospel, and a gospel for the poor." "They are not called up. The great are called down." The Christian and Missionary Alliance also started when A. B. Simpson's efforts were rejected by his Presbyterian Church in New York. His new movement had a special call to the "neglected classes both at home and abroad."

The Church of the Nazarene again had similar founding, another denomination I hope we might one day also merge with. Phineas Bresee wrote, "We can get along without rich people, but not without preaching the gospel to the poor." During this period rescue missions like the Pacific Garden Mission were formed. The Salvation Army came to America from England, a church in the holiness tradition so dedicated to the impoverished that most people don't even know it is a church in the Wesleyan tradition.

Again, we can debate how it is best done. But this is who Wesleyans are, this is who Christian are, take it or leave it. God is not elected.


Logan Hoffman said...

"If the people who don't believe Jesus was God are concerned for the poor, then it must be wrong to be concerned for the poor."

Sounds like you could add an ad hominem to that list of fallacies you're making.

"God is not elected."

Unless He's elected himself, but that's a separate issue and one, I suspect, only of particular interest here at PTS. : )

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Social justice" is really nothing other than democracy in economic your rendering...and democracy is the weakest form of government. Therefore, the philosopher kings rule...and are our "gods" in determining what everyone "should" be doing with their time, money and talents.

Then, we have "self appointed rulers", that are deciding what values everyone must value, which is tyranny in "moral disguise".

Martin LaBar said...

"Their concern for the poor and for humanity was not some evil aim that cropped up because they were liberal. Rather, this was all that was left of their Christianity after they had lost their faith in the historic tenets of the faith!" Fine sentences! Thanks.