I recently ran across Mayflower Baptist Church, formerly Bethel Evangelical Church, where Reinhold Niebuhr was Pastor in the early 1900’s for 15 years before leaving Detroit in 1928 to Teach at Union Seminary in New York for 30 years.
From New York he had his most fruitful and productive years commenting on politics and society from a distinctly Christ-centered point of view. I’ve been busy racking up late fees in the Michigan library system digging into what he wrote. He spoke a lot about the collective responsibility of the Church and Christians everywhere to care about and participate in bringing the justice of God to bear in practical ways in the real lives of actual people in the world through various means of engagement in the processes that make up the world social systems.
I’ve always been skeptical of Christian involvement in anything that looks like politics. I remain skeptical, largely because of the political excesses of modern Evangelicalism and being co-opted by political parties and modern Liberal Christians being guilty, I would suggest, of similar things, just in a different direction. Somehow, we’ve got to be bearers of the image of God in the world, putting Christ on display in every possible way without being co-opted by political parties and agendas.
I’m fascinated by Niebuhr’s thoughts and life. It was Haiti’s plight that opened my eyes to the effects of ecology, sociology, economics, labor conditions, racism, corruption, and similar realities upon the spiritual conditions of people. There is of course biblical instruction for growth under difficult circumstances. There is also the reality that God is calling His Church to bring His power to bear in both leading people to freedom spiritually through faith in Christ and to share compassion in the real physical circumstances of people’s lives! (Matthew 25, 28, James I)
I don’t know if any serious minded Pastor-Scholar in our country will have the kind of influence of Niebuhr again. However, together, we can put our hands to the same plow and not look back. I heard Niebuhr in an interview with the late James Baldwin say, “The Protestant Church too often sentimentalizes love, avoiding action. Love is the motivation. Justice is the tool.”
The Gospel preached sets men free eternally in Christ. Free men fight the battles of liberating others from spiritual and physical chains. Christianity is not an escapist religion. It is a here and now revolution motivated by a love of eternal origin and consequence.