Sunday, December 14, 2008

We Don't Have to Choose

I recently bought a book entitled, "Billy Graham and the Beloved Community". The author, Michael G. Long, is Assistant Professor of Religion at Elizabethtown College and I happen to catch him on C-SPAN2 one Saturday, discussing another book he wrote, but the crawl at the bottom of the screen which described this book captured my attention.

"Billy Graham and the Beloved Community", contrasts the evangelical (in the true sense of the word) theological emphasis of Graham vs. the activist social justice theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Churches and pastors wrestle with these to views of scripture and the work of the church today. And it is virtually impossible to be in a local congregation and not, at some point, commit wholly to one side or the other, or clumsily try to walk the tight rope between the two.
Here is a passage from the book, which highlights the difference between these two giants in American (and indeed world) history:

"Graham's restatement of [St. Anselm of Canterbury's] theology of satisfaction sharply diverged from King's liberation theology. Academically trained in a tradition that rejected Anselm wholesale. King would never ground his social thought in a bloodthirsty God or the Lamb that was slain for the sins of the world. Even as a seminary student, King had written a critical reflection on Anselm's satisfaction theories. Such views taken literally," he argued, 'become bizarre. On the one hand, merit and guilt are not transferable from one person to another, and on the other, the practice of human repentance requires a condition in which Jesus Christ has not already "paid the full penalty of sin." But King reserved his greatest displeasure for the type of God reflected in Anselm's theology: "It presents God as a kind of feudal Overlord, or as a stern Judge, or as a Governor to a state. Each of these minimizes the true Christian conception of God as a free personality. Rejecting Anselm, King eventually identified Jesus not a s the Lamb slain for the sins of the world, but as the Liberator who could free blacks from the oppressive reign of racist pharaohs. also contradictory to Graham, the civil rights leader held that the cross of the Liberator was never about cleansing blood for individual hears seeking salvation but about virtues and practices that mark the people of God - forgiveness, love, sacrifice, and nonviolence. The cross was not a nice place to kneel at in quiet prayer; it was rather the way of life to take up and bear. It was the locus of reconciliation and healing for the world, not because it cleansed confessing converts, but because it revealed the way, the truth and the life - the reconciling power of turning the other cheek even while demanding that pharaoh let God's people go."

Early in my ministry, I considered Graham's preaching hopelessly naive and simplistic. I have always been an admirer of Dr. King's vision and work. Yet, as a pastor of a church in an area marred by concentrated poverty I could not ignore the priority of either personal conversion, or the need for a prophetic focus (social justice). In other words fulfilling the demands of of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), as well as Christ's Mission Statement (Luke 4:18, 19). I believe it is the nature and challenge of the Church to figure out how to live and work in the tension that can exist between the two. I used to tell my congregation that we don't have to choose. The same Christ who, 'Ye must be born again', also fed the hungry and healed the sick, and if we are His Body, we can do both. You do what's in front of you.

No matter my orientation, I have seen that it is increasingly unproductive to throw theological firebombs across the aisle at those who believe differently. Although I confess that sometimes I have been guilty of participating in the arguments.

I think the ministry of Billy Graham has profoundly blessed this country and this world. So has the life and ministry of Martin Luther King. They both had their flaws, but America should be thankful, that, we have had both. True change in our nation has come because of what they have both taught us.

And if we want even greater change, we will have to understand that we don't have to choose.


Alan said...

Thank you for this reflection, Gerald. The best theological foundation for a both/and theology combining a call to salvation with a call to social justice can be found in the work of New Testament scholar NT Wright. Wright, a prominent Anglican cleric, wasn't on the radar screen when I graduated from Southern seminary in Louisville for the second time in 1994, but over the last decade he has become a favorite among progressive evangelicals. My daughter, Lydia, brought Wright to my attention.

The resurrection of Jesus, Wright says, doesn't mean we go to heaven when we die; it means we will be raised like Jesus to live in the redeemed "new earth" the prophets longed for. This world isn't going to be destroyed in the fires of judgment, Wright says, it is to be redeemed and transformed.

That means that all good works performed in the present will burst into full flower when the kingdom comes and the full will of God is done, "on earth as it is in heaven."

Wright's confidence in the physical resurrection of Jesus will seem naive to many liberal Christians who have embraced a "spiritual" understanding of resurrection. But for evangelicals looking for an alternative to the, often unbiblical, constraints of traditional Protestant theology Wright is the most compelling voice on the theological scene today.

Gerald Britt said...


I appreciate your reply. I've not heard of Wright either. Around in the late 90's I preached for 2 years through the book of Revelation and your synopsis of Wright's interpretation is pretty much what I found to be true in my study.

I think that what it means is those of us to hold to a commitment to justice do indeed seek to provide tangible expressions of God's reign in our lives through our personal and public relationships. It becomes much more than gaining the assurance that 'we will go to heaven when we die'. There is comfort in that of course - but there is also a trascendant consequence to that, which deals with more than our personal piety. It has something to do with our lives with and among one another.