© Allysson McDonald, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 6, 2011

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This morning I want to talk to you about Christianity and the Social Gospel movement.

I was inspired to preach about this topic when I heard that, at our coffee hour, someone had said that they'd never met a good Christian. I wondered what they meant by that? They hadn't met any Christians who were good people? Or they hadn't met any Christians who were good at practicing Christianity. Those could actually be the same thing. I've met some practicing Christians who are very good people, putting their actions where their beliefs are.

Today more than ever, I think its important for UUs to find common ground with our Christian brothers and sisters as we seek to bring about change in society. We need allies in our struggles for equality and social justice. We may find we have more in common than we think, when we look at their actions and not at their creeds.

All I know is that the Christianity my father preached as a minister in the United Church of Canada, based on the Matthew 25:31-40 reading we just heard and the Leviticus 19 responsive reading earlier, is something I wish to emulate. This is why I identify as a Christian agnostic.

There are Christians who take the bible verses we've shared this morning very seriously, whether or not they believe in a literal heaven and hell. They believe that humanity is all one family, brothers and sisters of Christ, and that it is their duty as Christians to take care of "the least of these" and to work for social justice. To me they represent "good" Christians, these preachers of the "social gospel."

My Dad was one of them. He was following in the footsteps of his heroes - Canadian ministers like Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth. Woodsworth was one of the organizers of the famous "Winnipeg General Strike" in 1919 (and yes, they were called anarchists even thought they sought reform, not destruction). He was a founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation - a socialist Canadian Political party (and forefather of the New Democratic Party). Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister who went into politics to bring about social change, is seen as the father of universal healthcare in Canada. He is also credited with the creation of Canada's first publicly owned automobile insurance service, legislation that allowed for public service unions in Saskatchewan, and legislation that outlawed discrimination based on gender and race (preceding the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations by 18 months). The Douglas government also managed to pay off the huge debt left by the previous Liberal government (that's capital 'L' Liberal, the political party in Canada), and created a budget surplus for Saskatchewan. They were socialists and fiscal conservatives!

As a minister in Regina in the late '60s and early 70s, my dad was on the board of a child care center that mainly served single parent families so the moms could work, and he was keenly interested in what we could do to resolve problems like starvation in Bangladesh.

The Social Gospel was a Protestant Christian movement that sprung out of concern and disgust with the results of industrialization and rampant urbanization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Child labor, unsafe working conditions, crowded slums and abject poverty plagued the cities in America. The theologian who spoke for the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor of a congregation located in Hell's Kitchen" which was an Irish slum on the west side of Manhatten. Wikipedia says he "rallied against the selfishness of capitalism and promoted a form of Christian Socialism that endorsed the creation of labor unions and cooperative economics." They tell us that in his book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, "Rauschenbusch states that the individualistic gospel has made sinfulness of the individual clear, but it has not shed light on institutionalized sinfulness" and that his concern was with the permanent institutions of human society and their "inherited guilt of oppression and extortion."

Social Gospel Christians across the country were responsible for such things as free medical dispensaries, homeless shelters, employment bureaus, children's summer camps, night schools, and English language classes. They spoke up for labor unions and workers' compensation. Some ministers, accused of becoming socialists, lost their middle-class congregations. But in the early 20th century some adherants to the Social Gospel worked together with Reform Jews and Catholics on building the social welfare system. In the 1930s the Social Gospel is associated with the New Deal. At that time they added concern about the plight of African Americans. In the 1940s the movement faded in the United States just as Tommy Douglas was bringing about massive changes in Canada. But this message was preached again by none other than the Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders and was integral to the civil rights movement.

The Social Gospel and its followers at times have held positions we might not agree with today. Tommy Douglas' doctoral thesis was on eugenics (he was for it!). Fortunately he never brought that up after he got into politics! And the Social Gospel is also associated with the prohibition movement, which while having good ends turned out to be a huge failure. But for the most part we see these people who try to follow the teachings of Jesus standing up for those who are being crushed - both here and abroad.

Many ministers are still preaching something akin to the social gospel. Rev. J. Stephen Jones of Birmingham, Alabama, writes recently, "As a Baptist minister in Alabama, I never expected that practicing my Christian faith would be outlawed. But that's exactly what my governor, Robert Bentley, did this year when he signed the most extreme anti-immigrant law in the country." He goes on to say, "If this law isn't stopped, soup kitchens could get in trouble for feeding families who come to them in need, volunteers could face penalties for taking church members to retreats, and Alabamians might get in legal trouble for giving their neighbors a ride to the grocery store." Rev. Jones says this law "stands squarely against the Sunday School lessons (he) heard growing up. In the parable (he) learned, the Good Samaritan didn't ask for the injured man's papers before deciding to help him."

Another such minister is Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Minister in the United Church of Christ and Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary. In a blog she wrote on September 19 of this year she says: " have to be nearly unconscious not to realize that "Christian capitalism" is neither good Christianity nor good capitalism. It's not "Christian" because it ignores the central teachings of Jesus on the moral imperative of taking care of the poor in the Sermon on the Mount, and it dismisses the actual economic practice of the disciples as described in the Book of Acts" (they lived communally). She concludes her piece by saying, "the Christian conscience is driven by duty to "love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself." That's in the Bible, she reminds us, in Luke chapter 10, verse 27.

Episcopal Bishop Brian Prior of Minnesota recently released a statement regarding his Church's opposition to the marriage discrimination amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He says, "The Episcopal Church in Minnesota has always stood with the marginalized. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender orientation or immigrant status, Episcopalians in Minnesota have always embraced both the Gospel mandate of love of neighbor and the Baptismal Covenant imperative to respect the dignity of every human being."

Respecting the dignity of every human being - sounds like our first principal! And Love! Love is central to the theology of the church in which I was raised: I remember seeing posters in my childhood church that said "God is Love" and "Live Love". This statement is based on John chapter 4, verses 4 through 8: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."

As a teenager I was first exposed to that other, now better-known form of Christianity - the one that focuses on individual sin, and which requires that you "accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior", otherwise you'll burn in hell for eternity. The devil was to be feared as he would tempt you to sin. I'd never heard of such a thing growing up in the United Church of Canada.

I asked my father about this: "What was this about?" He answered that he believed that "the devil is the personification of the evil in the world." "What is God, then?" I asked. He asked me what I thought, and that pretty much shut the conversation down, as I wanted him to explain his own beliefs. Years later I began to understand that there was no contradiction - that God is the personification of Love.

I was taught in that church that our role is to help to bring about "the kingdom of God" here on earth. According to my understanding, then, if God is the personification of love, then the kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Love - a world in which Love rules! A couple of years ago a man from an evangelical church came to my door and asked me whether I had wondered whether I'd go to heaven. I told him, "I think that's the wrong question!" "What do you mean?" I think he asked. I told him that "we need to ask ourselves what we've done to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth." He seemed to think I had raised a good point and we talked about it for a few moments. I didn't tell him that I didn't believe there was such a place as heaven!

My Dad did believe that there was some state in the afterlife that allowed us to reunite with our loved ones. But he also believed in living a good life, and that was more about the here and now, not the here after; about doing the right thing, not about the fear of reprisal or desire for reward. He wanted to emulate Jesus and follow his teachings about loving your neighbor. That sounds good to me!

The United Church of Christ congregation that Graham and I joined in Southern California after we first came to California is centered on these teachings. Our minister there, Rev. Fred Plumer, fought discrimination based on sexual orientation because of his faith. His preaching focused on the historical Jesus, not on being saved.

Many Christians see biblical scholarship and historical research as an important part of their faith development. They don't take the bible at face value, and have invested a lot of time and effort in understanding the social context and the factors that went into creating the books of the bible. If you are interested in learning more about this research on the historical Jesus and his teachings, you still have time to sign up for Len Tieman's class "Jesus the Puzzle" taking place one month from today here at MPUUC.

Why should Unitarian Universalists care about Jesus? Well, first of all, some of us are Christians! But as Unitarian Universalists, all of us are being asked to "stand on the side of Love". And, more and more, we are being called to work with InterFaith coalitions for causes that we believe in - marriage equality, immigrant rights, the Occupy Movement, and more. If we want to be a part of an interfaith dialogue, we must set aside our prejudices and look for the good in other religions. If we do, we can find Christian brothers and sisters waiting for us to stand with them and work for justice together.


The following is an adaptation of words by the Rev. Lucas Hergert of the UU Church in Livermore:

Love is the doctrine of this church,
Our faith in each other is its sacrament,
Working for justice and living with compassion is its prayer.
May we reverently covenant together
to stand on the side of love,
to heal and not to harm,
and to share hope with each other and with the world.

Go now in peace, return again in love.

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