The Social Gospel vs. Individualism in the Georgia Runoff

Charlie Daniels famously sang, “The Devil Went to Georgia.” He was looking for a soul to steal.” In an unexpected twist, the social gospel has come to Georgia to win a Senate seat.

Rodney Kennedy

It is a kind of apostolic succession. Rauschenbusch influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. King influenced Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock. Warnock rose to prominence in Georgia politics as the leader of the campaign to expand Medicaid in the state. In March 2014, Warnock chaired a sit-in at the Georgia State Capitol to urge state legislators to accept the Medicaid expansion offered by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He and other leaders were arrested during the protest. Warnock also actively lobbied the Georgia Democrats to increase outreach to low-income communities. Warnock supports the expansion of the Affordable Care Act and has called for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to be passed. dr Warnock is the social gospel, the politics of Jesus, in action.

Since Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden went public with the social gospel, there has not been such a direct conflict between the social gospel and the gospel of individualism. There was a specific application of the Social Gospel during the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The nation was reluctant to embrace civil rights, but despite President Johnson’s “Great Society,” little changed for the poor. As for peace, the nation was divided over Vietnam, and peace advocates were demonized as traitors, deserters, draft evaders, and radical liberals. The Social Gospel disappeared back into the red, white and blue wallpaper in 1970.

Now the social gospel is trying to make a comeback in Georgia. A refreshing idea, don’t you think? The gigantic social and political questions of our time cannot be solved with a doctrine of individual salvation and personal freedom. As Stanley Hauer observed, “I have little appreciation for the current fascination with individual salvation, either in its conservative or liberal guises. I do not believe that salvation is primarily about providing “purpose” for my life or ensuring “my” eternal destiny. Rather, salvation is grafted into practices that protect us from those forces that would rule our lives and make it impossible for us to truly worship God.”

The social gospel has another name. John Howard Yoder identified it as the politics of Jesus. The politics of Jesus offers the church the opportunity to be an alternative to world politics – the politics of fear and violence.

The social gospel must be rediscovered in all churches. This recovery will not be about whether Warnock or Herschel Walker wins the Georgia Senate seat in the December 6 runoff. The social gospel will not come based on how people vote, but on how people follow Jesus’ policies. The real question is whether the social gospel – “the politics of Jesus” – will prevail in the churches or not.

Here is a tentative outline of how we might revive Jesus’ politics in the churches. It’s a biblical approach. Suppose we read Acts as Kevin Rowe suggested: “a highly charged and theologically challenging political document aimed at the construction of an alternative way of life, a new kind of politics.” In Acts, it deserves attention to shed light on the throwing out a new kind of politics that is beginning to sweep the empire—the politics of Jesus.

This is not a policy that wants to take over the state. Christians do not want to replace the emperor in Acts. Today they don’t want to elect a president who will give them a theocracy. You don’t even need the President to be a Christian. Here is a policy that must be witnessed by the political activists who follow Jesus.

Paul Zoetemeijer / Unsplash

One question dominates Jesus’ politics: what does it mean to be a living community of witnesses to the reality of the risen Jesus? Luke asks this question in the book of Acts. Anthropologist Didier Fassin, who discusses the meaning of the word “witness”, argues that “the key political figure of our time is the humanitarian/community organizer and witness whose job it is to give a voice to the unspoken or silenced trauma and precariousness give to those exposed to various forms of violence and disaster.”

The church is to be the social, political, and material embodiment of Christ’s lordship. Not by dominating others, but as political servants, suffering servants for the common good. We are to be God’s sacrament to the world. In the apocalyptic passage of Luke (20:5-19), Jesus says that in times of political upheaval faithful witness is our primary task: “This will give opportunity for witness.”

Notice how often Gentiles are angered by Christians as Luke describes the constant flow of “witnessing” in Acts. Read the stories from Lystra, Philippi, Athens and Ephesus. Christians are a threat to the politics of the secular world, not an ally. Christians want to establish a new culture, not a coup d’etat.

The policy that can save us is the policy of Jesus. Here is an opportunity for Jesus’ people to “bear faithful witness” and become the people who will turn the world upside down.

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and its Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. Over the course of 20 years he pastored 7 Southern Baptist Churches and for 13 years pastored First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio, an American Baptist church. He is currently Professor of Homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary and Interim Pastor at Emmanuel Peace Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His sixth book, The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump, is now published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).