WHAT ARE WE TO DO?
(A sober response)
By Calvin Culver
As I read through the Old Testament, I see God's purpose for
Israel to be the establishing of a society governed by the absolutes
of justice, mercy and compassion. The Law is replete with commands of
the Lord to look after the orphan and the widow, and goes to great
length to establish mechanisms for doing so, because God knew that
left to itself society would rather exploit them than care for them.
Of God's purpose for Israel, Samuel and Sugden say in
'Evangelicals and Development' (Ron Sider, ed., p.55) "He called a
community to be the sign of the kingdom by demonstrating God's action
of Law and promise in their life. The community was to exhibit in her
economic, social and political life the operation of God's Law and
promise, breaking down and building up, putting to death and
renewing.... The purpose of his Law in the Old Testament was to
prevent structures from exploiting the poor and to provide protection
and relief for the poor and vulnerable.... [The Law] did not preserve
the status quo, but sought to change it and open it up for the
ultimate acceptance of God's promise."
Walter Bruggeman, in 'The Prophetic Imagination', speaks of the
"alternative community of Moses", whose role was to act as a prophetic
voice to the nations, and presents the thesis that "The task of
prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness
and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the
dominant culture around us." (p. 13) He then goes on to argue that
this same purpose energized Christ's ministry, that Christ came to
establish the kingdom of God - in the hearts of men, to be sure, but
equally within the socio-political and economic structures of this
It is my conviction that Christ's redemption was intended to
encompass not only man's vertical relationships (man-to-God, God-to-
man) but just as importantly his horizontal as well (my relationship
to my fellow man - my "neighbor"). Here, I humbly take exception to
those who say, "Christ always first cared for people's immediate
predicament whether pain, hunger, fear, whatever before going on to
teach them about the Kingdom." If you mean by this that needs such as
hunger, homelessness, health, and the like are certainly important and
to be addressed out of Christian compassion (what is often called
meeting "felt needs"), but they are really only important insofar as
they prevent men from seeing their true need - a relationship to God
through Jesus; it is this latter - the winning of men back to God -
that is the church's true vocation. This is where, to my mind,
Western Christians have dichotomized the spiritual (vertical) and
physical (horizontal), declaring that redemption consists only of the
former. Salvation means the establishing of a proper relationship to
God; man's relationship to man will correct itself once the vertical
relationships are restored.
And this is precisely where I disagree. I am convinced that true
redemption encompasses both the vertical and the horizontal, and in
(more or less) equal measure. Any schema which stresses the one
component at the expense of the other is unbalanced and distorted.
Thus, the liberal social gospel of the early 20th century, which
stressed social action and justice but ignored God, was fundamentally
in error. But equally in error is any theology which declares that
redemption consists only in the vertical, and this is precisely what I
perceive most modern evangelical/fundamentalist theology to be doing.
Now, all this would remain a purely academic debate were it not
for the fact that it is precisely this sort of theology which is
responsible for a lack of true commitment (and indeed a sort of
blindness) toward the fundamental issues of justice, compassion and
the human rights of our neighbors. I look out upon the cries of a
hurting humanity and grieve that the church of our Lord is failing to
"do unto" its neighbor as Christ intended. Largely, perhaps, this is
the result of a reaction against the excesses of the early 20th
century social gospel, a sort of gun-shyness vis-a-vis any sort of
activity which might smack even remotely of liberal theology. But I
think it is also a consequence of the wealth (and I mean not just
financial, but material, political and sociological as well) of the
West which has allowed Christians the leisure to do abstract theology.
Theology, you see, was never meant to be done in isolation from
the issues of life. Paul, for example, was a "task theologian" who
did theology not as abstract reflection but in reaction to and in
dialogue with the life-situations he encountered. We, in our
leisured, abstract, philosophizing, have so sterilized and formalized
our theology that we have divorced it entirely from the human
situation; we have become anesthetized to the very pain and anguish
which God intended to inform and shape our theology. We have ceased
to grieve as we were meant to grieve.
What would I call upon you to do, then? Look with me upon the
griefs, the aches, the anguished cries of the world in which we live.
Look out, and grieve. Look out, and ache. Look out, and feel its
pains. But most of all, understand that Christ, our Lord, lived and
died and rose again, not only that we might be redeemed to God but
that we might be redeemed to one another as well, and that we might
come to live out that redemption by building a community of justice
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