By Paul Raushenbush
“Anyone can give a hungry person a sandwich. We have to give them Jesus.” This statement by a conservative evangelical got me thinking of this online conversation with Rev. Hybels as the “Jesus vs. Sandwich” debate. I shouldn’t speak for Rev. Hybels, but my guess is that this simple dichotomy won’t work for either of us. That said, framing the debate as “Jesus vs. Sandwich” does raise the question of the primary message of Christianity. Was Jesus’ mission on earth to save individual souls for a future eternal life in heaven or to redeem and transform human lives here and now? To put this in practical terms, if it’s 9 am on Saturday and you have three free hours before lunch to be a good Christian, how should you best spend your time: Talking to people about salvation through Jesus in response to John 3:16, or helping to change society in response to Luke 4:18?
My great-grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, is something of a lightning rod for this debate. He was the most famous proponent of a school of Christian thought often called the “social gospel,” whose mission was to use the power of the church to reform society to meet the needs of the poor. Because I was raised and have served in mainline churches that essentially welcomed Rauschenbusch’s social gospel ideas one hundred years ago, I have largely received admiring comments from pastors or theologians who recognize the Rauschenbusch name (although it was later shortened to lose the ‘c’s, apparently in an effort to make the name more American). They often tell me how important my great-grandfather’s work was for them in their own faith journey. We hear echoes of this in a new edition of his 1907 book, now titled Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century. In an essay accompanying the reissued book, Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) writes: “As a young evangelical, I was hungry for a Christian social ethic that focused on the poor, on social and racial equality, and on peace. Walter Rauschenbusch was a breath of fresh air.”
What I did not hear growing up were the equally passionate denunciations of Rauschenbusch. I later learned, however, that many Christians feel my great-grandfather’s teachings corrupted the Gospel by focusing on improving society rather than saving souls. Christian author Brian McLaren recently wrote to me, “Like a lot of people from evangelical backgrounds, in my childhood and youth I was taught that the ‘social gospel’ was nothing but evil. I heard it a thousand times in sermons.”
Clearly there is a lot at stake here. Those of us who call ourselves Christian want to make sure that we are living out God’s claim on our lives. When we pronounce Jesus as Lord, we are accepting his dominion in everything we do. How well we act out our faith has consequences for our societies as well as for the eternal wellbeing of our souls.
Rauschenbusch in his time, and I today, feel that actions taken to carry out Jesus’ commandments in this life are equally important as faith statements accepting Jesus. That is, we should try to realize the promise of the kingdom of God in this world as much as we proclaim Jesus as our personal savior for the forgiveness of our individual sins. It is through concrete action in this life that we most clearly experience the salvation that Jesus offers both right now and eternally.
While each of us experience God’s call personally, the way we most fully act out that call is socially. Jesus has invited us to live in the kingdom of God right now, and to transform our society to better reflect God’s will on earth. We pray this with Jesus when we pray “Our Father in Heaven – Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As Rauschenbusch writes: “There is no request here that we be saved from earthliness and go to heaven, rather we pray here that heaven may be duplicated on earth through the moral and spiritual transformation of humanity, both in its personal and corporate life.” Our central prayer in Christian life implores that God’s kingdom be established in this world. That means that the Gospel is both personal and social, spiritual and material.
The sandwich is Jesus, and Jesus is the sandwich.