This has been a remarkably encouraging conversation. I thank Rev. Hybels for his generosity of spirit and enlightening responses.
My final question for Rev. Hybels has to do with how sin and redemption function within our social lives. Sin is generally understood on an individual level–it can be described as our own will and life being in discord with God’s will for our lives. Thus Christians spend much of our time raising our awareness of sin, repenting of it, experiencing the forgiveness that is transmitted through Jesus Christ, accepting God’s will for our lives, and hopefully trying to transform the way we live to reflect God’s will.
The social gospel has that vision on the macro level. It means that when we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, we don’t just mean in our individual lives but also within our society and in the world at large. That means actively identifying sin in the way the world is functioning, dedicating ourselves to corporately repenting of that sin, and working to transform the world into accordance with God’s will.
This gets tricky because everyone has an idea of what God’s will is for the world. For some Christians, this means trying to convince everyone to believe in what they believe, or engaging in activism to legislate private morality.
These concerns seem more debatable and less crucial to the Christian life than transforming the reality of extreme misery experienced day in and day out by people on account of poverty, sickness and war. My great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch tried to do God’s will and help usher in the radical new society–the the kingdom of God–that Jesus preached about in the Beatitudes.
Rauschenbusch’s desire to redeem this earth caused many to label him a naïve optimist who did not understand the nature of sin and who trusted too much in the ability of humankind to overcome it. In his book Christianity and the Social Crisis, he had a response for those who seemed immobilized by the reality of sin: “It is true that any regeneration of society can come only through the act of God and the presence of Christ; but God is now acting, and Christ is now here. To assert that means not less faith, but more. It is true that any effort at social regeneration is dogged by perpetual relapse and doomed forever to fall short of its aim. But the same is true of our personal efforts to live a Christian life; it is true also of every local church, and of the history of the Church at large. Whatever argument would demand the postponement of social regeneration to a future era will equally demand the postponement of personal holiness to a future life.”
Trying to improve society as a reflection of our Christian faith is analogous to trying to improve ourselves in response to knowledge of God’s will for our lives. We know that we will sin, we know that we will fall short, but that is not an excuse not to try. Being a Christian is a process of trying to bring God’s will more fully into our lives, knowing that it is a lifelong task. Maya Angelou had a great take on this when she said: “I’m always amazed when somebody says, I’m a Christian. I think, already? You’ve got it already?”
Rauschenbusch himself said the “kingdom is always but coming.” May we continue to accept and work for the personal and social Gospel.