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Christians and Social Ministry: Witnesses to a New Age

by Arthur E. Walmsley

Mr. Walmsley, rector of St. Paul’s Church (Episcopal) in New Haven, Connecticut, served for ten years as director of the Episcopal Church’s national program in the field of social action and civil rights. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 14, 1976, pp. 359-363. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In the Christian’s approach to society, as in every aspect of the Christian life, the place to begin is with the ghastly death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus. That is to say, the scope of Christian life in this world, whether approached from a personal or a corporate perspective, centers on a faithful encounter with the fullness of the gospel. The heart of Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom, the overthrowing of the values of the age, the aeon, and the establishment of the new aeon -- the reign of God. From the viewpoint of the New Testament church, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead became the sign of the coming of that Kingdom. Both the teaching of Jesus and the young church’s teaching about him established the framework for our understanding of time, of history, and of human destiny in the purposes of God.

Appropriating the New Age

In I Thessalonians Paul outlines the belief that the resurrected Jesus would, at the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God which herald the end of all things, descend in a cloud and there meet the saints, both those still living and those who will have been raised from the dead. It is a vivid picture of the end of time.

In a few short years, the New Testament church would have to adapt this teaching. The recognition that a literal end would not quickly come did not shatter belief in the significance of the resurrection. On the contrary, it sharpened the tension between belief in the age which was to come -- the eschatological end of all things -- and the new age which has already been inaugurated for believers in the resurrection. Christians came to see themselves as witnesses to a new age which is breaking through the old age that is dying. The church is not only the community of those who live in the hope of a new age, but the community enabled by the resurrection of Jesus to appropriate the new age in the midst of history. The power of death -- physical death, and the death of the spirit -- has been crushed. By the power of Christ, the first-born of the new aeon, believers can live in the new aeon, even though its consummation awaits the end of time.

It is important to understand this point as it bears on our attitude toward history. The resurrection is a key to the Christian understanding of history. For the believer, secure in his faith in a risen Lord, time and events between the coming of Christ and his Second Coming in glory are not meaningless flux. Rather they are the arena within which the signs of the new age are constantly breaking in. Just as Jesus’ life and teaching are the model or paradigm of the new age, and the resurrection its seal, every moment in history which partakes of the new age -- that is, of the overthrowing of death and the power of death -- is an eschatological event which ends the old world and inaugurates a new one. As Nicholas Berdyaev has written, "If you feed the hungry or free the oppressed, you are committing an eschatological deed, and you are ‘ending’ this world so full of hunger and oppression. Every truly creative act is a historical fulfillment, a coming of the End, a transcending and transforming of this spellbound, stricken world of ours."

The church lives under a discipline to be a body of witnesses testifying to the presence of the end of the world in the midst of the world, a sign that the powers of death have been overcome. The Church is not a body of moralists offering advice to a self-sufficient world.

There is danger, of course, in an ethic rooted in judgment from the end of time. History has been replete with millenarian groups that turn their backs on the social order in favor of personal piety and salvation outside the historical process. Who of us is not tempted to say, with Paul: "Which then am I to choose? I cannot tell. I am torn two ways: what I should like is to depart and be with Christ; that, is better by far; but for your sake there is greater need for me to stay on in the body" (Phil. 1:23-24). We would undoubtedly stop short of longing for the early death about which Paul speaks, but we share the same temptation, to retreat from the world into a churchly style of life which equates Jesus’ presence with the church and not the world and which unwittingly denies God sovereignty over the whole world of which he is creator and lord.

Our task as Christians in the world is to discern the signs of the Lord’s coming, to preach the resurrection from the dead as the radical impingement on history of the end of history, the emergence in this age of the new age. Every act which overcomes the oppression of death in human lives is a sign of the end, a testimony of the unfolding purpose of history in the mind of God. Our calling as Christians is to bear witness to this reality, both by seeking to discern the print of God’s life-giving action in the world, and by action in the world which proceeds out of our loving response to him.

Liberation from Powerlessness

Against that background, let me offer four observations on the character of Christian involvement in the life of the world, dimensions of the Christian ethic which are deeply rooted in our understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

First, the Christian ethic is eucharistic; it says "Thanks." Christian behavior is rooted in an appeal not to a sense of our oppression by the power of sin and guilt, but to the overcoming of them. To call my conscience to task, for example, on the grounds that I am a WASP, a male chauvinist, or a Yankee imperialist undoubtedly speaks to the accidents of my condition, and indeed to the oppressive structures of which I am either consciously or unconsciously a part; but such an appeal is bad news. It either drives me into a posture of defensiveness, or immobilizes, or evokes feelings of powerlessness which do not in fact square with my real situation.

Freedom to act for those who are the victims of unjust structures and those who are part of them is not to be found in denying the oppressive power of the structures, but through faith in the Lord who frees us from their claim on our lives. In a social context, this is the meaning of justification by faith. Just as the liturgy focuses and presents anew the passion and resurrection of Jesus and, through reincorporation in the baptismal community, makes effective for the believer the living presence of Jesus, so is declaration of the gospel to those who are caught in oppressive structures a signifying of their liberation from their powerlessness.

Second, the Christian ethic is also communal. Salvation history before the coming of the Messiah was through Israel, a community both religious and national. In the terms of the Old Covenant, Yahweh Sabaoth used the instrument of a holy people, Israel, to convey his purposes to the nations. Israel is to be seen not just as a collectivity of men and women called to individually righteous lives, but as a model of collective obedience to the will of God. As the new Israel, the church of the New Testament understood itself in the same framework, as sharing in a communal vocation, to be a sign, a paradigm of the new age.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles in the New Testament make abundantly clear that contemporary church politics has no corner on venality, corruption, and partisan spirit; yet the power of Scripture is that it portrays a community for which the resurrection is not just a promise but a reality -- in which, that is to say, the Spirit dwells. One of the distortions of the contemporary charismatic movement in many instances is in the narrowness of its catalogue of the spiritual gifts (primarily healing, tongues, and the discernment of tongues) and not the panoply of gifts (teaching, administration, preaching, service -- in short, the range of ministries) and its presentation of these in individualistic terms, rather than as signs of the Spirit’s presence in a community.

It is not without accident, I think, that some of the most creative social thought emerging today in the church is coming out of the conservative-evangelical tradition. Those of us who dismiss the conservative tradition as being represented by Billy Graham or by the stance of Christianity Today ten or 5 years ago might, for example, take a look at Richard Mouw’s Political Evangelism, which is typical of a new breed of theological writing from a very conservative, though hardly fundamentalist, biblical perspective, or God in Public, by William Coats, Episcopal chaplain at the University of Wisconsin.

Both authors see the locus of Christian social involvement not in individual action in the structures of society, but as action, both corporate and individual, which emerges out of the community of faith. The church, Mouw affirms, is itself a "model political community," and at least an aspect of its witness to the larger community is the quality of its community life and the manner in which it confronts controversial issues. In the matter of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church, for example, the eventual outcome has become dramatically overshadowed by the manner in which the issue is being handled. The church and its leadership model a behavior which is fearful, fractious, faithless, and political in the worst sense. The church is a community -- a political community -- and the manner in which it conducts its own political life has direct bearing on its faithfulness in being a witness to the new age.

The Transforming Community

Third, the Christian ethic is revolutionary. I use the word not solely in its workaday sense of the transfer of power from one group to another in society, with the consequent restructuring of social order that accompanies the transfer, but also in the sense intended by those who talk today about the raising of consciousness: the creation of a new human type and the restructuring of relationships and self-awareness which marks the new reality.

Let me call to mind the central ethical statement in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, chapter 12, and in particular the first two verses of the chapter.

Therefore [because, that is, of what God has done in history and in particular in Christ Jesus], I implore you, by that very mercy, to offer yourselves to him, a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds ‘be made over, and your whole nature transformed.

The Greek text of these verses is instructive. Paul begins by asserting that "the old order," ho aion outos, will be done away. But affirmation is not followed by a parallel phrase about a new age, ho kainos aion. Instead a command, metamorphousthe, "be transformed," by the anakainosis, "the making again," tou noos, "of your mind." The newness is a process centered in a command -- a process made possible by the prior action of God. The grounds of the revolution are a revolutionary person in a transformed and transforming community.

Language of this sort may have seemed bizarre a few years ago; today it is as real as Patty Hearst and Lynette Fromme, the Unification Church and the Children of God, with all their demonic overtones. Three emergent theological movements -- black theology, feminist theology, and liberation theology from the Third World -- challenge traditional ways of doing theology on the grounds that Christian consciousness as it has been’ given shape in the modern world is burdened with Western, liberal, male and white perceptions of reality. There is no guarantee that these challenges to theology will ensure a more truly catholic theology or one that is less culturally encapsulated. The corrective is to be found in the New Testament experience; what emerged in the first century world was a profoundly revolutionary community, rooted in a new understanding of history and of human purpose. And the new person was the most truly revolutionary aspect of the movement. It is not in a demythologized, secularized Christianity that human transformation takes place, but in our submission to the discipline of Scripture, where we may hope, in the words of Walter Wink, "to encounter an alien speech which is finally the self-disclosure of God." Respondeo etsi mutabor: we are ready to listen even if we must change. The Christian ethic is eucharistic, communal and revolutionary.

A Bias Toward the Poor

And finally, the Christian ethic is one whose focus is on solidarity with the poor and the outcast. In the early, yeasty days of the New Testament church -- long before the flirtation with power which was consummated in a concordat with Constantine -- the Christian community was drawn from the lowest ranks of society.

My brothers [Paul writes], think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order [I Cor. 1:22-28].

If the lowly were chosen, both in the teaching and the practice of the new community, then the hope of the new age lay with the poor and oppressed, because their liberation is a sign that the powers of death which enslave sinners and outcasts have been overthrown. One of the unique facts about the Christian religion is its teaching that the work of God was completed, not simply in the life of a man, but in the life of a particular man, Jesus, who was clearly guilty as a blasphemer of the Jewish law. As William Coats has noted,

The political and legal fate of Jesus cannot be reduced to the matter of a martyr who suffered unjust punishment for a crime which in the eyes of God he did not commit. Jesus was neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Joe Hill. Whatever the standing of Jesus in the sight of God, he was guilty in the sight of men. It was logical, therefore, that Jesus’ fate on the cross would be viewed by his religious contemporaries as apt: "Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree" (Gal. 3:13). And the shame of crucifixion was a fitting end for a political rebel. The fate of Jesus matched his crime [op. cit., p. 122].

The New Testament church could not escape the suspicion that it was a subversive movement, and its appeal was clearly to the socially restive poor. Its teaching was biased in favor of the poor. One is hard-pressed to find a good word about the rich, either in Jesus’ sayings or elsewhere in the New Testament literature. As Berdyaev put it, "Only Christians who have lost their conscience are capable of defending the rich against the poor."

Yet this bias toward the poor should not be romanticized. The poor do not exist as a problem to be solved, or to provoke the guilt of the rich, or to provide a rationale for Great Society, welfare-state legislation. The presence of the poor, locked into deprivation and oppression by the principalities and powers of the age -- multinational corporations, technocracy, repressive governments, to begin the obvious list -- stands as a reminder of the forces of darkness. The Kingdom is thwarted, by the poverty of some and by the stubbornness of others. Whatever contributes to the exaltation of the poor and the overthrow of unjust systems is a sign of the end of the world.

For some Christians today -- William Stringfellow and Daniel Berrigan are articulate spokesmen for this position -- resistance to unjust structures, the principalities and powers, is a sufficient motivating principle for Christian action. If any of us ever had illusions that a reformist posture was sufficient, either from a theological perspective or as social policy, the intractability of governmental and economic systems, the growth of massive and seemingly uncontrollable systems of surveillance, military power, and mass culture increasingly narrow the scope of our options to those of resistance and withdrawal. Unless, that is, our essentially middle-class life style is challenged by the poverty and oppression which is the lot of most of humankind, and we confront the hard truth that the issue is not reform of the welfare system, no matter how much that is needed, but the end of a capitalist economic order which increasingly divides the world into those who have and those who have not.

Applying Resources to Priorities

Let me, on the strength of this perspective, offer four conclusions.

1. Our most elementary need is to recover the preaching and the inner dynamism of the New Testament church. Our basic problem is our faithlessness. One has only to look at the paltry resources applied to serious study and other training of the laity to realize how much we trivialize the calling to Christian service in the world.

One result is the curious and debilitating split in our thinking, and in the movements for renewal in the church, between prayer and action. It is not surprising that in the past two decades church social action movements fell apart (with perhaps the notable exception of those in the black church). Social action was not informed by a lively sense of Christian community, rigorous prayer, and disciplined Bible study; our secular critics and our conservative brothers and sisters were not far off the mark in describing Christian social analysis as warmed-over liberalism.

In his perceptive essay titled "Contemplation in a World of Action," the late Thomas Merton draws the essential link between the inner life and action in the world:

He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices.

I place absolutely first the need for rigorous adult formation, Bible study, attention to prayer and liturgy, and the development of Christian community as uncompromising as that of the New Testament church. Some will say that there are people and centers which are doing quality work in that enterprise; all one has to do, however, is look at church-budget priorities to assess how important we think adult formation is.

2. Closely related is our failure to engage the laity, who are the church in the midst of the structures of society, in theological dialogue and strategy development about the issues they confront on the job, in politics, and in community life. When asked recently why his own denomination, the United Methodist Church, was ineffectual in equipping the laity to be the church in the world, theologian Albert Outler noted:

It is not that we have retreated into pietism. I suggest that the fatal weakness in Methodist lay witness is that we have not produced our quota of committed and intellectually competent Christian laity -- or clergy -- who can grapple with the problems of economics and politics and international affairs. We have often supposed that words are deeds and that resolutions are legislative acts. We have the finest anthology of social-gospel rhetoric on record, but many of our people -- again both clergy and laity -- on many of our boards are simply inadequate economists. They feed us with stuff about world hunger and Third World questions which even an economic ignoramus like myself can see is amateur and outdated. . . . It is our intellectual weakness which has produced too few clergy and laity who can effectively analyze and deal with the demoralization in industry and government and society today.

3. We must look at budget priorities in our churches at every level, to ensure that we have the means -- the human and program resources -- to staff a serious effort at ministry. It is unrealistic to imagine that churches, at the judicatory or national level, can accomplish any significant social action without staff. Granted, we cannot return to the highly centralized national bureaucracies and staffs of the past. Neither can we be anything but the rankest of amateurs in our social ministries without competent leadership.

4. Solidarity with the poor must become the organizing principle around which disciplined social witness takes place. When in 1967 plans were laid by the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop for the initiative later named the General Convention Special Program, a group of community people from poverty neighborhoods and alienated communities were asked to suggest the priorities for such a program. They made a twofold response: make available money to poverty groups with no strings attached, and "set your own house in order." The fact that a largely middle-class church was able to commit several million dollars to this enterprise is, I submit, a sign -- imperfect, fleeting, and perhaps grudging -- of the church’s recognition of the disorder of the times and the calling of Christians to participate in the reordering of social systems. To the extent that the church never heard the second priority at all, and never confronted the racism and paternalism which characterize the life of white America, the program became an embarrassment, and a financial liability to a bankrupt church. The only difference in our social setting between 1967 and 1975 is that the plight of our cities and the alienation of the poor are worsening.

Today’s "in" issue is hunger. The issue is not charity; at most, dollars are a limited token of our concern. The question remains the reordering of our inner life. Are we prepared to undertake the rigorous examination of parish, family and personal life styles called for in a world of scarcity, and as a Christian community to make a serious effort to understand and confront the systems which perpetuate the problem of separation between the rich and the poor?


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