Cats in a Wood Stove: Reflections on Building a New Social Gospel

by William Barnwell

Mr. Barnwell is Episcopal chaplain at the University of New Orleans and Tulane University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 23, 1979, p. 585. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We are lapsing into well-defended ecclesiastical narcissism. We take care of ourselves — tending our sick, stabilizing our marriages, providing a much-needed community for our members, worshiping enthusiastically on Sundays — but about the “sickness of Joseph,” the tyranny in our land, we care not at all, or so it must seem to those outside the church.

In October 1975 Peter Marin, writing in Harper’s, created quite a stir when he described the human potential movement as “the new narcissism.” I fear that the church today leaves itself open to similar criticism. Disciples of the social gospel still write challenging articles in liberal magazines; national church staffs sponsor conferences on the liberation of the oppressed; seminaries buzz with talk of social justice. But these days precious little of that concern shows up in the program of the local church or on the conscience of the individual Christian. Moreover, clergy have learned not to let anyone lay guilt trips on them about their responsibility to help save the public schools, secure decent salaries for domestic workers, free prisoners who ought not to be incarcerated. We are, I fear, lapsing into well-defended ecclesiastical narcissism. We take care of ourselves -- tending our sick, stabilizing our marriages, providing a much-needed community for our members, worshiping enthusiastically on Sundays -- but about the “sickness of Joseph,” the tyranny in our land, we care not at all, or so it must seem to those outside the church.

Today’s issues are less clear-cut than civil rights or the war in Vietnam; there are no great leaders to rally us, no powerful self-interested groups like the draft resisters of the war period with which to ally ourselves. In recent years I have experimented with different kinds of involvement in social issues -- with limited success -- and I have done some thinking about what form a new social gospel movement might take. What can we learn from past successes and failures? What might we do that has not been tried before? Here are some thoughts on the matter.

A Caring Movement

This new movement should consist of people who care about each other. Too many of us involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements wrecked our marriages and other relationships. We did not care properly for ourselves or for our loved ones; the task consumed all our energies. We did not allow for the kind of personal growth that Gail Sheehy describes in Passages; most of us burned out. Only the toughest survived intact. We used to smirk and say that the typical church “coddled the saints.” I wish we had coddled each other more, tenderly ministering to one another after our experiences in the harsh wilderness. The movement I envision will include not only the toughest, and the people in it will have to dig in not for just one issue but for a lifetime of commitment.

I find the human potential movement and the church itself helpful in their insights on how to build a supportive community. Both have discovered the value of the small group. Everyone in the new social gospel movement should have the opportunity to belong to a support group that meets regularly. These groups will take quite different forms, but they will be communities where people can let themselves get angry, acknowledge their weaknesses, celebrate their victories. Many groups will consist of nonreligious as well as religious people, but all will function as little churches, with members coming together for refreshment and going out to serve. Perhaps they will learn to sing together as well as to talk.

If our caring for each other is to be that of equals, our decisions regarding social issues must be participatory. Thus, our movement will not consist of the charismatic and the passive, of shepherds and sheep. The “kingdom of priests” motif will be more appropriate. Besides, John Dewey is right: over the long haul, people support what they help to create; they will carry out someone else’s plan for only so long. Neither do I see the movement as monolithic (with its own elaborate bureaucracy) but rather as small units bound together by common hopes and dreams, engaged in a common task. We will think of ourselves as people who are in a movement rather than as a movement made up of people.

An important way to show our caring will be to help each other set realistic, achievable goals, so that when we finish what we set out to do, we can give ourselves the credit due. There will be times when we have to act with no sense of completion, no sense of reward. There will even be times when we act because we are prodded by guilt. But generally, our action must come not from a sense of self-sacrifice or guilt but from a sense that we are doing what we really want to do, what we are called to do. The more we can experience success in our work, the better we will feel about it, our mission and ourselves.

A Theology Firmly Grounded

Not everyone in the new movement will be religious, but for those who are, there must be a theology that draws on the past as well as the present. Paul Tillich wrote, “The very concept of the new which belongs to creative causality implies the transcending character of the historical movement.” It has often been pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were successful because they built their nonviolent movements on the religious heritage of the people they led. The old and the new, came together in these men.

The past need not be a trap that chokes imagination and creativity; when properly opened for us, it can be enriching and affirming; perhaps best of all, it can help us to see the special possibilities and inevitable limitations of our own time and place. As an Episcopal clergyman, I have naturally looked to my own religious heritage for grounding and there found F. D. Maurice, a remarkable 19th century social critic, theologian and antagonist of the church-centered Oxford Movement. Deeply rooted in his own tradition, terribly Anglican in his thinking, he initiated the short-lived but influential Christian Socialist Movement. Maurice said it was that movement’s task to help make socialists Christian and Christians social. He appealed to Scripture, to ancient rituals, and to the teachings of the Church of England to argue for his radical Christian ideas.

The theology of the new social gospel movement will be as diverse as its members. I believe, however, that any theology for Christian social activism must be built on certain principles. For me, one of these principles comes from F. D. Maurice and St. Paul, a second comes from the four Gospel narratives, and a third comes from the neo-orthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Maurice argued that “cooperation is the law of the universe.” He held up the family as a model for social living. To learn how the church or the nation can best work, we must look at the family. Children compete fiercely with one another as they grow, but in a family that works, their competitive drives give way to cooperative ones so that a victory for one member of the family becomes a victory for all and a defeat for one is a defeat for all. St. Paul used the human body as a model to say the same thing. Cooperation is the law of the universe: this is the first uniting principle for a social gospel movement. It is on this principle that the small groups within the movement should also be built.

Marxists can talk about using force to build cooperation; Christians cannot. Force has at times been used to correct wrongs, but force will not gain the kind of cooperation St. Paul points to; it takes something else for that. Force was necessary to desegregate southern schools; but only now are teachers and students learning how to integrate -- to cooperate. The “something else” is love -- what Kierkegaard, following Plato, once defined as “the unity of hostile elements.” Love is always trying to break into our lives, but it becomes a reality for us only when we recognize that we need each other, different though we may be.

Cooperation as the law of the universe will lead us to restructure the school system so that teachers and students become part of a learning team, not unlike a family, with the task of helping each other learn what needs to be learned. This principle will lead us to cooperate with our environment, to build an economic system in which workers have a share in ownership and management; it will lead us to manufacture products that enhance life instead of causing tooth decay and lung cancer.

Competitive drives are not in themselves evil; they are what give us our “fight.” St. Paul, who spoke of running races and winning victories, was perhaps as competitive as anyone. Like him, we must learn how to use our competitive drives to contend against the works of Satan -- such as, for example, our present capitalist system, in which one moves up by putting others down.

Advocacy on Behalf of Others

A second uniting principle for the new movement comes from the Gospel narratives: we are called to be advocates for those who can use our help. It is a great thing to know that there is someone on your side who is actively trying to gain for you the thing you most need in life. For Peter’s mother-in-law, it was release from a fever; for the tax collector, it was acceptance as a human being; for the 5,000 it was bread; for the woman taken in adultery, it was forgiveness and the word to “go and sin no more. Not surprisingly, in John’s Gospel, Jesus promised that after he departed, the Advocate -- someone truly on our side -- would take his place.

It is difficult to know, however, for whom we should act as advocates and how we should express that advocacy. The missionaries sent out by churches in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were too often advocates for their own agendas rather than for the people they were called to serve. If we take seriously cooperation as the law of the universe, we will listen closely to what the people we serve are asking for. Furthermore, we must be open to what they have to teach us. The head cannot say to the hand, “I know what is best for you; do as I say and you will be healed.” Rather, there must be listening and responding, giving and receiving, a mutuality in our service.

In working in prisons, I have been amazed to discover the difference in how the prisoners define their needs and how I want to define them. I want to talk forgiveness; they ask for accountability. I want the physical conditions of the prison improved as a first priority; they are interested first of all in being treated as individuals. I want to talk social justice; they want to talk religion. I want to do for them: they want to do for me.

I do not mean to imply that we will offer only what those whom we serve think we should offer -- real needs are not always felt needs. Jesus, after all, intervened where he was not wanted on several occasions -- to heal the Gerasene demoniac, for example. His stance was not to be his brother’s keeper, but in order to be a brother to his brothers and sisters, he would risk intervention. In my experience, if you can convey to people that you are really on their side, they will give you room to maneuver in deciding how to respond to their situations; they will even allow you to fail.

Who are those who need our help? Essentially they are the ones who are not strong enough to be advocates for themselves: prisoners, very old and very poor people, household workers, most people who live in Third World countries, retarded children and adults, schoolchildren, immigrants, farm workers, unemployed persons, the institutionalized mentally ill, sometimes women, sometimes gays. The stronger an oppressed or forgotten group becomes, the more we can and should step back.

The Power of Evil

The third uniting principle comes from Reinhold Niebuhr and other theologians who lived through the Nazi years: it is a realization of the power of evil, not only in other people but in ourselves, in our own church, even in our own cherished support group. In Beyond Tragedy, Niebuhr wrote:

It is interesting how clearly the prophets saw the relation to each other of power, pride, and injustice; and how unfailingly they combined their strictures against the religious sin of pride and the social sin of injustice. Modern exponents of the “social gospel” are usually not as penetrating in their insights. They see only the sin of injustice and not its source.

Perhaps we are not as penetrating in our insights on sin because we need to feel that we are making progress in our work, that our efforts can really change the world. It is indeed hard to face up to the power and pervasiveness of evil.

In the same essay Niebuhr challenged the church: “Thus the Church can disturb, the security of sinners only if it is not too secure in its belief that it has the word of God. The prophet himself stands under the judgment which he preaches. If he does not know that, he is a false prophet.” Our movement must listen closely to the prophetic voice that judges us, individually and collectively. My candidate for a “prophet to the liberals” is Will Campbell, publisher of the journal Katallagete and author of the highly acclaimed Brother to a Dragonfly, an autobiographical book about the lives of Will and his brother, Joe, as they leave their father’s small cotton farm in Mississippi -- Will to become a civil rights worker for the National Council of Churches, Joe to become a small-town pharmacist.

Campbell is a good candidate for the role of prophet because he is one of us, and yet he stands outside our circle. He understands and appreciates us, but he has an uncanny way of sniffing out our self-righteousness and hypocrisy. A decade ago I laughed heartily at a CBS commentary on the Ku Klux Klan that showed one scraggly candidate for the Georgia Klan, at an initiation ceremony that called for a military formation, turning right when the order “left face” was given. In his recent book, Campbell tells of seeing this same film at a conference of the National Student Association. The sight of the klansman who turned right, bringing confusion to the formation, elicited from the large student audience viewing the film -- just as it had from me -- “cheers, jeers, catcalls, guffaws.” Campbell writes of them, me, us: “I sensed there wasn’t a radical in the bunch. For if they were radical, how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right? If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him.” Now there’s a voice I need to hear.

Working on the Job and as Volunteers

When church people do get around to talking about how they can work for social justice, too often they are thinking only of volunteer work. Where one works in full-time employment and how one approaches that work is of crucial importance for the new social gospel movement that I envision; volunteer work is not enough. For example, one of the great problems of the criminal-justice system is that not enough reform-minded people enter the field. Such persons should be serving as police, security. . . personnel, defending and prosecuting attorneys -- not only as counselors and workers in halfway houses, the more usual positions for the reform minded. When citizen groups bring pressure for reform, there should be sympathetic workers inside the structures to respond.

I want our people to seek teaching jobs in public schools, both as full-time teachers and as teaching assistants, jobs as orderlies, nurses, counselors and doctors in mental hospitals, jobs at community centers, at city hall -- the list is endless. I hope that many of our members join the hourly-wage labor force and become active in unions. Those who work with their hands as well as their heads will provide an essential “down-to-earth” quality to our movement, which might otherwise become elitist.

There are certain key jobs that should be sought: teaching in schools of education, serving as organizers in unions, as lawyers and doctors for the poor, as clergy in various kinds of churches, as city planners, as journalists. But in today’s world many of us will have to work wherever we can find work, though some jobs would have to be refused: being a bomber pilot in another Vietnam-like war, working in a corrupt business, or serving in a church that still practices racial segregation.

If our people can develop a strong sense of identity with their support groups, with their theological past, and with the movement itself, they will be able to go into most jobs with the social gospel as their chief and not-so-hidden agenda. An installment loan officer in a bank, for example, will see his or her primary job as making responsible loans and giving sound financial advice to consumers, with their interest in mind more than that of the stockholders. Such a loan officer may not rise to prominence, but in the new movement it is serving the people, not rising in the hierarchy, that counts.

In a speech a few years ago, black activist Jesse Jackson described what needs to happen in the movement. He told how, as a boy growing up on a farm in South Carolina, he was delighted when his father came into a little money and could buy a new kitchen stove. The old wood stove was put outside in the chicken yard. One day a female cat found her way into that old wood stove that was warm from the sun and there gave birth to a litter of kittens. “Now,” said Jackson, “just because those kittens were in the stove, it didn’t mean they were biscuits.” They were still cats. In whatever work we do, we need always to be clear about who and what we are, like cats in a wood stove.

Besides taking our social gospel with us into our everyday jobs, we should all do volunteer work in the movement -- the amount depending on our responsibilities at home, the demands of our employment, our other interests. Volunteer work can be extremely important; it can also be a waste of time. We should spend some time together carefully planning how we can most effectively volunteer. Serving as a member of a board that supervises the work of a people’s advocacy program, for example, offers great possibilities. The chances are that the better the staff does its job, the more it will be criticized and the more gun-shy the board will become. A single board member determined to back an outspoken staff working for social justice can make all the difference in the world to staff morale and to a program’s effectiveness. A volunteer who visits prisoners once a week can make a vast difference to one or more individuals locked away from human concern. A volunteer who addresses and stuffs envelopes for a local election can make the difference between light and darkness in one community.

Style of Involvement

We have at least three options for our style of involvement: confrontation (prophetic action), argumentation (evangelization), and finally building attractive models (being “a light to the gentiles”). Niebuhr once wrote of the prophet: “When a man speaks in the name of God and prefixes his pronouncements with a ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ he is either a fool, or a knave, or -- a prophet.” The more confrontational an action is to one’s society, the greater is the claim that one is speaking in the name of God. When one decides not only to challenge the law of the land but also to violate it by doing things that will result in arrest, one is calling on a “higher law.” Protesters in both the civil rights and the antiwar movements sang “God Is on Our Side” to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.” Christians, of course, can never know in an absolute way that God is on their side, but they can know enough to risk prophetic action when the situation seems to call for it. Our support networks can be enormously helpful to the person who chooses to confront the system. We can minister to the wounds, we can stand by the family, we can help the person find a new job -- and we can gently challenge the action if it appears to be that of a fool or a knave rather than that of a prophet.

Church people have a long tradition of evangelizing, of convincing others that their news is indeed good news. We of the new social gospel movement can draw on the insights and power of this tradition as we argue for our positions. The trick is to put ourselves in the shoes of our listeners and to speak in a language that is comfortable to them even if the content is disturbing. I used to go to our state capitol to make speeches on prison reform to the legislators -- speeches in which I quoted Scripture to denounce both our corrections system and the legislators who were responsible for it. The problem was that my action was confrontational when I thought it was argumentative. I could have said the same things in such a way that some legislators could at least have heard the message. In order to evangelize for our positions -- whether at press conferences, in boardrooms, in sermons, at legislative hearings, on the job, at the coffeehouse, or across the fence -- we must learn to present our arguments so that those who hear them have the choice to see them as compelling.

Building attractive models could well be our most useful style for the end of this decade and into the next. We do so many things in this country poorly that perhaps what we need most of all is small groups of people trying out tasks in fresh and innovative ways -- ways that work. Instead of confronting the public school system or arguing before school boards for better teaching methods, we might do best by setting up small schools in which we try out our methods. If that is too ambitious, we can at least organize groups of teachers who will develop innovative techniques in their classrooms. We can establish model halfway houses, hospices, small cooperative businesses and industries.

There is something appealing about “being a light to the gentiles”: we do not have to call on the name of the Lord, nor do we have to say that our way is better than someone else’s. Instead we seek to build something that works so that we can then say: “Here it is; if you want to make use of it, take it; it is yours.” Not everything we do in our movement will be done in groups; we will be known for who we are and what we do as individuals as well. As individuals, we can make a personal witness to our principles. Others can judge our “light” for themselves.

Gerhard von Rad has defined the Old Testament prophet as one who “participates in the emotions of God.” Whatever style of involvement we choose, it is important that we put ourselves in situations where we experience face to face the sickness of our society. We may choose action that is not confrontational, but it is essential that we let ourselves feel what the prophet feels. It is not enough to talk objectively about what is right and what is wrong; we must, following Kierkegaard, love the good and hate the evil,

In the latter days of the civil rights movement, many of the black leaders made a mistake, I think, when they told us whites to leave the fray and go back to work among our own people, for “they are the ones that need the help.” The problem was that once we went back to our own people, often in distant suburbs, we too easily forgot the injustices of society and went on to other things that were not especially related. Thomas Merton could live in seclusion and yet feel the human suffering in the world, but most of us do not have that kind of self-transcendence; we need to see it face to face. I realize that we risk intruding into others’ lives, but I would rather intrude a bit than to live in happy isolation.

Finally, I hope that we will not become fanatics. I hope we will maintain and develop interests entirely outside our social concern and cultivate friends who are not social activists. If we become too dedicated, too heavy in our morality, too serious in our work, we just might become self-righteous and arrogant -- not to mention boring. Karl Marx is a good example for us. Upon finishing his day’s work in formulating the philosophy of revolution, he would go home to spend his evenings reading Shakespeare with his family. Unlike Jesse Jackson’s cats, we have only one life. We must take care of that life if we are going to give -- in a sustained way -- to others.