In the not-too-distant past, a diocese of the Episcopal Church marketed itself for a time with this tripartite slogan: Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Change the World.
It’s catchy, it’s memorable, and you can’t really argue with it without sounding hopelessly curmudgeonly.
More recently, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has in his public pronouncements remained relentlessly on message with his notion that “we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” and he invariably concludes with the same “result clause”: change the world.
Change the world. I will not presume to know what either the diocese or the Presiding Bishop precisely intend to say with this expression. But it is plausible to suspect how it is probably heard by many across the church. There is at least a potential inference here that evangelism and discipleship, along with liturgy and worship, are, whatever their intrinsic worth might be, ultimately instrumental means for the real point of the Christian enterprise: social change. The prize on which we are to keep our collective eye is a completely just society, yielding peace throughout the world.
In the course of the four-and-a-half decades of my adult life, I’ve noticed a steadily increasing emphasis on outcomes, particularly among those shaping policy in government and education, but also in commerce and industry and, for that matter, churches. We are bidden to set organizational goals that are measurable, the achievement of which can be quantified under some objective standard. This is an attempt to get organizational leaders to pay less attention to what is ideally or theoretically the right thing, and more on what produces the right result. Outcomes are the ultimate arbiters of success or failure.
From a theological perspective, this evokes the specter of the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel is a movement that arose and flourished in U.S. Protestant circles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the Church’s primary work to usher in the fully realized kingdom of God, to expend tireless effort in bending societal institutions and structures in the direction of justice, peace, and love, until those goals are actually realized through human effort. The English poet William Blake, writing in the shadow of deplorable Industrial Revolution social conditions in Britain, anticipated the Social Gospel by a century or so when he wrote the lines (subsequently set to stirring music by Charles H.H. Parry): “I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” By the lights of the Social Gospel, until we have confected the Peaceable Kingdom, we have failed in our mission as the Church, and need to keep on striving.
This is, of course, overt Pelagianism, the ancient heresy that the human will is capable of entering into a right relation with God, without the decisive and essential intervention of divine grace. One would think that two horrific world wars would have put the lie to such notions. The Social Gospel movement did indeed lose a good bit of steam in the wake of the trench warfare and poison gas of World War I, and was nearly eradicated by the mass murder of multiple millions of innocent civilians, including attempted genocide of Jews, during World War II. Both catastrophes discredited the idea of incremental progress toward Utopia. How can one know about the events of the first half of the 20th century and still believe that humankind is gradually evolving out of its violent past? But the Social Gospel, like the Terminator, seems always to have a way of coming back from the dead and asserting that humankind has the capacity to claim both the blame for the mess we’re in (no room for Original Sin here) and potentially the credit for getting ourselves out of it (given our commitment to “mental fight” and all).
Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world. Bring in the Kingdom of God.
Of course, we don’t want to fall prey to the opposite temptation: to make the gospel completely about its fulfillment in the world to come, making conditions in the world we live in not worth our attention. What might it reasonably look like for the witness of Christian disciples to change the world in a way that is appropriately modest, that is, short of presuming to build Jerusalem (in England’s green and pleasant land, or anywhere else)? For starters:
We announce that we know the End of the Story. God wins. Sin, evil, and death are defeated. The spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God are put to flight, along with the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. That’s the good news of God that Jesus proclaimed even before he had any disciples (Mark 1:15-16).
We live as an exemplary community. Our message is, “If you want to know what the kingdom of God is like, look at us.” Of course, that’s an audacious claim, and a monumental responsibility. But it is nothing less than what we are called to be and do. Reconciliation, life in community, is not just an aspect of the gospel, it is the gospel. This is why ecumenism is of paramount importance. Division among Christians doesn’t just make our church life painfully awkward, although it does do that. It doesn’t just grieve the heart of our Lord Jesus, although it does do that. It undercuts our mission, our very reason for being.
We move into the neighborhood (see Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood”). This entails risk and vulnerability. It means leaving the perks and privileges of establishment so far in the past that we can’t even see them. It means learning brand new habits, and creating new structures to support the new habits (in the spirit of new wine, new wineskins). There are crosses to be taken up daily. We are called to extend ourselves, and to do so heroically.
We demonstrate charity and generosity. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 is our guide here. Closely related to this are the classic corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, and bury the dead. We don’t need to sell out to the Social Gospel in order to engage in these activities. They are not the outcome of the Church’s life and being. God does not judge us, nor ought we judge ourselves, by some sort of dashboard metric in these areas. But neither can they be separated from the Church’s life and being. You can’t offer a cup of cold water in the name of Christ without an actual cup of cold water.
The interim result — the outcome — of such an approach will be rather more humble than conjuring the Celestial Banquet: We’re more like a Tylenol to the world’s headache, taking the edge off the pain, than we are a surgical procedure that permanently fixes the problem. God will do the heavy lifting, in his way and in his time. With apologies to William Blake, we don’t get to build Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a gift; it comes down from heaven as a Bride adorned for her Bridegroom. But we do get to hand out free tickets to front-row seats when it happens.