Nearly 200 years ago, in 1825, Robert Owen set up his experimental socialist society in New Harmony, Indiana. Owen believed that individuals were largely a product of their environment. Like John Locke a century prior, Owen believed that children were born as a tabula rasa, meaning blank slates which were awaiting input from the surrounding social network of parents, siblings, and others. Owen was convinced that if his socialistic ideal could be put into play in a community and children were born and raised in that environment—never knowing anything otherwise—his dream of a socialistic utopia on earth could be realized. Unfortunately for Owen, things didn’t go quite according to plan and within two years his society in New Harmony was finished; it was a complete failure. Undeterred in his beliefs though, Owen surmised that people weren’t yet ready for his paradise on earth, because they hadn’t been properly educated. Owen found himself in a vicious circle of irony. In order to control the future, he had to create an environment to raise the children, but to create the proper environment to raise the children, he needed to educate the adults. In other words, the key to the future was the present, and the key to the present was getting people to understand the vision for the future.
A similar story surrounds Upton Sinclair, the author of the 1905 novel, The Jungle. Sinclair believed that if he drew public attention to the abhorrent conditions and the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking plants of Chicago, that he would have a captive audience for his real purpose in writing: attracting converts to the Socialist party. “Ironically and to Sinclair’s keen disappointment, as he wrote, ‘I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’ The Socialist vote in America did not increase, nor did the social revolution appear to be any closer. There was only a prodigious commotion about beef and pork.”1 His overwhelmingly convincing 300+ pages of the trials and tribulations of his fictional protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, made it all the way to the top: the Roosevelt White House. Sinclair’s graphic (and after ensuing federal investigations, deemed accurate) depiction of the meatpacking industry was meant to be a means to an end. Instead it became the end to the means. The last fifty pages of The Jungle, which read like a public service announcement for socialism and Sinclair’s intended dénouement, were all but forgotten.
The most extraordinary aspect of the national furor over The Jungle, with its international repercussions, was that public attention was concentrated almost exclusively upon material regarded by Sinclair as incidental, mere background and local color for his major theme which was the oppression of the Packingtown workers. Scarcely a dozen pages out of 308 were concerned with the gruesome details of meat production: grinding up of poisoned rats, hogs dead of cholera used for a fancy grade of lard, the sale to food markets of the carcasses of steers condemned as tubercular by government inspectors, and, most dramatic of all, the folklore about men who served in the cooking rooms and occasionally fell into the boiling vats, ultimately going out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard! But it was these casual references to the food they were buying and eating that excited and angered the people and created irresistible demands for reform.2
While Sinclair and Owen were fully convinced Socialists and were willing to live their lives in service to this paradigm, they were less than effective as ambassadors of their faith. Their commitment to the cause intellectually, socially and individually was not enough to make others want to embrace their views and lifestyle. Sound familiar? The modern church is virtually as ineffective in their current approaches to social issues. Despite recent advances in dislodging some evangelical heads from the sand of social rot, finding ears that hear and eyes that see is a full-time and lifelong calling (not to mention frustrating and tiring).
It’s simply not enough to get Christians politically aware and active, they need to be applying biblical thinking to their social activism. Seeker-sensitive megachurches are getting many people in the door with music, self-help sermons, and coffee, but with what are they really sending them back out? It’s nothing more than a weekly fix of spiritual mumbo-jumbo that may or may not apply to those “seeking.” And as Upton Sinclair found out, the “bait and switch” tactic almost never results in what you really intended. If you get people in the door to listen to loud music while sipping gourmet coffee, this is exactly what they’ll come back for. We shouldn’t be surprised when the message of the cross causes conflict. Regardless of how comfy the dentist chair may be, the drill is still painful.
Unlike Locke’s tabula rasa, grown-ups have all kinds of baggage and ideas floating around their heads, some biblical, but most not. We must remain as determined as Robert Owen, even when we see little or no progress. Instead of “calling the whole thing off,” our resolve must remain. Changing a culture takes much longer than two—or even twenty—years. We are fighting spiritual battles in a physical world. Our weapons are spirit AND truth. While Owen had the right idea, his implementation would have failed anyway, because he was not equipping his insulated community to deal with the big bad world outside. The Village, a film by writer and director M. Night Shamylan, exemplifies this short-sightedness well. The citizens in the village were safe and secure inside the walls, but difficulties arose when they were forced to go outside of their self-made “utopia” for help. Try as they might to be independent, they simply couldn’t ignore the “outside world” forever.
While it may be technically true that our citizenship is in heaven, we are still citizens and active participants in this world. Jesus didn’t give us orders to let this world fall apart, because “Earth is not our home.” In fact, He lived, died, and rose again on this planet, physically, in order to pay the penalty for our sin. Our spiritual problem required a physical AND spiritual solution. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14). Paul is saying here that it is pointless to have a spiritual-only “messiah.” In case you missed it, he further declares, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (v. 17). According to Paul, a non-physical Jesus does precisely nothing for the problem of sin. Likewise, non-physical Christians—or spiritually-minded only—will do nothing for the world. Only a church that is both spiritual and physical can qualify to be light and salt. “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).