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The Gospel is Social and Personal

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Many German Christians adopted a sideline strategy similar to the one advocated by James L. Evans, and Adolf Hitler took advantage of it. Martin Niemöller, however, reacted strongly against passivity on the part of the clergy or the people: “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of the authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”[1] A Christian’s heavenly citizenship, Niemöller concluded, must have an impact in the world in which he lives even if the State disagrees.

According to an editorial given on an Atlanta-based radio station, “a man’s religion and the strength of his conviction are his own personal matter . . . religion should not interfere with politics.”[2] So what do we do with the following?:

• “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”[3]

• “Seems that I can hear God saying that it’s time to rise up now and make it clear that the evils of the universe must be removed. . . . The church that overlooks this is a dangerously irrelevant church.”[4]

• “If one is truly devoted to the religion of Jesus he will seek to rid the earth of social evils. The gospel is social as well as personal.”[5]

• “As Christians we owe our ultimate allegiance to God and His will, rather than to man and his folkways.”[6]

• “[A]ny religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”[7]

• “The church must also become increasingly active in social action outside its doors. . . . It must exert its influence in the area of economic justice. As guardian of the moral and spiritual life of a community the church cannot look with indifference upon these glaring evils.”[8]

Of course, these are the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Someone should have reminded Rev. King that it was OK for blacks to “rant and rave” against oppression on Sundays as long as their religious precepts weren’t applied during the rest of the week where religion did not apply, especially in the area of politics. Stephen L. Carter writes the following in his The Culture of Disbelief:

[R]eligious organizations were among the strongest supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in employment and public accommodations. They testified in support of it. They made public appeals for it. And, once again, only the segregation[ist]s complained. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia charged that those who made religious arguments in favor of the legislation did not understand ‘the proper place of religious leaders in our national life,’ adding that the religions should not ‘make a moral question of a political issue.’ Indeed, there is little about the civil rights movement, other than the vital distinction in the ends that it sought, that makes it very different from the right-wing religious movements of the present day.[9]

Supposedly, the Christian’s heavenly citizenship automatically nullifies any earthly citizenship. The Apostle Paul saw no contradiction in claiming his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37–39; 22:22–29) and maintaining that he was also a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20). There is no contradiction in Peter’s words when he commands us to submit ourselves “to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13, 14) and his words to the officers of the temple when he and the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years: 1930–1940 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), 154.
[2] A radio editorial broadcast on September 12, 1986. There are inherent dangers in half truths. Of course, religion and the strength of conviction are personal. But isn’t this true of anything?
[3] Martin Luther King quoted in Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 743.
[4] Martin Luther King quoted in Branch, Parting the Waters, 696.
[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 117.
[6] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 117.
[7] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 91.
[8] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 208.
[9] Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 228.

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