A Friendly Critique from Hauerwas: Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (5)

Stanley Hauerwas, some may be surprised to learn, deeply respects the work of Walter Rauschenbusch. In many ways, the two thinkers seem to share a common heritage. Note this appraisal of the Social Gospel thinker by the renowned contemporary theologian and ethicist:

Walter Rauschenbusch was an evangelist of the kingdom of God. The sermon that is Christianity and the Social Gospel is as desperately needed in our day as it was in his. The passion for justice, his prayers for social awakening, the hymns of social solidarity, and the institutions for humane care he created cannot be taken for granted. The work he began we must continue (176).


Constantine I

These comments come from short a commentary on chapter four -- "Why has Christianity Never Undertaken the Word of Social Reconstruction" -- of Rauschenbusch's 1907 classic. According to Hauerwas, Rauschenbusch, as a liberal Protestant thinker, respects the historical figure of Jesus and his prophetic ethical teachings; furthermore, the Social Gospel evangelist recognizes that the good news of the kingdom is the true locus for perceiving the comprehensive character of nature of sin in its social and individual dimensions. If the advent of the kingdom brings a transformation of society through a praxis that integrates ethics and religion, then sin must reside not merely in the individual human heart but more broadly in the reactionary structures that inhibit authentic human flourishing. "Rauschenbusch saw quite clearly that sin is not merely something that we do but a power that possesses us" (174).

Still, Hauerwas does proffer criticisms. The problem is not that Rauschenbusch is a woolly-eyed optimist. Rather, the issue (it is claimed) is that his ecclesiology is deficient. Rauschenbusch, on this reading, links the regressive character of much classical Christianity to the very phenomena that are most fecund for vitalizing a radical social witness -- for example, the monastic movement, sacramental theology, traditional doctrine, a "churchly" ethos and the subordination of church to state. Rauschenbusch, thus, deflates the vital "eschatological tension" between church and world characteristic of the Constantinian arrangement (Yoder's work informs Hauerwas' comments here). Rauschenbusch's gospel risks identifying Christian praxis too closely with the ideals of Western civilization and democratic institutions.

Granted, Hauerwas might have a point in his claim that a lack of eschatological tension may hinder Rauschenbusch from being yet more radical than he is (for more on this, see my previous post). Still, I question whether the best solution to this problem comes from a renewed embrace of traditional ecclesiastical structures and practices. If we proceeded along more apocalyptic lines, by contrast, we might risk fostering a "pie in the sky" escape from socio-political realism in ethics. Or, maybe, this move might uncover possibilities for a critical alternative to both Rauschenbusch and Hauerwas.

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Source: Stanley Hauerwas, "Repent. The Kingdom is Near," in Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century, edited by Paul Rauschenbusch (New York: HarperOne, 2007), pp. 173-176.

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