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Promised justice of God’s reign

I’ve heard arguments over the years that the church should focus solely (souly?) on the spiritual well-being of its members and their salvation.

But until I read J. Phillips Noble’s new book, “Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town,” I was unaware that such arguments had a name: “The Spirituality of the Church.”

In effect, this old stance says the church should stay out of politics. Downplay being advocates for — and friends with — people Jesus called “the least of these.” Mostly don’t notice — much less battle — social, economic, racial and other injustices. Just pray, study your Bible and leave reforming corrupt systems to others.

Noble, a Presbyterian pastor whose book describes how most residents of Anniston, Alabama, chose the path of peace and racial reconciliation over violence in the turbulent 1960s, writes about how some members of his congregation then advocated “The Spirituality of the Church” approach to avoid opposing segregation.

“This way of thinking,” he writes, the church in the South when segregation/integration became an issue. For the Presbyterian Church this was a turn away from its long history going back to John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, and John Knox in Scotland, both of whom were greatly involved in the issues of society and its ills.”

The denomination at the time, Noble acknowledges, “took a stand against segregation, while many of its members adopted the ‘Spirituality of the Church’ attitude.”

Every congregation struggles with this balance between being a prophetic voice for social justice and being an evangelical voice for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Should we make public statements and adopt positions on gun control, abortion, racism, war and economic disparities? Or should we ignore all that and simply be a place where people can learn about Jesus?

It’s a false dichotomy. If the gospel means anything, it means we are to proclaim it in both word and deed. That means we must take the Word seriously enough to try to demonstrate what the reign of God will look like when it comes in full flower. If we think that in God’s kingdom there will be no homelessness, then we work to solve that issue today. If we think there will be no illiteracy, we work on that.

We can’t create the kingdom ourselves. That’s the mistake post-millennialists make. But we can discover where God already is at work in the world and join in to show people that, in the end, when God redeems the creation, there will be justice, mercy, compassion and love.

Just 50 years ago our nation was tearing itself apart over the struggle to end racial segregation. There were bombings and assassinations, riots and fire hoses.

Today, as we’ve seen in such places as Ferguson, Missouri, we continue to struggle to create just social systems. One reason we have yet to achieve something like the justice that God’s reign promises is that “The Spirituality of the Church” argument is still breathing.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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