How Big is the Gospel?

I believe I am one of the "Internet theologians" Michael Shannon refers to in his latest rant about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I know he meant the term in a mean, derogatory way, but, I kind of like it. Maybe I’ll add "Internet Theologian" to my resume. Anyway, I should reply.

As is too often the case with Mr. Shannon's columns, most of this one rambles on caustically and sarcastically about irrelevant personal anecdotes that he hopes readers will think support his actual points. I won't waste anyone's time rehashing his anecdotes. I will readily admit that many of the folks, and some of the statements, at OWS demonstrations are destructive; do not represent Jesus and have nothing to do with him.

However, I maintain, as I said before at OWS Shares Jesus' Values, that OWS concerns about "social and economic justice; about making the world a better place; about caring for God's creation; about lifting up the poor and oppressed; about reining in the excesses of the rich. Those are all very biblical, very Christian messages." I wish more of the people who attend churches every week cared even half as much about these things as most OWS demonstrators (and God) do.

Mr. Shannon and I disagree about what it means to be a Christian – how a Christian should live and what values a follower of Jesus should hold dear. This disagreement stems from the fundamentally different ways we view the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe the gospel is big, expansive, and relevant to everything in my life and world. I think the gospel has lots to say about everything – including social and economic justice, politics, creation, government – everything. Mr. Shannon wants a smaller gospel. He wants to limit it to individual, spiritual and otherworldly concerns. This is an issue of great importance as it affects the lives of not only every Christian, but every person in the world.

To avoid confusion I need to make clear that I am not talking about Mr. Shannon's conception of individual salvation. In modern Christian culture the term "salvation" and "gospel" have often become conflated so that many Christians, perhaps including Mr. Shannon, think the two words mean the same thing. They do not. I am talking about the Gospel which is the good news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus said he was sent to preach (Luke 4:43). The good news of the Kingdom of God (the Gospel) includes individual spiritual salvation, but also includes much more.

OK, in Shannon's latest column, the central points he makes are that:

  1. "The Word is directed at individuals and not Wall Street, corporations, the GOP, Congress or the Koch brothers."
  2. "Solutions will come, if ever, from individuals acting on their own…."
  3. The Kingdom of God cannot be established in, and is not part of, this world. [I note that I'm uncertain if Mr. Shannon is really saying this or not. He is elusive about it. However, I think it's a fair reading of his scornful comment about "these New Testament individuals working to establish the Kingdom here on earth."]

Fortunately, for those of us who want to make our world better -- more just and righteous; more Godly -- Mr. Shannon is entirely wrong. The Word IS directed at Wall Street, corporations, the GOP, Congress and the Koch brothers. In fact, the Word, and the gospel itself, is directed at all things. Solutions will NOT come only through individuals working on their own. Finally, whether Mr. Shannon likes it or not, the Kingdom of God IS breaking through in this world right now. That began when Jesus arrived here in human form and will continue until the Kingdom is fully restored.

Let's start with Mr. Shannon's third point about the Kingdom of God not being part of this world. It is true the Kingdom is not "of" this world; meaning it is not composed of or part of the sinful and foolish things of this world. BUT, very importantly, it is, at least partially, "in" this world. It is both here and also not quite here; just out of reach. Though hard to define, the Kingdom of God is definitely not only a spiritual, other-worldly, place. In the most famous prayer in the bible (The Lord's Prayer), Jesus prays to his Father that "Thy KINGDOM COME, thy will be done, ON EARTH, as it is in heaven." Christians pray this prayer often, but do we mean it? Do we even believe it's possible?

Jesus talks more about the Kingdom than any other single topic. Here's a sampling:

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.

Luke 16:16

The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst.

Luke 17:20-21

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness....

Matthew 6:33

The really great news (that Mr. Shannon and I disagree about) is that the Kingdom of God is breaking through into our world. It's partially here now. And if we are to follow Jesus, we must work to build the Kingdom of God – here and now. That, obviously, includes working to make our world a better place. God cares a lot about the actual physical world that we live and work in each day. God cares a lot about income inequality, just wages, medical care, immigrants, creation care, jobs, the poor, and yes, even the rich. God is very interested in justice of all kinds – even including just tax rates (which surely are not rates in which "earned" income is taxed higher than "unearned" income). Truly. I told you this was good news!

Just as Mr. Shannon's third argument attempts to shrink the Kingdom of God; his first two seek to shrink the gospel. Mr. Shannon, and others, prefer a small, limited gospel that is only about individual, spiritual concerns like how to get to heaven after we die.

He wants to keep the gospel out of social, economic, political and other real-world issues. Doing things about those issues would require real sacrifice here and now. It might require higher taxes to provide health care for all or restrictions on how much damage we do to our environment. Yuk. It's much easier to make the gospel irrelevant to most things. So, he adopts the notion that all the problems are the fault of other people and entities (especially the government) and, too bad, so sad, nothing we can or should do about it. Certainly, it has nothing to do with the "Word" or the Gospel of Jesus.

That way, the rest of the week, we can freely pursue individual wealth creation and promote unbridled capitalism -- where the luckiest, best connected and, yes, often hard working, survive and prosper; while the unlucky, unconnected, and, yes, sometimes lazy, suffer.

To shrink the gospel further, Mr. Shannon says the "Word" has nothing to say to corporations, congress, political parties or Wall Street. He argues that the New Testament has nothing to say about social justice and certainly not about government involvement in it.

Poppycock! God cares an awful lot about the social justice concerns Mr. Shannon often denigrates. In fact, the truth is that there is nothing God talks about more in His Word (the Bible) than social justice – particularly the necessity for righteous and just people and societies to care for the poor. In fact, most of the cities and/or nations God destroyed (as described in the Old Testament) He destroyed because of their failure to care for the poor.

Of course, we all know, though rarely think about, the social justice concerns expressed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout his ministry. Surely, Mr. Shannon, recalls how Jesus said the poor were blessed and pronounced woes on the rich – the exact opposite of our current social values. It's hard to read the red-letter parts of the New Testament and not see Jesus' social interests. Here's the very first thing Jesus said when he began his public ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Luke 4:18-19 (quoting from Isaiah 61)

One of the few verses in the bible repeated verbatim is this one:

I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.

Psalm 140:12 and Proverbs 13:23

Later in Proverbs we read:

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.

Proverbs 29:7

And here's just a few more relevant scriptures for Mr. Shannon (and the many who apparently agree with him).

Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.

Daniel 4:27

Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.

Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor.

Should I not punish them for this?" declares the LORD. Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?

Jeremiah 5:26-29

Seek the peace and prosperity of the city….

Jeremiah 29:7

You've likely heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Have you heard why God said he destroyed the city?

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16:49

Could this apply to us today in the United States? If so, how culpable are Christians?

If you think Ezekiel got it wrong; Isaiah says the same thing in his first chapter. I wish there was space to quote the whole chapter here, but please read it yourself, just google "Isaiah 1" or "Isaiah 58" or Amos or Micah or Jeremiah or any other prophet or Jesus for that matter. They ALL felt the same way about the world they lived in. They all were angry about hypocritical people who gather in "worthless assemblies" and give "meaningless offerings" that are "detestable" to God because the people giving them (and the nation they live in) are corrupt and unjust – especially to the poor. There's simply nothing God talks about more. Christians should too.

We live in the wealthiest country the world has ever known. Yet, the gap between the rich and the poor has rarely been greater. More and more "middle class" people are sinking into poverty. When Christians do nothing about corrupt and unChristian structures that allow the richest people in history to get even richer while poverty, sickness, hunger, homelessness, greed and selfishness abound -- our guilt is much greater than it was in the time of the prophets and Jesus. The reason is that we have a government "of the people." We can't just blame the government or Wall Street (as Mr. Shannon attempts to do). We ARE the government. We elect them. Indeed, Christians (at least when you include nominal ones) compose a large majority of the population of America. We are responsible and accountable for the government we elect and the economic and social policies, structures and laws it enacts. We ultimately can choose what kind of country we will live in.

We have ample resources to fix all of these problems if we have the will to act unselfishly. If Wall Street is corrupt – we have a duty to fix it. If the Koch brothers are using their massive wealth to further injustice – we have an obligation, as Christians, to do something about that – perhaps by limiting the amount of money they are able to buy political influence with. We don't have the luxury of blaming poverty, injustice and oppression on others. We are part of the problem (the sin) if we are not working for solutions, including the essential systemic ones.

There is much more to say about this topic but time and space have run out for now. I am gratified that Mr. Shannon read my first reply and hopefully will read this one as well. I look forward to more discussion.

Read more along these lines at Romney's Tax Return Highlights Injustice and What Should a Christian Church Be Like and Gospel Politics.

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