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Social Action: The Church’s Ministry in the World

Somewhere in our history, the link between inner spirituality and its expression in the world as loving social action grew faint. To renew that connection, we can draw deeply on traditions that call attention to our Oneness.

Candlelight vigil, photo by Jonathan McIntosh

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

It’s an odd term really: Social action could refer to any action done among people. But in Protestantism, it has come to mean the expression of concern for people in need—of concern for any person or for any place where there is trouble. The need might be for food clothing and shelter, or justice and an end to violence, or for the stewardship of the Earth. Outreach is another frequently used term to describe such compassionate activism. Both words point away from the interior of a congregation and into the world.  Right away, you can see that this suggests an odd polarity: If the church isn’t in the world, then where is it? Somewhere in our history, spirituality became an interior activity and social action an exterior matter; the connection has become ever more faint.

Without that spiritual basis, we lose hope and energy at times when they are needed the most. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and activist, wrote that Sixties activism failed because there was no real spiritual foundation underneath the movement, especially among white people. The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were, for many, good ideas that lost steam because of burnout and hopelessness.

But equally important is the reality that charity—direct service to people in need—is a concept that can serve the status quo if spirituality is absent. Because spirituality is by nature inclusive, all the systems pertaining to need must be identified and addressed. We are one world and we are all a part of the One. So, in addition to our providing much needed service to those in need, spirituality also requires that we challenge the status quo that creates the need for direct service in the first place. Without that challenge (the Christian Church has not excelled in challenging the status quo) charity becomes, ironically, a support for the accumulation of wealth. Charity, without a challenge to the status quo, gives the illusion that by giving to the poor we respond adequately to their needs. But what all of us may really need is a community and an economy where all have equal privilege and opportunity.

Flower escape, photo by Jenny DowningFreeing the Spirit of Change :: Rabbi Ted Falcon on how paying attention to our interconnection is our first step toward healing.

Spiritual awareness demonstrates its authenticity only through concrete actions in the world. This lesson comes directly from the central teachings of Judaism—teachings that Jesus of Nazareth saw as central to his ministry. In these polarized times, how might we see Jesus’ ministry moving the reality of Oneness forward into our world?

Two ideas from conventional wisdom support the “Us versus Them” dynamic that has us so profoundly divided, angry and frustrated. The first is that “poor people are lazy,” and the second is that “wealthy people deserve their wealth because of manifest destiny.” If we are privileged, we carry a deep sense that we were born to live within such a state. If we are not privileged, we feel completely trapped inside a system that requires poverty to sustain the extraordinary wealth that now controls our global economies. In effect, instead of Oneness—the reality that we are not only all a part of God, we are all a part of each other—we have Twoness: the world of the privileged and the world of those without privilege. How much further from Jesus’ teachings could we be?

The great challenge for all spiritual communities, now, is to draw deeply on the substance of traditions that get us back to Oneness.

Jesus grew up in a world rife with many of these polarizations. The elite of Judea were protected in their wealth by the Roman occupation, by taxing the peasants, and when possible, foreclosing on their property because they were unable to pay their tax to the temple in Jerusalem. The same conventional wisdom that helps to sustain our experience of Twoness also sustained the experience of Twoness in Jesus’ time. His ministry of teaching and healing encouraged spiritual growth and transformation so that through higher spiritual awareness (the rejection of Twoness and the living into the promise of Oneness), the world might become a place that reflects, as Marcus Borg has suggested, the character of God—a character of compassion and justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is a series of encouragements toward Oneness. Perhaps the most striking verse in the Sermon on the Mount is:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44b)

Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the gospels reflect his passion for helping people transcend their unexamined lives and move toward healing all of creation. But taking part in such a program—walking in such a way—requires spiritual practices like prayer and meditation. Such practices must give rise to concrete actions in the world—actions informed and defined by the consequences of unconditional love: cooperation, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice. The great challenge for all spiritual communities, now, is to draw deeply on the substance of traditions that get us back to Oneness. We must recover the deep and essential connection between spirituality and social action.


Don Mackenzie bio picPastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Don retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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