I received my Wheaton Alumni magazine in the mail the other day. Usually I just flip through it and skip to the gossip pages in the back - who got married, who had a baby, who wrote what book, the fun stuff. This issue though intrigued me. It sought to examine why student activism is on the rise.
When I was at Wheaton in the nineties, I knew nothing about social justice. Oh there were a few activist groups on campus that would do things like picket abortion clinics, but the concept of helping the oppressed really wasn't on my radar. I had friends who would go off about public health issues or American injustices in Latin America, but they were on the fringe. It took my own post-college personal study to realize that caring for the needs of others is a Biblical value.
So, to have student activism highlighted in the Wheaton magazine surprised me. Then I actually read the article. While it does applaud the students for their idealism, it takes a rather apologetic tone in doing so. The section on students for peace devotes a good portion of the space to how those students learned to understand the convictions of those in the army after a panel discussion on campus. The activism article was followed not so subtly by an article about Wheaton alumni serving as Chaplains in the military. Apparently the college wants to make sure that rich alumni don't get the impression that the school officially supports these rogue activist students. (and before you tell me I'm too cynical, I worked for the Wheaton Advancement department for a few years and know the posture one must assume when wealthy alumni are involved.) But the equivocating and the apologies were nothing compared to college President Duane Litfin's back page editorial.
Litfin addresses the rise of student activism by asserting that "we must never allow our activism to eclipse our verbal witness... the temptation to reduce the contribution of the church to the so-called 'social gospel' is always before us."
Apparently we are tempted to help others so that we can hear the applause and respect of the world, but they should be hating us because of Jesus. Litfin writes, "feed the poor, heal the sick, stand up for the oppressed and the world will often approve. But name the unique name of Jesus and it will often not be applause you hear."
Does he really think that students are following the command of Jesus so that they can be approved by the world? Apparently to Litfin, those commands of Jesus are insignificant parts of scripture that obedience to does nothing to proclaim Christ.
The editorial then goes on to quote and reject the famous saying of St. Francis, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." Litfin claims that this saying is false, "the gospel cannot be "preached" nonverbally. The gospel is inherently a verbal thing. It requires verbal expression. Social activism can never take its place."
No wonder I never heard about social justice at Wheaton. All that is deemed acceptable there is the truncated gospel of Christ's economic exchange. What matters is verbally confessing Christ so that we get into heaven when we die and not following the way in which Christ taught us to live. If Christ was sent to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God and all we focus on is his death on the cross (and condemn his actual message) there are some serious issues going on here. I am reminded of this quote I came across in a Christianity Today interview
with Ruth Padilla DeBorst.
When Christianity came into Latin America, many of the indigenous groups simply changed the names of their gods: They gave them Christian saints' names. But they really continued worshiping their original gods. Churches were built on top of temples. Seventy-five years ago, John Mackay wrote a wonderful book, The Other Spanish Christ, which asks whether Latin America could discover the Christ who was incarnate, who walked the streets and died and rose from the dead and is powerful today. This Christ was not widely portrayed in the first evangelization of Latin America. Christ was either a helpless baby, toward whom we feel affection and compassion, or a corpse, a dead body with no power or ethical demands. This is what happens when religion is too closely linked with power: The problem is not just that religion underwrites oppression, but that the gospel itself is lost. If Christ is just a baby or a dead body, I can keep on living and not allow Christ's lordship to shed light on all dimensions of my life."
So can the evangelical church and places like Wheaton College accept not just the Christ who dies, but the living Christ who makes ethical demands? Will the full Christ be allowed to be known within those institutions or will a hollow Christ used merely as God's sacrificial pawn be all that is allowed to be taught? I know I've traveled a long way since my time at Wheaton, but I also know (as this article attests) that there are students at Wheaton now who are embracing the full gospel no matter what protestations the administration makes to the contrary.
Labels: Social Justice, Theology