Where’s the Christian Social Gospel when we need it?

WWJD?   What would Jesus do?

My first exposure to that question came back in the mid 1990’s when I was teaching an adult Sunday School class using Charles Shelton’s 1890’s classic, “In His Steps.” Back then I had some concern that coming out of the 1980’s we American’s were now in the throws of what political scientists call a new “corporatist oligarchy” replacing our former social democracy.   Likewise, in the throws of what historians call a new “gilded age”   —  much like the one Shelton lived through when writing his book 100 years earlier. For those unfamiliar with such terms, America’s original “gilded age” featured the emergence of industrial corporations that brought severe disparities in class, wealth, and living standards.

My main idea in offering up that centennial reading and discussion of the Shelton book back then was to seek a mini-renewal, at least at our local level in United Methodism, of the American “social Gospel” that had emerged in response to our 19th century “gilded age” of class disparity. The 1890’s gave witness to a kind of tall-steeple churchism, if I may coin that term, within American Christianity, losing touch with the basic teachings and behavioral examples of Jesus himself. Hence, Shelton’s fictional book that posed the question, “what would Jesus do?” Or WWJD as his preferred acronym.

The 1990’s, it now turns out, came and went without much of a social Gospel influence. Some, such as my evangelism mentor, Steve Sjogren, worked out of a “servant evangelism” model at a kind of micro level. Yet, nothing on a macro or systemic level really came to occur, and perhaps for that reason our gilded age of corporate rule in government and society has spawned a time in our history of unparalleled inequality between the haves and have nots. Three decades later, our lack of a coherent social Gospel in American Christianity is mostly conspicuous by its own absence.

Today’s best example of such a gilded age on steroids may well be the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) now winding its way through our U.S. Congress. Its unwritten and unspoken goal is to shift the financial risk of illness from the community to the individual. Individuals with good health and great wealth will be taken care of. Those with poor health or great poverty (the two strongly intertwined in virtually every social research study ever conducted) are left, basically, to die or file bankruptcy. Or both. It’s the new gilded age absent any coherent social Gospel response at the larger, national level.  It’s runaway hedonic greed and narcissism without any pushback from the church.

So what would Jesus do about healthcare in the United States today? WWJD?

Most of my fellow pastors and priests would seek to bear influence at the local or more micro level of community. Hire a parish nurse perhaps. Offer some CPR training or conduct weekly free blood pressure screenings. Pay for an occasional medical prescription. Visit the sick in hospitals and nursing homes. Or, if feasible, these local churches might throw open their doors for a free clinic in their own neighborhood.

I won’t disparage such reactions to the healthcare needs of today’s and tomorrow’s have nots in America.

But I have to wonder.

Would Jesus be so small as to do something no bigger than this? Nothing beyond the micro level of care?   Is Jesus really that limited in caring-capacity?

Or would Jesus act on a larger, more systemic level to influence and impact healthcare for those marginalized by poor health and intermingling poverty?

Given the thrust of Jesus’s original teachings, centered around the Kingdom of God as a systemic solution to human social and spiritual problems, my faith is 100% invested in Jesus doing something at a systems-level where healthcare is concerned for the masses of our marginalized Americans today. He would not neglect the local village, but as before he would merely use such villages and villagers as a microcosm for the Kingdom work necessary for the greater common good.

I wonder if Jesus would not today support universal healthcare aimed at comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I wonder if he would not inspire a new social Gospel movement in our nation today.   Just as Jesus did in his own nation two millennia ago. A new social Gospel that included healthcare for everyone, not just the privileged classes.

I wonder if, given the relative success of America’s own public Medicare insurance for the elderly and permanently disabled, Jesus would not affirm a Medicare-For-All plan covering our residents of all ages, classes, villages and states. I wonder if he would not attach some personal risk and responsibility for everyone in that system by imposing a sliding fee scale premium plus co-pay plus deductible, tied to whatever income source one has. Perhaps down to $5.00 per month per person in the three areas of premium, co-pay, and deductible. Given Medicare’s comparatively low administrative costs as a non-profit insurance provider, I wonder if he would not advocate for such a system of universal care, then using the for profit sector only in the area of Medicare supplemental insurance for those wanting more and longer covered benefits. And I wonder if Jesus would not advocate for a non-profit supplemental insurance such as state Medicaid with means tested premiums for those needing more and longer covered benefits. Perhaps also lowered to $5 per month per person for the poorest in our land, no co-pay or deductible charges for service.

The reason my mind wonders if Jesus would not act in this larger, systemic direction is that, by all indications from our biblical Gospel records, Jesus believed healthcare was a right and not a privilege. This was so as regarded mental as well as bodily afflictions. And certainly without regard to wealth or material status. If after reading through the Gospels you can cite indications about Jesus to the contrary, feel free to leave a comment below. I’m willing to wonder in a new or different direction with you given strong biblical evidence.

The gilded age of modern medicine is once again upon us. I will likely never stop imagining that Jesus would offer up a social Gospel response and responsibility for all of his followers. In fact, my own mind has settled into a long held belief that religion itself is our human gift to God while science, especially medical science, is God’s gift to humanity. God’s gift is far more useful for us than our gift is for God, yet if any of us should hoard God’s gift or deny or refuse it whatsoever, we may well find ourselves on the afflicted, not comforted, end of God’s timeless equation made known through Jesus.

WWJD today in America?




God’s round-abouts

Several years ago I began to notice a trend in local highway construction. Our familiar green, yellow and red traffic lights were being replaced ever so gradually by round-about traffic circles.

And I hated it.

I was in the habit of using the old traffic light signals when making my journeys through town and country. What’s with all these new traffic circles? Whoever thought these were a good idea? These went out of style years ago for some presumably good reason. Why bring them back and cause everyone to be honking at the car cutting into their lane all of a sudden, only to then exit to perhaps the wrong lane ahead? Which is precisely what I did myself by mistake a time or two while getting used to these new intersections. I viewed the removal of my customary straight intersections and traffic lights as some unsettled science somewhere. Maybe even a hoax created by the Chinese to steal our jobs; just kidding!!!

It took me awhile to wise up.

Sometime later on I came to the happy realization that I was spending less time getting places by car. Specifically, I was spending less time sitting still at red lights, or backed up behind a line of other cars waiting for the light to change. I was even burning less fuel by not having so many starts and stops as I learned to slow and yield instead of having to stop and wait or choosing to floor it through the yellow lights, as was also my custom. Nowadays I’m wishing every intersection was a round-about. These straight intersections and red lights are starting to get on my nerves.

Whether any of this resonates with you or not, I share it to simply illustrate how my faith journey has worked over the years. The faith I grew up with was, for points of comparison, a stop and go faith. To get where I wanted to go in life, I had come to believe in a God of straight intersections with red, green and yellow lights. God was for me a kind of hidden camera waiting for me to enter on yellow, oops, now red.


God’s laws were like traffic signals that stopped traffic in one direction even if there was no one coming from the other direction.  Just because God said so, that’s why.

Traffic back ups at those red lights were, well, just part of the way God designed life to be. Hurry up and wait. Stop and go. Go and stop. And, worst case scenario, honk and go around. Tempers flaring. What’s the matter, Buster; you can’t see God’s laws of red, green, yellow?

That’s the faith I grew up with.

But it’s not the faith I have now.

Don’t think it was God that did the changing. Pretty sure it was me finally getting wise to a new reality. God posts a continuous yield sign where there used to be a half-the-time red light tying up traffic in front and behind. That change came with Jesus. And the world is still trying to get used to it. Some of the world really hates it this way.

The Bible has a way, if we read it with open minds, of helping us see the difference between law and grace, between old straight intersections and new round-abouts, old stop and go traffic lights and new yield signs. In the New Testament, Jesus comes along and issues a simple yield sign of Matthew 7:12, “So then, in everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets.” You see, Jesus had no intention of doing away with the intersections or the provision of safety for those entering life’s intersections. Jesus came to make the journey safe but without all the traffic tie-ups in both directions. The abundant life Jesus promised is the efficiency we gain for our life’s journey when, by yielding for one who’s already in the circle, we can learn to get where we’re going just as safely but faster and while using less energy. It’s as if Jesus, according to the new faith I grew into eventually, is saying that grace will get us where we need to go much better than if we stopped every time the law’s red light told us to stop. Grace that yields like the Golden Rule is actually a perpetual yellow light that says proceed with caution.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.   Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  —  Matthew 11:28-30

This is the grace difference; the Jesus difference. And it’s made all the difference in my own faith journey. I’m not stalled in traffic anymore, like I used to be.

Oh, I realize there are many others who don’t like this faith round-about. To them these reconstructed intersections may seem dangerous and confusing. Or old-fashioned, like how traffic used to be before folks got wise and invented traffic lights. These folks miss the familiar old structures, the easy choices of when to stop and wait or else go ahead. They might say this Jesus stuff with all the grace feels like a free-for-all. Which it is, of course.

The grace to yield and simply obey the yellow sign (Golden Rule) along life’s journey to abundant living does, indeed, take some getting used to. It involves a change, a repentance, a transformation. And building the new traffic circle creates some early construction and congestion that feels like a real hassle for awhile.

Our churches, like our counties and municipalities, have a choice to make in how they want to facilitate the journeys of their people. Leave the old law in place at every intersection? Or switch to the new Jesus gift of grace that always yields yet so efficiently gets us to that abundant life we’re all trying for in the first place.   Using God’s round-about.