Soup Kitchens without Faith?

13 May

I’ve just finished reading Charles Marsh’s The Beloved Community: How Faith shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005). Previously, I read Marsh’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), and I’ve used the earlier book as a text in a course I have taught on the Sixties.

Marsh weaves history, theology, and religious experience in ways that do not conform to the normal boundaries between academic disciplines as well as between dispassionate analysis and critically informed advocacy. The Beloved Community uses the history of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farms, SNCC, and John Perkins and Voice of Calvary to consider how Christian faith is the necessary taproot of “the creation of the beloved community” (Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 1). The beloved community is not the church, and it is not the kingdom of God, but it is, Marsh argues, “a gift of the kingdom of God introduced into history by the church” (p. 207) through the quiet, sacrificial way of following Jesus in incarnating reconciling love to those most marginalized by this world. (I expect the book is one expression of the vision behind the new Christian Community Development minor here at Northwestern College.)

Marsh’s prose is not always lucid (neither is mine), but his stories of people of Christian faith seeking to be agents of reconciliation across chasms of race and income have a certain narrative power. The burden of his later book is that beloved community comes from the bottom up–a gift of the Spirit as local people work together in Christ for the good of the community.

One thread that Marsh pursues is the thread of the necessity of Christ for deep and lasting social justice. Despite all the ways Christians and churches betray their Lord in ignoring, trivializing, controlling, or oppressing the poor, trying to sustain beloved community without Christ is futile. At one point, Marsh writes this:

Atheists have been with us for a long time–long enough to notice that they have not in fact given us much evidence to suppose that the godless heart is capable of a more generous hope than the religious. In reality, liberal ironists, sullen postmoderns, and Nietzschean self-creators do not create soup kitchens, tutorial programs, AIDS hospitals, health clinics, or hunger coalitions. (p. 135).

I’m still pondering whether Marsh’s claim here is historically true. I certainly concur, however, with his case that the beloved community reflected for a time at the core of the civil rights movement (1950s-1960s) dissipated as “global ambitions disconnected from local commitments in organizing” and as “incarnational reformers” were superceded institutionally by “Gnostic revolutionaries” (pp. 114, 115).

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