The Good News
The term Good News is practically ubiquitous and relates to the nature of the gospels themselves as the record(s) of the announcing of this Good News.
Given the term’s centrality, it’s fair to ask what exactly the content of this good news is? Not surprisingly, there are multiple versions. Let’s examine the two most common.
The Protestant Reformation with its focus on the individual, plus Evangelical Christianity’s early 20th Century formulations of the Four Spiritual Laws (see more at the bottom of the page) have rendered the meaning of the Good News along the following lines:
Your sin separates you from God and merits Hell. God, in his goodness, sent Jesus, his divine son into the world to die on the Cross to atone (pay for-make right) your sins. If you let Jesus into your heart and have faith in him, you’ll live forever in Heaven.
Now, Jesus himself is portrayed as announcing the Good News in the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. As usual, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him, and unrolling the scroll, He found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because He has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me
to proclaim freedom to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
– Luke Chapter 4
While today’s common place, Evangelical rendering of the Good News isn’t a contradiction of Jesus’ application of Isaiah, it certainly seems incomplete and fairly off the mark. Granted, my explication of this rendering is brief and limited, Evangelicalism and modern Protestantism is varied, rich, and contains many other, fuller versions of the Good News. Still, my synopsis of such is fairly accurate and concise.
That Sabbath in the Synagogue, Jesus read from a portion of Isaiah. Luke likely trimmed the reading for the sake of narrative convenience. Here’s a fuller version that Jesus likely read:
The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore the former devastations; they will renew the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I Yahweh love justice; I hate robbery and injustice; I will faithfully reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations, and their posterity among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people the Lord has blessed.
– Isaiah 61
Even a cursory reading of the above selection points away from a vision of individual salvation through substitutionary atonement so that the faithful (whatever that term means) can go to Heaven.
Reading the selection from Isaiah it’s hard not to notice the practical, social, economic, and relational concerns and vision. The Good News seems to be about a more just, fair, loving world – this world – not some ethereal (and likely unreal) afterlife. Further, the Gospels seem to confirm this interpretation given the practical nature of Jesus’ ministry of restoration, acceptance, inclusion, justice, food, and aid to the poor. Finally, it’s hard to imagine why early Christianity spread, if the message was about individual salvation – something neither Jews nor Pagans worried about and which wasn’t part of their conceptual framework.
Jesus centered communities spread and grew because of the alternative lifestyle that shaped their character – a practical character of provision, acceptance, love, mutual concern, affirmation, and generosity. The Good News certainly touches on spiritual aspects – but the content is eminently practical and focused on improving people’s lives and social-communal conditions here and now.
Consider this in terms of the ongoing collapse of institutional Christianity. How appealing – and how lasting – is a community based on appeals that emphasize individuals getting to heaven versus communities based on concrete love, mutual help and support, practical concern, and active care for one another? Again, a spiritual message need not be exclusive of community of practical benefit, but the emphasis should certainly be on the latter.
The Greek word ecclesia is usually translated as church, but on a more basic level it simply means gathering. The first Christian communities were those who gathered around Jesus and those that continued to gather after his death in support of one another.
In the earliest years of the movement, to chose to be part of Christian gatherings could be risky. There were several periods of persecution that led to martyrs. But even in times without outright persecution, being a Christian was seen as a seditious act of rebellion from the perspective of Rome. If Jesus were Lord (meaning – the one we follow) then Caesar was not.
What led many to take these risks and associate with the Christian community and proclaim Jesus as Lord?
Many Christians, unfortunately, interpret the growth of the Christian communities as something of an ongoing altar call. This interpretation imagines multitudes becoming convicted by the Holy Spirit to let Jesus into their hearts and become Christians. The reality is rather different.
The Christian community was attractive because it intentionally stood in contrast to the Roman Imperial-Hellenistic culture of the day. Compared to Imperial society, the Christian communities were hospitable, affirmed the dignity of all, and practiced equality and justice through peace. These communities were attractive.
Christianity was attractive especially if one was poor and outcast, ill, or living on the economic and social margins. The earliest records of Christianity show communities feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and tending toward the young and elderly among them. The communities provided education as well. In the New Testament writings we see the early emergence of deacons, individuals who ministered to the practical needs of the members.
Christians would not play by Rome’s rules, refusing to stratify or broker their social organization according to wealth, social or political power, or status. To be part of a Christian community was to be loved, was to have a reasonable chance of having your needs met, and meant being treated with dignity, rather than contempt. It meant standing a chance of being free from sexual abuse and exploitation, as well. To become a Christian was a humanizing experience, one of belonging and love.
The stories of mass conversions found in Acts are understood to be representative of the young communities’ enthusiasm and not actual numbers of people. Christianity spread relatively slowly in its first two centuries, but spread it did.
Christian scholar and sociologist, Rodney Stark, in his book, The Rise of Christianity, provides realistic assessments of the size of the Christian community. Immediately following Jesus’ death, he estimates the total community numbering around 1,000 to 3,000 individuals. Each decade would have seen modest growth rates. Stark estimates that there were six million Christians throughout the Empire by 300 AD.
Although often small in number, these communities tended to be located in central urban areas, where the poor mostly lived. This allowed for organizational efficiencies as well as visibility. The Christian way of life, the benefits of belonging to the Christian community, had ongoing appeal.
Christians today must ask hard questions. Are our communities appealing? Are they sources of affirmation and welcome? Are they places where concrete needs are met and where those on the margins can find comfort? Are their practical benefits to belong to our communities? The answers to these, and other such questions, are vital to our integrity as well as survival as viable communities.
The Christian Social Vision
Christian social teaching – the social, economic, and cultural vision that emerges from the gospels and Christian experience – is a rich treasure of wisdom concerning principles for building a just society and for creating the social conditions that foster thriving for both individuals and communities. In this sense, Christian social teaching is the political, cultural, and economic application of the principles inherent in the Kingdom of God. These principles and ideas are found by searching the teachings of the scriptures, especially the gospels, and by reflecting on human history. The vision that emerges urges consideration of the following principles and assertions:
Dignity of the Human Person
Christian social teaching proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of an authentic vision for society. This assertion has implications for issues of abortion, euthanasia, medical technology and other issues of bioethics. It also speaks to matters of war and peace, crime and punishment, and in particular, the death penalty. In general, the basic approach to Christian social teaching is to affirm all life, call for its protection at all stages, and avoid circumstances where human beings are treated as the means to an end, and not ends in themselves.
Human beings are equal in their dignity and comprise not only a species, but a family, united in our common nature, regardless of our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers and sisters keepers, wherever they may be. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the cultivation of empathy, a prerequisite for compassionate social change.
Family, Community, and Participation
The person is not only sacred but also social by nature and therefore, society is a natural byproduct of human nature in general. How we organize our society – in economics and politics, in law and policy — directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to thrive as individuals and in community. The family is a fundamental institution of society and all forms of family life should be supported and strengthened.
Further, human dignity indicates that all people of good will have a right and a duty to participate in society, for human flourishing requires social, economic, political, and cultural participation. Arrangements that foster participation are equality under the law, democracy, basic access to economic means of production, a respect for human creativity and labor, and an unending respect for human freedom.
Human beings cannot flourish without participating in the broader social-cultural order. Therefore, all manner of exclusion and marginalization should be avoided, including racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination.
Respect for Human Rights
Christian social tradition asserts that natural rights and responsibilities flow from human dignity and the social nature of the person. Human rights are, properly understood, not granted by the state or any other entity, including the church. Rather, human rights are inherent in each human person and should be recognized and respected by all individuals and all social institutions. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to others, to our families, and to all levels of community.
Preferential Option for the Poor
In a fundamental sense, societies may be morally judged according to how their most vulnerable members are fairing. The gospels command us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first, remembering that the Kingdom of God has a preference for the lowly, needy, and the marginalized.
The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in the created order. The basic rights of workers should be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative. At the same time, concern must be exercised to avoid excessive inequality of wealth which can threaten the overall stability of the social order.
Care for the earth is a requirement of Christian practice, and one clearly and strongly spelled out in the Hebrew scriptures. We are called to protect all forms of life and the ecosystem itself. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored, and which include fostering conservation, reducing pollution, and engaging in sustainable practices that balance human need with environmental concern.
Principles – Not Models
The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation …
– Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus
The above are principles and ideals, not specific models. Christian social teaching does not endorse political parties or specific philosophies or policies, and only comments on such in terms of their affirmation of human dignity. Individual Christians may be socialists, capitalists, or other, democrats or republicans, progressives or conservatives, but must refrain from suggesting that the Christian social vision itself requires a specific program, party, or policy.
Specific policy and party alignment should be a matter of individual prudence, acknowledging the possibility that informed Christians, and other people of good will, may disagree on concrete means to achieve shared goals for the common good.
Christians are called to be salt and light to all, and leaven within their communities. This implies cultural and political engagement. Therefore, Christians are obliged to engage in social and political concerns, offering their values and voices to the political process and social conversations. Further, when offering political input, Christians have an obligation to provide reasoned arguments for their positions.
Political participation does no mean political control. Most Western societies are secular democracies that affirm the separation of church and state. Christians, like all others, should be free to offer their opinions, values, and insights in the marketplace of ideas and in political, moral, and cultural discussions. However, at no point, should Christians, or others, seek to prevent participation in any social arena, by others of good standing and good will. Christians lose credibility to the extent they seek to control others and society. All forms of integralism, Reconstructionism, yearnings for Christendom’s return, and other such schemes are dangerous, hostile to the gospels, and incredibly imprudent.
Tolerance, Inclusion, & Participation
Participation in the full array of social institutions and structures is essential for the well-being and development of socially-natured humans. Human fulfillment is impossible outside of community. Therefore, concerns of inclusion and participation are serious matters for Christians, and all people of good will. Unjust exclusion isn’t simply unfair, it’s damaging to individuals and whole communities in lasting and profound ways.
Our post-Christian culture has not fully divorced itself from all vestiges of its Christian past. There remains a Christian residue, particularly in morality. The contemporary culture’s emphasis on values such as equality, inclusion, aid to the needy, and justice for all have part of their roots in the Christian tradition. Granted, many conservative Christians have violated these principles, as have some on the left.
As in any age, primary social values are often invoked unreflectively, resulting in prevailing moral sentiments that are in need of better reasoned footings. Moral and social concerns often are expressed in the buzzwords of the day, yet unfortunately, those words and terms are often nebulous.
Not everyone shares the same views or even the same values. We will find ourselves disagreeing with others concerning politics, economics, and cultural issues. Further, the behavior of others may be found wanting, lacking the approval of some. In such cases, civil, respectful, reasoned, and open dialogue is encouraged, and demanded by human dignity. A just society finds ways to encourage inclusion and participation even amongst disagreement. Key to maintaining inclusion and participation is the notion of tolerance.
Toleration is the tacit acceptance of an action or idea which one dislikes or disagrees with, and where one is in a position to disallow it but chooses not to. As such, toleration implies disagreement and disapproval, and therefore is not the same thing as full acceptance or agreement.
Inclusion is the desire to foster the highest degrees of participation as possible, extending hospitality to all people of good will. The opposite of inclusion is exclusion, which seeks to prevent others from full participation in the normatively prescribed activities and institutions of the society in which they live. Ongoing exclusion, particularly due to one’s identifying with a particular cause or group, is considered marginalization.
Yet inclusion and toleration have proper limits, despite the connotations of much of the current rhetoric. The notion that no one, for any reason, should ever be excluded from certain aspects of society is misplaced. The biblical commands to welcome the stranger do not apply to the invading barbarians outside the gates seeking to destroy you and your way of life. Nor do they apply to those who wish to do us harm. There are people – be they violent, abusive, oppressive – who are not fit for civil society and actually pose a danger to others. While such people should be treated humanely, they also help us understand something of the limited nature of inclusion.
Power & Freedom from a Christian Perspective
Nor does the Church close her eyes to the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism among those who, in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious, claim the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom.
– Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus
Social power is the ability to influence the thinking and actions of others without the need for coercion. Social power compels, influences, motivates – but never forces. Coercion is a form of power unto itself, rightfully contained in government, employed by police, military, and overseen by impartial courts.
Christianity owes its initial growth to its social power – the appeal of its message and the integrity of the witness of the early communities. Love, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, and humility are usually attractive in their own right. A community that embodies such values and seeks to meet the needs of others, while respecting the freedom of others, should be highly appealing.
Yet there is a sense when reading the gospels that the Kingdom of God operates under different rules – we the rejection of power in nearly all forms when we read turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for your persecutors, blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, and Jesus’ example of nonviolent resistance to Rome and even his own execution.
The soft, but very real, power of the Kingdom is rooted in peace and nonviolence. Peace is achieved through justice rather than conquest, unity and cohesion achieved through love rather than conformity.
Classical Greek and Roman political philosophy conceived of freedom as a cultivated condition of the human person, achieved through self-discipline, the practice of virtue, and knowledge of the good. Christianity echoed these sentiments, understanding that freedom was freedom from – tyranny, oppression, hardship – but also, freedom for – goodness, love, service, and so on – a notion strongly asserted in Judaism.
In the classical view, freedom is the acquired state of being able to govern one’s self according to truth and goodness. Granted, freedom extends to a freedom of conscience to determine for oneself what is true, good, and meaningful.
However, freedom understood as the ability to do whatever one wants, without restraint other than concern for harm of others, is not the classical or Judaism or Christian view, and accordingly is understood as a pseudo-freedom. Any sense of freedom that understands the concept as the ability or right to pursue any desire so chosen typically ends in slavery to ego, the passions, addictions, or our baser instincts.
Identity Politics in the Kingdom of God
Each generation witnesses the tying of political agendas to Christian aims, and sometimes, vice versa. Sometimes the union of the two is symbiotic, and at other times, conflicted. Among the prominent social justice issues of our time are racism, misogyny, and discrimination against sexual minorities, those who are usually grouped under the LGBT+ heading. Many Christians support efforts and groups that seek to end such discrimination – and this is a very good thing.
Yet ideas have consequences and the underlying thinking, ideas, and analysis of social issues matters. People can advocate for justice and inclusion in misguided ways. Not all means to obtaining social progress are open to Christians. This is a subtle argument well worth further consideration.
Today many expressions of progressive politics utilize an underlying neoMarxist theory. Marxism is a social and political philosophy that interprets human history as a function of economic class struggle and conflict. Marxism’s aim to eliminate oppression by creating a classless society of economic equality.
At first glance, Marxism would seem to have much in common with Christianity – a desire for equality, liberation, and an end to oppression. Doesn’t the logic of the Kingdom of God understand Empire as oppressive and therefore to be resisted?
Yet at the heart of Marxism and Christianity are anthropological differences than render them incompatible – each understands the human person differently – differently enough to make Marxism an unsuitable political theory for Christian action. For the Marxist, the human person is primarily driven by economic needs. In addition to this reductionism, Marxism interprets all social interaction in terms of power and oppression, including family relations, and even relations between mother and child. Marxism can only logically function if there is an identified oppressor to be resisted and undermined. Further, that oppressor must be eliminated or neutralized.
Today’s neoMarxist ideology is little different. While it may yield useful insights concerning some social conditions, its anthropological flaws and reductionism present a vision of the human person at odds with any sense of Christian understanding. NeoMarxist ideology is rooted in resentment rather than forgiveness, and meta-marginalization rather than participation and solidarity. As such, it is ultimately at odds with the gospels.
Today, many progressive social movements often adopt, unconsciously, a neoMarxist ideology to explain and analyze their social justice concerns. And many Christians and Christian groups have aligned themselves not only with these causes, but with their modes of thinking and arguing. The result has been some initial positive change, but often at the expense of authentic Christian community as well as the integrity of the Christian social vision. The result is a Christianity that opts for certain policies and positions, with genuine concern for the marginalized and powerless, but also with attitudes and analysis rooted in resentment and power struggle as interpreted through Marxist thought.
The gospels stand opposed to the categorization of human beings inherent in neoMarxist thinking. Authentic Christian community is based in the affirmation of human dignity of all persons. In the New Testament, even the dignity of the oppressor is affirmed, thus motivating some sense of love and call to repentance. From a Christian perspective, people are redeemable.
NeoMarxism, rooted in claims of inescapable conflict, is inherently predisposed to violence, as history has shown with clarity. As such, neoMarxism undercuts the commitment to justice through nonviolence and a non-brokered society heralded by Jesus and glimpsed throughout the scriptures. NeoMarxism stands in contrast to the open table practiced by Jesus that recognized the dignity of all and invited personal transformation through loving engagement.
Identity politics, much of which is also nestled in neoMarxist analysis, dehumanizes and establishes the category of “other” – a violation of Biblical commands to avoid tribalism and resist artificial boundaries created by Imperial forces – it also violates justice by treating as morally culpable, individuals, due to their belonging to social categories (often artificial in nature) and not their actual behavior.
To point out neoMarxism in Progressive Christian theology and practice is argue that reverse marginalization is also an injustice and as such violates the gospels and their message of the authentic inclusivity of Christianity.
Obviously, not all on the left are neoMarxists. And not all who work for social justice are Marxists of one form or another, either. And I wish to avoid demonizing neoMarxists, many of whom achieve commendable results. The issue is the thinking behind the movements and actions.
Further, pointing out the neoMarxist ideology of many of the left is not to deny that injustices, oppression, and marginalization occurs. Nor is it to argue for undoing much of the good that has happened – a greater tolerance and empathy for peoples who have genuinely been marginalized. Finally, to point out faulty intellectual underpinnings is not invalidate all on the left, or even to recommend conservative alternatives.
Authentic Christian action seeks to maintain the fundamental commitments to justice, inclusion, and equality of dignity that are inherently part of the Christian social vision, while filtering out the neoMarxist and other influences foreign to the gospels. Christianity, at its best, seeks to resituate the individual in organic, authentic community, preventing the relentless drive toward isolated individualism natural to neoMarxism.
This is achieved through a careful application of Scripture in the context of community, applying the biblical wisdom to foster a balance of individual concern and communal cohesiveness, and encouraging diverse people to maintain loving bonds of unity by encouraging kenosis – the renouncement of power for the sake of justice and peace – rather than embracing power by disassembling communities based on narrowing politics of identity and control.
If Christians believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, while these may be valid insights into the nature of Empire – they are not valid insights of the internal logic of God’s Reign.