Friday, June 1, 2007

Against the Servants of Mammon

One of the more unusual books in my library is Walter Rauschenbusch's Prayers of the Social Awakening, a lovely volume that was published in 1910. Rauschenbusch's Christianity and Social Crisis is considered the seminal work of the social gospel movement that helped animate the Christian left during the first half of the last century.

Rauschenbusch's theology sprang from the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount, and sought to be relevant to the issues of the day. His ideas paralleled those of John Dewey, another influential philosopher of that time, who held that evil was mostly a function of ignorance, and that the promise of education offered a future of steady progress toward a just society.

The optimism of the social gospel would be challenged in 1932 by Reinhold Niebuhr, who's Moral Man and Immoral Society argued that self-interest dominates human affairs and is at the core of our society. While Niebuhr's return to the idea of original sin outraged progressive Christians at the time, his views later came to be accepted, and Rauschenbusch's optimism came to be regarded as somewhat naive. Niebuhr's ideas became an obsession for a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The theologian's clear-eyed analysis of power, politics, and morality helped form the theoretical underpinnings of the civil rights movement. Niebuhr's thought, which is anathema to the religious right and an uncomfortable challenge to the complacency and materialism of mainline Christianity, now languishes in relative obscurity.

And yet, there is something about Rauschenbusch that remains very attractive. The 1910 volume is a book of prayers that still, nearly a century later, often feels entirely relevant. I was paging through it last night and found this, Against the Servants of Mammon.
e cry to thee for justice, O Lord, for our soul is weary with the iniquity of greed. Behold the servants of Mammon, who defy thee and drain their fellow-men for gain; who grind down the strength of the workers by merciless toil and fling them aside when they are mangled and worn; who rackrent the poor and make dear the space and air which thou hast made free; who paralyze the hand of justice by corruption; who blind the eyes of the people by lies; who nullify by their craft the merciful laws which nobler men have devised for the protection of the weak; who have made us ashamed of our dear country by their defilements and have turned our holy freedom into a hollow name; who have brought upon thy church the contempt of men, and have cloaked their extortion with the Gospel of thy Christ.

For the oppression of the poor and the sighing of the needy now do thou arise O Lord, because thou art love, and tender as a mother to the weak, therefore thou art the great hater of iniquity and thy doom is upon those who grow rich upon the poverty of the people.

O God, we are afraid, for the thundercloud of thy wrath is even now black above us. In the ruins of dead empires we have read how thou has trodden the wine-press of thine anger when the measure of their sin was full. We are sick at heart when we remember that by the greed of those who enslaved a weaker race that curse was fastened upon us all that still lies black and hopeless across our land, though the blood of a nation was spilled to atone. Save our people from being dragged down into vaster guilt and woe by men who have no vision and know no law except their lust. Shake their souls with awe of thee that they may cease. Help us with clean hands to tear the web which they have woven about us and to turn our people back to thy law, lest the mark of the beast stand out on the right hand and forehead of our nation and our feet be set on the downward path to darkness for which there is no return forever.


Timothy said...

Thanks for posting this. I learned about it through an article Rauschenbusch's grandson (the philosopher Richard Rorty) wrote for the New York Times in 1996:

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