Hell’s Kitchen in New York
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found it a bit distressing that in the gospels Jesus tells us to be generous and compassionate toward the marginalized, even suggesting in the parable of the sheep and goats that it will be a litmus test for getting into heaven. And yet, if you express concern about these issues in any way in many conservative circles, you will earn their suspicion or even derision for being a “liberal” or “unbiblical” or “unchristian.” A prime example of this can be found in the way conservative pastor Rick Warren has been treated by many of his colleagues for suggesting that maybe Christians ought to care about AIDS victims, the environment, and poverty.
So when did this happen? In the first century, the very first formal ministry adopted by the church was to care for the widows and the orphans by providing food and care. And Acts 2 describes the church as sharing everything in such a way so that the church could give to anyone who had need. Try suggesting that in your next church business meeting and you will probably be shouted down as a communist. So how did we go from Acts 2 to where we are to today?
Well, it’s a very complicated issue, but a part of the answer, or blame, can be attributed to a guy I like to refer to as Uncle Walt, or Walter Rauschenbusch.
Uncle Walt was a German-American Baptist pastor who served the Second German Baptist Church on the outskirts of a place in New York known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” No one knows for sure why it was called such. It certainly had the reputation for being among the worst areas for crime and poverty. But one rumor has it that two policemen were patrolling the area and complaining about the heat. The first cop said something along the line, “Man it’s hot as Hell, here.” To which his partner responded, “This is hotter than Hell. This is Hell’s kitchen.”
That beings said, the name stuck. And not because of the summer heat, but because of the stuff that went on in this region.
Gang violence, prostitution, disease, hunger, addictions, spousal abuse and child enslavement were just a few of the social ills in Hell’s Kitchen, and as a pastor, Rauschenbusch faced these evils day after day. And after performing way too many funerals for children, Uncle Walt had a crisis of faith. If church was only about right doctrine and getting to heaven, then what earthly good was it?
With that in mind, he studied the Bible looking for guidance, and found inspiration in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets as well as in Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom. He published Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907, and it shook the evangelical world to its core.
Eventually the term “Social Gospel” became associated with the movement Rauschenbusch started, even though he didn’t really like the term. To him, it was just “the gospel.” Nonetheless, he became a bit of a celebrity and found himself wrestling with many of the figures and forces he had confronted in his book.
Because of Rauschenbusch’s popularity, it didn’t take long for critics to rise up and attack him, attempting to link him to socialism and liberalism. And though he certainly had friends like Washington Gladden who championed biblical higher criticism, Rauschenbusch also befriended the Rockefellers and D.L. Moody, the iconic figures of capitalism and conservatism of the day.
Nonetheless, the critics won the PR battle, and ever since, caring about the poor has been misunderstood as a “liberal” idea.
But if caring about the marginalized is for liberals, then Jesus was a liberal. And where does that put those who refuse to participate in this endeavor, whatever they like to call themselves?
In a dangerous place, as Jesus warns in the parable of the sheep and goats.
I must, say, though, that I have hope. Because a new generation is rising up, weary of the polemics and name-calling of the past who don’t see liberal or conservative, but people. Broken people in desperate need, and they are expressing a great deal of courage and creativity in reaching out to them.
And so, as we begin the holiday season this week, I thought it would be appropriate for us to reflect on Uncle Walt’s true challenge, which had nothing to do with socialism or communism or liberalism or any other “ism.” It was simply to remember that among the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the thirsty and the naked is Jesus. And if we want to be with Him, we must follow Him there.
A Thanksgiving prayer from Walter Rauschenbusch…
“Our Father, we thank thee for the food of our body, and for the human love which is the food of our hearts. Bless our family circle, and make this meal a sacrament of love to all who are gathered at this table. But bless thou too that great family of humanity of which we are but a little part. Give to all thy children daily bread, and let our family not enjoy its comforts in selfish isolation.”
Listen to a recent interview with Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, the direct descendant of Walter Rauschenbusch here.