A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2020

In his new book, Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance (Herald Press), Messiah College theology professor Drew Hart has given us a much-needed theological resource for embodying the way of Jesus in our troubled times.

A theology for Christian social engagement

The most attractive aspect of this engagingly written book is how Hart synthesizes three streams of Christian theology: (1) a Jesus-centered biblical radicalism that has a visionary suspicion of the mainstream Christian tradition, (2) a socially-engaged sensibility shaped by the black experience in America (a legacy Hart calls “the black prophetic tradition”), and (3) an Anabaptistic orientation that emphasizes the call to transformative nonviolence.

While Hart writes explicitly as a black theologian, what he provides is not a narrowly focused “contextual theology.” His first book, the well-received Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, focuses on the African American context. This new book, Who Will Be a Witness?, may in turn more accurately be understood as a much broader Christian theology of social engagement that Hart constructs through the lens of the black Christian tradition.

Thus, Hart’s book may be seen as a contemporary expression of what theological historian Gary Dorrien presents as “the black social gospel” in his recent magisterial two-volume history of that tradition in the United States. Dorrien argues that the black social gospel has been a perspective that speaks to all Christians with a profound awareness of the concrete relevance of the Christian gospel for life in this world. Like the great practitioners of the black social gospel such as Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., Hart gives us a powerful challenge for all Christians to understand that at the very core of our faith lies a call to be an active presence in the world witnessing to God’s work of justice and healing.

The centrality of love

I especially appreciate Hart’s strong discussions of peace and restorative justice, all framed in a profound account of the centrality of love for social life. While I think that Hart could have developed an even sharper social critique than he does, he nonetheless does offer numerous insightful analyses of the American Empire, its long practice of white supremacy, its devastating economic injustices, and its devastating violence.

At the same time, this is a book of practical theology more than anything. Hart sees the lives of Christians in faith communities as key to the call of God. So, he emphasizes ways that church life may empower the needed witness. “When we hold society to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, we not only become hypocrites, but enact a faithless response that denies the delivering power of God in our lives” (p. 175).

The church’s practices are meant to serve the central message of Jesus and the Bible as a whole—the call to love, including love of enemies. Here may be Hart’s strongest contribution to our contemporary situation. In the public mind today, it does not appear that Christianity is linked that closely with what Hart calls “the politics of love.” On the one hand, this delinking of Christianity and love leads to many Christians embracing a political stance characterized by fear and polarization. On the other hand, many who resist the injustices of the Empire struggle to find a language and practical spirituality the keeps love at the center.

Hart helpfully draws heavily on Martin Luther King, Jr., for guidance on how to understand love as socially transformative. One key element of King’s message that Hart appropriates is the philosophy of nonviolent engagement. This is crucially important stuff (see for example the excellent summary of King’s principles regarding nonviolence, pp. 285-6, and also the discussion of restorative justice, pp. 359-60).

I do have one disappointment concerning Hart’s discussion of love and nonviolence. He wants to distance himself from the language of “pacifism” (see, for example, pp. 283-4). This is obviously part of an on-going discussion about the language of peacemaking. However, I personally believe that what Hart so helpfully seeks to give us—a bringing together of Jesus’s message of loving enemies, King’s philosophy of nonviolent action, and the prophetic call to oppose and fight injustice—would be better served by embracing “pacifism” as a core affirmation. This embrace would insist on defining pacifism as precisely the positive commitment to embody love, nonviolence, and resistance that Hart affirms.

I found Hart’s dismissive assertion that he’s “not a doctrinal pacifist” (p. 283) unhelpful. He seems to imply that a “doctrinal pacifist” would refuse “to physically restrain or possibly physically harm someone you love deeply to limit the violence occurring” (p. 284). I’d argue, to the contrary, that as a pacifist I believe one of the challenges is to know how to “restrain” (perhaps even in extreme cases coercing and harming) in ways that truly do limit the violence that is being done. The key for the pacifist, I believe, is learning to resist in ways that do not lead to lethal violence (note Gandhi’s careful criteria for the use of nonviolent coercion)—and that do not involve preparing ahead of time to commit lethal violence.

I do not find the language of “nonviolence” fully adequate in capturing one of the key emphases that Hart so helpfully addresses—the call to love. The significance of having love be central to this discussion is that it has a positive emphasis (not simply refusing to use violence). “Pacifism” thus seems like a positive term that can help us keep love at the center—in contrast to “nonviolence,” an important and necessary term that nonetheless does not capture the centrality of love.

One problem

It is not a criticism of Who Will Be a Witness? to say that Hart is a younger scholar whose constructive theology is still fairly early in its development. This is a fresh, accessible, practical yet substantial presentation of the gospel that speaks in helpful ways to our task of embodying “God’s justice, love, and deliverance.” And the timing of the book’s release is impeccable. It is truly a manifesto for our times—a resource for creative Christian engagement at a moment of cultural awareness of the complicity of the Christian tradition in some of the worst elements of injustice in the 21st century United States of America. The integrity of the message of Christianity requires more focus on how to contribute to healing our society’s wounds—and this book is a great resource for that work.

At the same time, it strikes me that the book is much longer than it needed to be. As exciting as I found its content, my attention did flag a bit. It’s not that Hart takes up themes that didn’t belong so much as, perhaps, taking just a bit longer than necessary to develop his points. I hope that as Hart continues to grow as a scholar and proclaimer of the gospel, he will learn more of the arts of concision and focus.

This is a book to grateful for. Hopefully, many college and seminary classes and church study groups will engage Hart’s insights and gain guidance and encouragement for witnessing to the way of Jesus. We desperately need such witness.

3 thoughts on “A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis

  1. Good and helpful review, Ted. Thanks. I tend to agree re. your framing of the use of “pacifism”. It’s just so hard, it seems, to have people not associate it with “passivism”! No chance or a wholly different term? (I don’t have any in mind.)

      1. I’ve struggled with this for a long time, Howard. I am convinced that “pacifism” is a good word, the best I can think of that combines a positive sense of love and compassion with a commitment not to kill. But I tend to feel that I’m fighting a losing battle….

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