There was a recent article in Oprah Magazine (no, I"m not a subscriber) about Hilton Kelley, a restaurateur in Port Arthur, Texas, and environmental activist. The blog Get Religion, called my attention to this story and both of us got hung up on the same point.
Of course there's a religious angle, Kelley partners with a neighboring church. So the article calls Kelley's efforts to warn about the environmental dangers of the local pollution and the oil industry in general a "new gospel". Get Religion takes issue with this statement as there's no other context given, especially noting that there's no other comments, pro or con, from other local churches on this issue. In addition, is it really fair to compare environmental activism to the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? To me, calling it a "new gospel" is just the journalist's way of adding a religious spin to the article for the sake of the religious spin and shouldn't be taken more seriously.
Or should it? One of the push-backs to Christianity is the notion that we know it all, that it's our way or the highway (to hell), that we're right and everyone else is wrong. The counter usually goes something like this, suppose you saw that a highway led to an unfinished bridge yet all the signs are up assuming it is finished and cars start driving by at 65 mph. Would it be arrogant to try and get the drivers' attention to tell them that the signs are wrong and that they are headed to their death? Is it prideful to try and save someone's life when you have evidence of disaster ahead?
In that context, maybe environmental activism is a new gospel, so to speak. No, it's not "Good News" to share that the air you're breathing is going to kill you. But neither is it good news to tell someone that their sinful lifestyle will lead to an eternity in Hell. The Good News is that it doesn't have to be this way.
This is where the Social Gospel walks a very fine line between political activism and genuinely spreading the Gospel. There are different types of activism under the Social Gospel umbrella- from Kelley, above, to the communal lifestyle of Shane Claiborne. Both can be looked at from a religious and politically conservative perspective with the simple reply, !@%# hippies. But it doesn't have to be so polarizing.
Activism can take many forms and many extremes. I've written before about the mission field right outside of our doors. Activism, the "social gospel", being "missional" can start right in front of you.
A couple events stick with me on this issue. Almost exactly one year ago, 14 year-old Dominique Peatry was shot and killed outside of a house party on Labor Day weekend. Normally, such a tragic event would be followed by rallies, maybe even a march on City Hall, usually led by local religious leaders. No such rally ever took place. The part that continues to grieve my soul is that the Wednesday prior we had a Midweek service at a park right around the corner from where she was killed and where she lived (two different places, same part of town) with the explicit purpose of spreading the Gospel in that part of the community that night. Instead, I heard most of my brothers and sisters complain about meeting on the "wrong side of town" and how they didn't feel safe letting their children play in the park because of the demographics present. The part that keeps me up at night is wondering if young Dominique was at the park that night and whether she either heard the Gospel, or was ignored because of our own prejudice.
The other event was a year before that during fire-season when a whole community was uprooted by fires surrounding their homes. They were relocated all around the area and one center was set up at a local high school two miles from our church building. They had to leave everything behind. It was late at night. They were tired and hungry in need of clothes, blankets, and food. What a great opportunity to serve! Instead we weren't prepared and were unable to rally any kind of support to a community in need just a couple of miles away.
You see, this new gospel doesn't have to be some liberal cause. It doesn't even have to be political. In fact, it isn't new at all. It is a very old Gospel. The only good news that really matters in the end.