The recently elected Senator from Georgia has been hailed by some as a long-awaited Christian presence in the U.S. Senate. He makes political hay of his ordination, his views on the tyrant Fidel Castro are wishy-washy at best, and openly supports full access to abortion, including partial birth abortion. These behaviors immediately disqualify him as a Christian pastor, but I am currently interested in a tweet he sent out on the Saturday before Easter (which he has since deleted).
His point of view on the meaning of Easter is, to say the least, eclectic, for a self-styled Christian pastor.
For starters, what he expresses here is nothing new or groundbreaking. This sentiment is common among liberal/Progressive Christian theologians and pastors who are uncomfortable with a physical resurrection, but who want to maintain some semblance of importance of the belief. The solution is to mythologize it in some fashion. In other words, the solution is to turn the resurrection of Jesus into a symbolic event that gives us some kind of moral guidance about hope and kindness. Jesus did not literally rise from the grave, but we are to take some kind of encouragement from the idea that he did.
This kind of theological twist on the resurrection of Jesus Christ has had various motivations behind it, from modernity and Enlightenment rationalism to theological universalism. While I cannot read the Senator’s mind, given his politics, part of his motivation might be the Social Justice Gospel in which we are all told that we need to do justice (or one version of justice) to make this world a better place. Or, in his words, “to save ourselves.”
The Real Easter is Better
It is odd to think that there can be something more transcendent than the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead, offering life forevermore to anyone who puts their trust in him. But the Reverend Warnock believes that a “commitment to helping others” is just such a thing. Orthodox Christianity teaches that the resurrection of Christ from the dead is at the heart of our salvation, so the Reverend uses the language of salvation to describe what is so great about serving each other.
It is only a tweet, but one wonders what is meant by “helping others.” We might make a thought experiment of a few common possibilities to see if any of them seem salvific.
Let’s say we help the homeless eat a few meals. Unless you run a soup kitchen for three meals a day for decades, no matter how many meals you provide, you will not provide enough for one homeless person to eat enough to survive for a normal life. There are a few organizations like this that have been around for decades, but not many. You might hand out a little food and feel a little better about yourself, but you did not make much of a dent into the real problem the homeless face. This seems a dubious candidate for mutual salvation.
Let’s say you volunteer for a few hours at a local charity. Again, you have taken, relatively speaking, very little of your own time to do a little bit of “good”. You spend more time on social media. That charity may not even be in existence doing its form of good in a decade. You might have made a dent in some issue, or helped one family through a rough patch, but again, this seems like a weak candidate for mutual salvation.
Keep in mind that “salvation” is a big concept. It is not the same as “doing a little bit of good”, or in the terms of the famous example, “saving this one starfish.”
What is more likely, in the end, is that individuals with Warnock’s political views believe that voting for the right people with the right motives and right social programs is the best way to help others. But large government programs are far from salvation. If you asked any second-generation welfare recipient in rent-controlled housing about it, they may not feel saved from anything. In addition, government run social programs are, in many cases, 25% efficient with every dollar given to them. By contrast, people who check a charity rating website will not give their money to an organization less than about 85% efficient. Yet they will happily tax other people for an organization far less efficient.
There is no act that any of us can do for another that can conceivably act as salvation. So, in order for the tweet to make sense, the concept of “salvation” needs to change. But this is part of the point with Senator Warnock’s version of the Christian faith – if we can make the life and teachings of Jesus commonplace and without offence, we can turn them toward whatever political or social cause we are supporting on any given day.
The biblical version of salvation and kindness toward others is far more compelling than any social gospel. We simply cannot do enough to save each other, much less ourselves. (In a twist of irony, Warnock’s version of salvation is a heavy-handed works righteousness that is never satisfied.) Our problem is not that we do not help each other enough, it is that we are by nature self-centered sinners bent in on ourselves. We need to be changed from the inside out, which requires the work of our divine Savior, the risen Jesus Christ.
Scripture does not stop there, however. We have been changed by God’s grace so that we can do the good works that we were created to do (Ephesians 2:10). When we give a “cup of cold water” to the poor, it is like we are doing the deed to Jesus himself (Matthew 26:35-40). Acts of kindness make the most sense and have the most impact in the context of God’s salvific work. God saves our souls, makes us new creations, we walk in a new kind of life, and the world around us benefits.
No government program can do that.