Rick Warren on Social Justice

The Purpose Driven Life book cover

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OR THINGS THAT MAKE ME LOOK BACK ON THREE YEARS AGO, AND MAKE ME FEEL JUSTIFIED

A few years ago, I was doing research on the prosperity gospel, and did a contrast of Joel Olsteen’s Positive Thought Materialism and Rick Warren‘s approach. Although I noted a difference between the two, after reading The Purpose Driven Life, my critique was that Warren’s view of relationships was quite individualistic, to the detriment of those who wish to reproaching social sin. Then, yesterday, he tweeted the reason he refused to give interviews was because he did not want to get involved in politics. This quote affirmed what I argued at
the Wesleyan Theological Society three years ago in 2008 at Duke University.

I direct you to my section on Warren in its entirety:

The prosperity gospel is not limited to the doctrines of positive thought materialism.  The prosperity gospel is an accomodationist approach to majority culture’s mores, especially in dealing with economic and racial justice issues.  In the name of “cultural relevancy,” conformity becomes a way of life for Christian congregations as opposed to faithfulness to the Gospel.  The Reverend Rick Warren’s ministry is a case in point.  Warren condemns the message of Olsteen’s positive thought materialism in his popular work, The Purpose Driven Life: ‘What On Earth Am I Here For?: “Possessions only provide temporary happiness. […] The most common myth about money is that having more will make me more secure.  It won’t.  Wealth can be lost through a variety of uncontrollable factors.  Real security can only be found in that which can never be taken from you—your relationship with God” (Warren, 29).  He continues, “In God’s eyes, the greatest heroes of the faith are not those who achieve prosperity, success, and power in this life, but those who treat this life as a temporary assignment and serve faithfully expecting their promised reward in eternity (Warren, 51).

At first glance, Warren and Olsteen share a common view of the Creator: God, for them, is highly relational and desires to have fellowship with individuals who trust in Jesus.  Rick Warren, unlike Olsteen, describes a definition of the mission of the Christian community, local congregation, after emphasizing God’s plan for our personal lives.  Warren is a proponent of the Baptist ecclesiology, which gives primacy to local congregations: “Your local fellowship is the place God designed for you to discover, develop, and use your gifts.  You may also a wider ministry, but that is in addition to your service in a local body.  Jesus has not promised to build your ministry; he has promised to build his church” (Warren, 135).  Warren’s ecclesiology, just like his creation theology, is highly relational; the purpose of the local church is to enjoy real fellowship in authenticity, mutuality, sympathy, and mercy (Warren, 139-143).

Paradoxically, Warren’s ecclesiology, in terms of  Christian vocation and spirituality, is highly individualistic because his approach to reaching out to the North American culture appeals to good old fashioned American rugged individualism.  He recognizes that human relationships are in need of restoration.  However, he privatizes these relationships so that restorative justice is reduced to primarily personal levels.  In his chapter entitled “Restoring Broken Fellowship,” social and institutional sins of the church such as racial segregation, economic oppression, as well as the silencing of women are overlooked as iniquities to be repented from.  Addressing this matter, James Cone offers a reason for why Warren may have overlooked these social ills (especially in regards to racism).

Whites do not talk about racism because they do not have to talk about it.  They have the most of the power of the power in the world—economic, political, social, cultural intellectual and religious.  There is little that Blacks and other people of color can do to change the power relations in the churches, seminaries and society.  Powerful people do not talk, except on their own terms and almost never at the behest of others.  All the powerless can do is to disrupt—make life more uncomfortable for ruling elites.  That is why Martin King called the urban riots and Black Power the ‘the language of the unheard’ (Cone, 144).

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

To read the paper in its glorious entirety, go to this link via ACADEMIA.EDU.

I believe that the paper is a foreshadowing of my current research interests: economics and theology.

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