A New Social Pietism

January 24, 2019
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I remember a section in Church History on pietism after the Reformation. The dates at the top of my notes were 1650-1800. My notes from the class remind me that pietism was “a movement of true and earnest religion” that stood in contrast to the theological “one-ups-man-ship” that characterized too many churches and universities of the time. It was sparked by rising literacy rates among the powerless and overlooked.

Looking back on my notes got me wondering what the title of our current moment will be. In a couple of hundred years when students in seminary study the period of time from 1950-2100, what names will be important? What movements will define this era?

I don’t think it is farfetched to suggest that Martin Luther King Junior’s work in the middle of the 20th century will be as significant for the years of 1950-2100 as the work of the Reformer’s was in the mid 17th century. Perhaps we will look back and note that he sat at the beginning of a new sort of pietism, a social pietism that applied the gospel to the areas of American public life that had conveniently avoided the gospel’s implications.

King brought the prophets and gospels into areas of the American public life in ways that threatened (and continue to threaten) those who benefited from racist policies and systems. Advocating for the gospel in this way cost King. The most overlooked thing about Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is that it is from a jail in Birmingham. Like the Apostle Paul, Reverend King spent time behind bars because of his gospel convictions. Simply insisting on the dignity of black people got him murdered.

When he came to Chicago in 1966, protesters met him. One sign read, “King would look good with a knife in his back.” During a non-violent protest of Chicago’s racist housing practices someone threw a rock and hit King in the head. At least thirty other people were injured that day. “I have to do this to bring this hate into the open,” King remarked. The hatred he experienced in Chicago was the worst he had ever encountered.

Over fifty years later, housing, hiring, wages, and education are still largely determined by the color of one’s skin in Chicago. We remain at the center of a movement of piety that is rattling the church, forcing us to ask the most fundamental questions about what it means to follow Christ. What does the inheritance of racism in our country, churches, and families mean for Christians today?

Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper contends that, “The core lie of Western civilization is that God reserved the power of dominion for some, not all.” Martin Luther King Jr. spearheaded a movement rebuking this idea. We are in the middle of that movement today. For American Christians and American churches, how we position ourselves in respect to that movement of social pietism may tell us how well we have embodied the movement of God’s Spirit in our time.

I snuck into a conference a few weeks ago and heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard.

I had attended a lunch event hosted by Tim Keller and the City to City church planting team he works with. That luncheon coincided with a larger conference being held at Moody Church, just down the road. I had my luncheon name tag, so I decided to slip into the foyer of the conference to see if there were any good books on sale.

The next speaker was being introduced in the sanctuary, so I used the side door and slid into a pew in the back to listen for a few minutes. Dr. Charlie Dates, the pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago took the pulpit. Moody Church’s Sanctuary is grand. Expansive ceiling. Golden organ. The pews were fairly full, with clergy from the diverse Chicago area, but the crowd was predominantly white. I assumed the room was fairly conservative based on the context of that particular church and conference, and by the crickets when Reverend Dates commented that Peter was the first person to conceal and carry and that Jesus rebuked him.

Reverend Dates’ preaching was prolific. He walked in the proud tradition of black preaching that goes back generation after generation in America. He was genuinely masterful, and I felt like I was listening to preaching for the first time. He did not tip-toe around political issues like good Reformed preachers often do. He named Trump and his improprieties in ways that felt faithful to the Gospel. He called out the church, and the white church in particular for being passive, for being silent when silence meant complicity. I remember particularly well that he called out the white church’s constant talk about becoming multi-cultural yet our obstinate willingness to continue sitting on our hands. “If you want to come to our black churches, you are welcome,” he said.

The room felt split.

I felt split. He made me aware of my skin color in a prophetic way. I was responsible for it.

What does it mean to be a white pastor in a predominantly white church on the north side of a city divided into north and south, black and white? What obligation do majority-white churches have to the most important moral issue of our time? How do we fulfill that obligation? What would my (our) inaction make me (us) guilty of?

We are continuing to experience a movement of social pietism in the world today. This pietism was kindled by the courage of men like Martin Luther King Jr. and women like Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges who forced a dominant culture to view its violent error by insisting that the kingdom of God was incongruent with privilege and power resting disproportionally with a particular race. Their courage helped a country see how the Kingdom of God could be at hand on a bus or in a school.

This pietism is sparked by a certain form of literacy that has given us the ability to read our past differently, from the perspective of the weak and not the powerful. This is a movement that insists on the equality and dignity of all people, knit together, crafted in all our particularity by the Creator. This pietism is as rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as any pietism of the past.

About the Author
  • Caleb Schut recently moved to Australia with his family. He graduated from Western Theological Seminary in 2016, served as the associate pastor at Grace Chicago Church in Chicago, IL for six years, and currently is an Assistant Pastor at an evangelical church in Sydney. Additionally, Caleb and his wife run a non-profit called Beautiful Response in partnership with leaders in Uganda and Haiti.

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  1. Dear Caleb,
    You helped us reject the “white” stance that many of us take. We should act like Christians instead and embrace Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks. They are among my list of heroes of the faith.