Observation of human suffering aroused Walter Rauschenbusch’s (1861–1918) deep concern for justice in American society. Justice became central to his understanding of Christianity.
Nurtured in a middle-class professor’s home in the prosperous community of Rochester, he trained for ministry. After graduation in 1886, he became the minister of the Second German Baptist Church in New York City, which was located on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, where people lived in overcrowded, unsanitary, disease-ridden tenement housing.
There, Rauschenbusch witnessed poverty and its toll in human suffering. He said that his seminary training had not prepared him for Christian ministry in the midst of such suffering. Yet, to minister to the people’s needs, he needed to understand the source of their condition.
During his first summer as a minister, Rauschenbusch took sabbatical privilege to read analyses of American society. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) influenced him most.
The title derived from George’s observation that if the United States was making unequalled economic progress, why was there so much poverty?
The post-civil war era was labelled the Gilded Age because of the glitz of the ultra-rich whose wealth came from the new industrial order. The explosive manufacturing capacity multiplied output exponentially from previous generations, supported by corporations of railroads, oil, steel and banks.
Production made goods widely available, and the new economic leaders were touted as captains of industry. But the system was a two-edged sword.
Owners created monopolies, kept prices high and paid paltry wages, keeping families in poverty. Critics – especially the vocal muckrakers (sensationalist journalists) – viewed them as robber barons.
Rauschenbusch soon understood that the unregulated economic order was the source of massive poverty.
Conscience and compassion drove Rauschenbusch’s passion for justice.
The basic meaning of justice is for each person to receive his/her due – to get what is properly coming to them. But that is precisely what the laboring classes who made the products did not receive; nor was there any way for them to secure a living wage.
Rauschenbusch, therefore, began to advocate distributive justice.
Rauschenbusch collaborated with fellow Baptist ministers to produce For the Right, a little journal “published in the interest of the working people of New York City” that ran from October 1889 to March 1891.
Articles explored numerous topics important to workers, including shorter hours of labor, labor conditions, laborers’ housing and unions. This was the young minister’s effort to contribute to the workers’ need for fair distribution of profit.
Conscience alerted Rauschenbusch to injustice, but was this a responsibility for ministers and churches?
Rauschenbusch was aware of new studies that Jesus’ central message was the Kingdom of God. This concept became the controlling biblical idea for his understanding of the Christian faith.
On sabbatical in 1891, he wrote “Christianity Revolutionary,” where he made the case that Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God taught the redemption of society as well as redemption of the individual.
In this manuscript that was finally published in 1968 as The Righteousness of the Kingdom, he connected justice to love, the traditional center of the Christian ethic.
“But mark well: Christ’s commandment of love presupposes the world’s commandment of justice,” he wrote. “Justice is the foundation on which love can build its temple. Unless that foundation is there, the walls will crack.”
Rauschenbusch used stories to illustrate his points. He tells the story of a factory owner who is a church member and philanthropists in the community. Yet, he “grinds down his men to starvation wages and pockets the increased profit and see his workers’ complaints as lack of appreciation.”
“The moral judgment of the men is more correct than his,” Rauschenbusch concludes. “‘We want justice, not charity.’”
Rauschenbusch’s break-through publication was Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). Here he showed how the message of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus all addressed forming a just society.
The book sold 50,000 copies, and many ministers were persuaded to address social problems.
Rauschenbusch addressed justice in society repeatedly, but most fully in Christianizing the Social Order (1912). Here he declares; “The simplest and most fundamental quality needed in the moral relations of men is justice.” It is fundamental to both the legal system and relationships between nations.
Rauschenbusch wrote that we have a divine instinct for righteousness within us. The urge for justice is inherent; moreover, the goal of the nation should be justice for all.
He imagined a Christian society that placed the economic well-being of its citizens above its quest for profit. Rauschenbusch believed that the foundational Christian teaching of love for God and love for neighbor begins with justice.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series running this week for the United Nations World Day of Social Justice (Feb. 20). The previous articles in the series are:
Holiness Code Envisions Communal Justice | Fred Guttman
The Azan is a Call to Both Prayer and Justice | Imad Enchassi
Professor Emeritus in the Department of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Pitts is the author of The Reception of Rauschenbusch: The Responses of His Earliest Readers (Mercer University Press).