“Comfort those who sit in darkness / bowed beneath oppression’s load…”
Setting of Isaiah 40:1-8, Presbyterian Hymnal
I have been re-reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness(1952). I had a hard time finding a photo of the cover of the edition I’m reading so I included a shot of me holding it (yes, I’m wearing fingerless gloves and a scarf. It’s cold today and my attic office doesn’t get much heat). Apparently the current edition features a photo of a considerably younger Dorothy Day. This makes sense since ours is a culture that typically values youth over age and energy over wisdom. However, I prefer the older Dorothy Day. After all, before the age of Obama the memoir or autobiography was typically something undertaken later in life, conceivably owing to the fact that wisdom and youth seldom co-exist. I have been (and perhaps am) evidence of that fact.
One of the things that is most striking in Day’s writing is her sense, sometimes distant and other times extraordinarily proximate, that rather than standing at odds the Christian Gospel and a deep concern for those in need are profoundly married. In fact, to Day’s thinking any appropriate concern for the poor needs to be rooted both in a sense of who the Christian God is and what difference this reality makes to our sense of self. I think it’s fair to say that evangelical Christians are only now discovering this in large numbers. There has long been a strand of evangelicalism that has valued concern for those at the margins of society, but until fairly recently it has been a silent (or, at least, seldom heard or heeded) minority. Granted, it has been a minority represented by some really very significant thinkers, practitioners, and movements.
It is a healthy thing to see a concern for the poor become more central to the evangelical movement. Yes, there are dangers. That the mainline denominations have (arguably) lost or downplayed a sense of personal sin and conversion and, at times, committed an unhealthy mingling of theology and politics (something also committed by the religious right, I might add) in the attempt to create a utopia cannot be denied. However, that the danger of excess exists is no basis for judging a doctrine to be erroneous. Were that the case, grace would (and perhaps is) seldom heard in churches across the land.
No, a solid commitment to works of mercy is a good thing and ought to be radically rooted in the Scriptures and the history of the Church. No less than the Scots Reformed tradition mastered the use of Deacons as ministers of mercy, dividing cities for the purpose of assigning Deacons to care for the needs of the poor therein and Elders for the purpose of caring for their souls. As I recall, Thomas Chalmers (a minister and Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland) founded this scheme. You might also consult Tim Keller’s book, Ministries of Mercy.
We need not become members of a Catholic Worker community or reject our commitment to classical Reformed theology and the infallible Word of God in order to care deeply for issues of mercy and justice. In fact, those very commitments demand that we place such a concern as a primary part of our witness to the world.