Monday, February 7, 2011

God, Darwin & Poverty

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Monday morning, 2/7/2011, during chapel at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. It is based on the office reading from Isaiah 58:1-12.

Some Christians spend a lot of energy debunking Darwin. It’s not surprising—the debate between the theory of evolution and the biblical account of creation often plays out as a struggle between competing origin stories both making tacit claims to the ultimate source of human knowledge. It makes ripe fodder for the apologists, the New Atheists, the Veritas Forum; for those looking for to draw clear boundary lines in the Culture War. This morning I suggest, however, that we lay aside Darwin’s black box, the language of God, questions of inerrancy and genre, and whether we might one day find the frog whose DNA will allow me the pet velociraptor I’ve always wanted. This morning I want to suggest that Evangelicals ought to admit that Darwin got it right. At least on the issue of competition. 

Here’s what I’m thinking. Human history is not a happy story. It’s not a list of great men’s exploits, as some would have it, but rather an ancient and all-encompassing narrative of people behaving badly. Pessimistic? Maybe. But I think the biblical witness to original sin suggests otherwise. “There is no one who does good,” quoth the psalmist. And, if you remember your Romans Road to Salvation from Sunday School, you know that Paul once declared, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” 

Darwin’s postulation of the “survival of the fittest” accords with this little theo-historical construction. The strong prosper, the weak suffer, and every man does what is right in his own eyes. It’s a dog eat dog world, as they say. Darwin made his observations based on the world as he found it. That majestic circle of life where Simba eats us and we have the privelege of eating the grass growing on his grave. That enlightened post-industrial society where the boss is comfortable and the worker chokes down coal dust. The world where, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “Life in a state of nature is poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Darwin was right. And in the pyramid scheme of human ecology, the majority of humans who have ever lived or are currently living have been poor. 

Our reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah issues a clarion call to the people of God: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” And what was their sin? Mistreating the poor. Not only the “poor in spirit,” but the materially poor—the worker, the hungry, the afflicted. God calls special attention to this problem, giving Isaiah the added charge not to hold back on this point. So forgive me this morning if I don’t mince words. 

“You only seem to be a nation who does what is right,” God says to Israel. They’re praying—even fasting—yet things aren’t going well. God seems distant. Their prayers are not being answered. “Look,” God says, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress al your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” It’s tantamount to saying, “If you’re not loving and serving the poor, I’m not listening to you.”

Why is it that the evangelical church has been bleeding numbers, as people such as Bishop Todd Hunter have reported? We might suggest any number of reasons. Hostile culture. Bad economy. There’s a war on. And so on. But the timely reason for us this morning is the need for a socially and economically uncomfortable stewardship for the weak and marginalized.

God says that the fast he has chosen is to loose the bonds of injustice, to break yokes, feed the hungry, “to bring the homeless into your house,” to clothe the naked (If we start bringing the homeless into our homes, I promise, we will be uncomfortable). God is in effect saying, “You want to honor me with your piety? Serve the poor!” We can no longer delude ourselves into thinking that we’ll dedicate our ministries to proclaiming “evangelical truth” while we leave the so-called “social gospel” up to the liberals. We ought not to leave the serving of tables to others whilst we dedicate ourselves to the word and prayer. We must bring all together in a holistic expression of right thought and right action. A gospel of word and deed. 

James asks, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” God’s heart beats for poor of the earth, and when Christians ignore their fundamental calling to love and serve the weak we cause him anguish. When Christians love those from whom they can gain no gold or glory from in return, we bring him delight. God practically gushes at the thought of it: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noonday.” It’s virtually the key to his heart, it would seem. God loves the vast mass of humanity, and most of them are poor. 

In conclusion, let us consider verse 12 of Isaiah 58: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt: you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” This suggests to me that the people who both “delight to draw near to God” and “offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted” will be key architects for the city of God. They will build and shape kingdom communities that sanctify the name of the one God as well as thrive as extended spiritual families able to serve as the basis for a spiritually vital Christian society. They will by their word and deed, by their love and grace, by their healing and holiness proclaim that “survival of the fittest” has died, long live the king of glory, Jesus Christ. 

Let us follow him, proclaiming his truth and emulating his socially transgressive love. Amen.


Matt Hartley said...

Bravo. Well said. Powerful, important word.

Can I pick a knit? Obviously, I recognize who your audience is. I wondered about your phrasing "the liberals". I was not sure without hearing it whether you meant to challenge this label as you were challenging the limits of "evangelical truth" and "social gospel".

If you did not intend to challenge the label, then, as your liberal friend :) I suggest "the liberals" carries a pejorative sense among conservative communities that subtly dehumanizes liberal people into mere political creatures.

I say this knowing that I am probably preaching to the choir.

It didn't bother me that much, and I found the remainder of the homily delightful.

Rachel Dawn Kornfield said...

I love it, Mike! May the Holy Spirit indeed help us successfully live out his "socially transgressive" love. And turn "survival of the fittest" (which makes me shudder when its applied by secular sociologist and psychologists to their fields) on its head.

Mike Rad said...


My comments about liberals were directed to a certain conservative evangelical mindset that thinks liberals preach "social gospel" and evangelicals preach "Jesus-Christ-died-for-your-sins gospel." Also, within the Episcopalian split there have been attempts by some within the ECUSA to characterize themselves as the ones interested in the poor and social justice and the inceptive ACNA as rich, white, indifferent to the poor and only focused on retrograde notions of orthodoxy. I was trying to say, "This is a lie--a false dichotomy--and let's not buy into it in any way," specifically debunking any attempt to theologically-legitimize a separation between gospel proclamation and gospel service.

Matt said...

Gotcha. That's what I thought I should read into it.