Christian love, as expressed in the words and especially the actions of Jesus, is the foundation of Rauschenbusch’s approach. Matthew 25:31-46 presents the basis for Christian living by individuals and for the activities of the Church. This love undertakes to heal the sick, to provide food and clothing for the needy, to welcome strangers, to comfort widows and orphans, and to transmute war into peace.
Rauschenbusch traced his litany of social evils to selfishness. He felt that capitalist greed was at the base of poverty and the attendant evils of poor housing, bad sanitation, child labor, alcoholism, political corruption, and even war. These evils are directly the outcome of the actions of sinful institutions, especially business corporations. Rauschenbusch’s institutional focus anticipates the work of Walter Wink (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 1998).
In conjunction with Saint Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 13, this view is also the basis for Rauschenbusch’s criticism of the Church—its failure to take the lead in combating the social problems he enumerated. He condemned asceticism, monasticism, mysticism, and excessive churchly preoccupation with ritual and dogma. His emphasis was on social action and only secondarily on the possibility that people might be experiencing sinful thoughts and feelings. Likewise, concerns for salvation and the afterlife were subordinate to opportunities and responsibilities to improve the social conditions experienced here and now. Rauschenbusch states that social action is needed to bring about the Kingdom of God: actions—not merely thoughts, feelings, and ritual observances—and working in fraternal collaboration with others.
Rauschenbusch presents an image of Jesus that stresses his life as a process of growth and discovery. He was not merely acting out a script that was presented to him early in life. The social concerns that he articulated were at the center of early church life, until the Church was compromised by its union with political power.