My mom has never been very religious but always very concerned about my earning potential. She was worried when I became a Christian and started to entertain church work as a vocation that I’d end up destitute. The church didn’t fit my Wall-Street, southern Connecticut based upbringing and family. However, relief was allayed: I was getting ordained in The Episcopal Church. “Oh!” she said, “The Episcopal Church is a very wealthy church! You’ll be paid well!” The comment went in one ear and out the other; I never fully thought to question why that was even a thing or if it should bother me.
But it does bother me. And now, after all this time since that first conversation, I’ve been instructed in why it bothers me. I give credit to this enlightenment to Heath W. Carter and his book, “Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.” This book by Carter is a tour de force of the battle for economic equality and the development and fight for the “Union Made” Social Gospel in Chicago’s history. The rise of material wealth in Chicago brought with it the evangelical clerics and their churches. Being able to purchase expensive preachers and pay them handsomely moved the church from a position of working alongside the average working person to a member of the elite class. As the capital trend went, so did the pulpits. Carter deftly explains the ebb and flow of what was the constant struggle for the working/earning class against capitalism’s monstrous appetite that consumes everything even the gospel.
Carter focuses on a specific era of Chicago’s history—roughly the era encompassing the ante-bellum to the early 1900s, tracking the formation and establishment of and the need for (!) unions for wage-earners. The reality is, the thrust of Carter’s work isn’t restricted to that handful of decades. To a significant degree Carter is using history to shine the light on the reality of our current era. That reality is: there is currently a constant struggle against capitalism and an elite and privileged version of the gospel that is plaguing the western world in this 21st century. Thus, while I am convicted and saddened by this reality (and by the part I play and have played in it), I am also very optimistic for the future because this book exists.
To preach the word of God is–for the preacher–to actively engage in proclaiming to all of God’s people the radical and revolutionary wisdom of God, which is in contradiction with the wisdom and the status quo of the world and against oppressive power structures and elite hierarchies. God and God’s word will always side with those who are oppressed and marginalized, with the far off and rejected, with the homeless and the hungry, and the naked. To engage in this preaching, to enter into pastoral ministry for any reason—especially for financial gain—is anathema to the Gospel and an offense to God.
This book is a must read if we want to actually learn from history and not just about it. This book is a must read if we want to embrace the reality that the cries of the oppressed and marginalized cannot be chalked up to or pushed away as mere echoes of a bygone era. Carter writes at the end of his “Epilogue”,
“Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, American capitalism appears once more poised to overwhelm American democracy…It remains to be seen whether present-day believers will quietly abide this state of affairs, or whether it will at some point call forth a nation of prophets comparable to those that visited Gilded Age Chicago” (182).
For those who are losing their lives in this constant battle and fight against Capitalism, we, gospel believing, Christ following Christian disciples have no time to lose; let us heed the call.
I recommend you follow Dr. Heath Carter on Twitter; to do so, here’s his handle: @heathwcarter. And his blog is here: https://heathwcarter.com/