Review: A Christian Justice for the Common Good (Abingdon Press, 2016)

[1] Tex Sample, emeritus professor at Saint Paul School of Theology, Leawood, Kansas, has been thinking creatively and helpfully about the church’s role in society for a very long time. His previous books include U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches, Hard Living People and Mainstream Christians and the delightfully titled Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl. His newest work addresses the call to identify and confront principalities and powers that contravene the values of the coming reign of God in Christ. One of the strengths of his current contribution to social theology is his involvement, for the past sixteen years, in what the right likes to deride as community organizing. This experience provides a nice counterpoint to the more theoretical material he covers.

[2] Recent critics have taken to task social thinkers for neglecting the Bible, a charge that was leveled at early Social Gospel advocates like Walter Rauschenbusch. In the May 2016 issue of JLE, the editors of “Reading Scripture as a Political Act: Essays on the Theopolitical Interpretation of the Bible” are quoted as being “concerned that the growing field of political theology marginalizes the role of scripture and biblical interpretation in crafting these theologies.” Sample completely escapes this indictment. In fact, his titular offer of a “Christian Justice” reflects the defining rootedness of the author’s social passion in the biblical record of “God’s act in Jesus Christ” to disclose the divine and change the course of history, bending toward justice. Along the way he makes plentiful use of Paul’s writings.

[3] One also notes Sample’s deep immersion in his own Methodist heritage of prophetic engagement with the wider society. The Methodist Social Creed, the first such document from any denomination, was adopted in 1908 and heavily influenced the Federal Council’s own statement. Stanley Hauerwas and John Wesley himself are conversation partners, but Sample casts his net wider and includes the sometimes overlooked Walter Ong, SJ and John Milbank, author of the magisterial Theology and Social Theory. Both have appeared in previous writings. But Sample does not limit himself to the Christian tradition, citing biblical examples of wisdom coming from unexpected sources. Pursuit of the common good requires making common cause with the widest array of allies.

[4] Sample begins his examination of justice by contrasting a focus on human rights with the Christian emphasis on God’s revolutionary action of redeeming the entire created order. The former focus, he maintains, is necessary but it “leads to an individualistic expressivism that reduces rights to wants, to a freedom of mere choice and neglects commitment to and service of the common good. ” The latter lifts up justice-making as central to what God is up to, not simply our response to divine love. I find this a healthy (even Lutheran!) move that privileges God’s initiative and comprehensive indicative. The book’s first chapter is a rich review of Pauline texts in which the divine righteousness (dikaiosune), revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, is breathtakingly cosmic in its scope. The theme of chapter two is a major one for Sample, the need to form just churches that embody the spiritual strength to confront the malevolent powers of this present darkness. Part of the new creation, congregants have to be taught to see where these forces are at work and be trained to act to overcome them. Churches need to be intentional and organized; it’s not enough to express opinions on issues.

[5] Unfortunately the professor allows himself to wander into a recondite discussion of “the formation of the senses” by way of Goethe and other worthies. I think this chapter could have been compacted, making a slim volume even thinner but no less useful. Sample next turns to talking the talk, where our styles of speaking shape the way we view the world. Using winsome, down home stories that are his trademark, the author shows the necessity of rewriting narratives (the moment’s overused word) that keep people in thrall to the powers. Repeating, for example, the fabrication that the poor “need to learn discipline, to sober up, and to quit wasting their money” needs to be replaced by listening to the actual stories of persons up against hard times.

[6] Deploying a delightful story about Ellen DeGeneres and Meryl Streep, Sample then approaches walking the walk. It takes time to learn the ropes of effective organizing; experienced mentors are needed. It takes long-haul commitment to the often slow slog of effecting real change, and the ability to do “scut work,” like making lots of phone calls. This is central to community organizing…one thinks, e.g., of the Nehemiah Project…in which careful, strategic account is taken of two major components, interests and power. Sample makes effective use of analyses by Michel Foucault and Bernard Loomer to get to his bottom line: congregations should join the truth-to-power movement, a chief proponent of which is Robert Linthicum and whose progenitor in the streets is Saul Alinsky. The author’s review of what joining this movement entails will challenge, and, one hopes, not daunt, believers who take a Christian justice and the common good seriously.

[7] For my taste Sample’s argument would have benefited from a more robust sacramental emphasis as is found in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and from discussion of the Trinity. Also, the book would have been enhanced by closer copy editing; there are typos and grammatical rough spots. But, though it breaks little new ground, A Christian Justice for the Common Good can be read with profit by non-specialists and used productively by parish study groups.

Bruce Wollenberg

Rev. Bruce Wollenberg, PhD. is a retired pastor living in Santa Barbara.