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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
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Connecting the Dots of the Social Gospel Movement with Changes Afoot Today

by Krista Tippett, host

"Social issues," Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, “are moral issues writ large.” Maybe that sounds like a straightforward statement. But it holds an emphasis, enwraps a whole theology that gave rise to the split between what we now experience as two branches of Christianity: Evangelical and mainline Protestant.

Walter RauschenbuschWhile pastoring a German Baptist church in Hell’s Kitchen in New York at the turn of the last century, Walter Rauschenbusch saw poverty and desolation at every turn. That he lived in a moment kindred to ours is immediately evident in the subject headings of his most famous book Christianity and the Social Crisis: the morale of the workers, the physical decline of the people, the crumbling of political democracy, the wedge of inequality.

This book was going to print as Rauschenbusch set off for a year’s sabbatical in Germany in 1907. He returned as a best-selling celebrity, a galvanizing figure in movement that became known as the Social Gospel. Though, as his great-grandson Paul Raushenbush tells us in our show "Occupying the Gospel," Walter never liked that catchphrase. It’s just the Gospel, he said.

Looking at the Bible with eyes fresh from the suffering he witnessed in Hell’s Kitchen, Walter Rauschenbusch saw a call for social healing, social renewal, and social justice in and between every line. The dedication page of his book contained these shortened lines from the end of The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come! Thy Will be Done on Earth!” Walter Rauschenbusch believed in a transcendent God and an afterlife, but he came to feel that Christians had focused too much on the afterlife and not enough on their responsibilities in this life.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. cited Walter Rauschenbusch as a formative teacher in his understanding that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the…social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

I read Walter Rauschenbusch too, when I studied theology in the early 1990s. He’s still studied at all kinds of seminaries — evangelical to mainline. He is not remembered in American culture like the twentieth-century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. But I’m sensing some spirit, some essence, of Social Gospel theology as 21st-century Americans apply faith to social issues and crises now. And as Paul Raushenbush points out, a most interesting example of this is the way in which new generations of Evangelicals have been engaging on matters of social justice — taking on the environment, global poverty, and human trafficking. They may care as deeply about what we think of in our time as “moral values issues.” But they’re seeing a Gospel, as Walter Rauschenbusch did, that compels them to see social issues as moral issues too.

Paul Raushenbush & Sami AwadPaul Raushenbush moderates an online chat with Sami Awad for the Global Voices of Non-Violence conference. (Photo courtesy of EGM Ethnographic Media)

In connecting these dots, Paul Raushenbush is a lovely conversation partner. He grew up largely unaffected, at least overtly, by the legacy of his great-grandfather. He became a rock and roll producer in Europe after college. He flamed out. Recovery, “getting clean,” was part of his return to faith. He ministered to street youth in Seattle and San Paolo, Brazil, and worked at Riverside Church in New York, and then became a chaplain and associate dean of religious affairs at Princeton. He was there for eight years before leaving to be full-time senior editor of the Huffington Post religion section, which he helped launch in 2010.

He has many interesting things to tell about the Social Gospel, religiosity among the young in our time, and his view of modern religion from an ultra-modern online perch. None is more counterintuitive, perhaps, than the fact that he is constantly urging contributors to the religion section of the Huffington Post to “be more religion-y.” The posts that go viral are often about getting grounded in tradition — learning the basics of the Bible, for example. In his piece of the famously liberal Huffington Post universe, he welcomes conservative voices. A progressive Christian himself, he is impatient when his fellow liberal faithful are less passionate than others, less articulate in communicating the Gospel they believe in. I have a feeling, in Paul’s presence, that he doesn’t merely give voice but embodies the theological spirit of his great-grandfather, in a most intriguing way.

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A Prayer for Nature That Holds 100 Years Later

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Morning light by the streamPhoto by Joel Bedford/Flickr, cc by-nd 2.0

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who is our featured guest this week at On Being, shared this poem by his great-grandfather along with his moving Thanksgiving Day Prayer. Nearly a century old, this prayer, Raushenbush writes, “reads so much like something that could/should be written today.”

Prayer for Nature
by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918)
O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.

Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.

May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you.

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A Turn of the Century Thanksgiving Prayer by Walter Rauschenbush

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Wide OpenPhoto by Brian Auer/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Thanksgiving is a time when many families gather in gratitude, and sometimes in prayer. Paul Raushenbush says his family prayer was written by his great-grandad, Walter Rauschenbusch. Composed around the turn of the twentieth century, the theologian and Baptist social reformer’s words remain as beautiful and poignant today as they did a hundred years ago.

Thanksgiving Day Prayer
by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918)

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty;
And save our souls from being so blind
That we pass unseeing
When even the common thornbush
Is aflame with your glory,
O God our creator,
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Do you have a family prayer that you recite on Thanksgiving? How does your family give thanks?

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