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The Activist Who Takes Sin Seriously

by Stephen Mott

A conviction of the existence of evil in the social system can lead to one of two responses according to a typology worked out by Max Weber. Weber called both patterns "asceticism." Asceticism is a mode of religious response in the face of a larger society given over with little restraint to self-seeking. The goal of ascetics is to achieve mastery over fallen nature. To achieve this control, they structure the whole of life in an effort to be conformed to the will of God. Asceticism produces a systematic, methodical character and an avoidance of what is purposeless and ostentatious.

Weber identified two very different forms of asceticism. One he called "other-worldly asceticism," the other "inner-worldly asceticism." Of the two, inner-world asceticism was the most likely to provide leverage for evolutionary social change. Inner-worldly ascetics, best represented in certain types of Puritanism, apply their concern about sin and spiritual discipline to a mastery of life around themselves, rather than to defeating sin within. Other-worldly ascetics flee the world. Inner-worldly ascetics face the world, extending the quest for the mastery of evil to all aspects of the human condition.

Because inner-worldly ascetics reject the existing world-order, the world is their place of mission. The theocentric viewpoint on which their criticism of the world is based is also the source of a calling to glorify God in the world. The energies committed to the struggle with evil within are channeled into vigorous support of this outward mission. For the Calvinist, for example, in addition to a specific calling in daily work, there was also a general vocation in the world to work for the establishment of a society of justice and mercy. Calvinism everywhere formed voluntary associations for deeds of neighborly love and was engaged in a systematic endeavor to mold society as a whole.

Evangelical Christianity has borne several marks of the inner-worldly ascetic pattern. Although in the twentieth century the drive for social righteousness has frequently been lacking, the unmatched commitment to worldwide missions is a form of activism expressing that religious energy and discipline in financial sacrifice, physical suffering, vocational choice, and prayer. The plethora of supportive organizations is also characteristic. Even separatist patterns in church polity and personal ethics can be seen in part as a methodical discipline to support the mission. Accordingly, zealous activity has been directed not to saving one’s own soul but to setting one’s redeemed soul to save the world. In ancient Israel one also sees a separated people with a mission to the nations. In the bible, the notion of the separation of a people from the world is but the corollary of the revelation of the Lord to a people who will become the bearer of the living truth and a missionary to all humanity.

Biblically informed concern about sin thus provides a piety capable of energizing effective social action. Vigorous and systematic social involvement requires not that Christians weaken the structure of their piety but rather that they carry it through to its natural social consequences.

Finally, there is a danger that an awareness of evil may lead to nothing more than dogmatic condemnation of the surrounding society. But social evil also means the fear, the humiliation, the suffering, and the loss when people hurt people. God knows that hurt and cries out against it. We do not know what sin is until we weep with the weeping of the earth. We are in touch with the substance of justice when the hunger of righteousness within us is one with our anguish at human suffering. Then we know more fully what it means that Christ was "made sin" for us.

Stephen Mott, Biblical Ethics & Social Change, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 19-21.

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