Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation.1
I’ve always been told that being a Christian isn’t and shouldn’t be merely a personal affair, internally oriented, guided by feelings, and concerned only with one’s own final destination. Instead, Christians ought to follow Christ by loving and helping others in need, including the poor of this world. But this view gets powerfully challenged when one grows up in a version of Christianity that’s almost entirely oriented towards a personal relationship with Jesus, focused on the final escape from this world into the next, and carried along with praise songs and emotional sermons, and not come away thinking Christianity is a kind of group-think subculture crafted with sophisticated marketing techniques (often poorly executed) centered around a chosen local church that suits one’s fancy, is populated with people just like oneself (social class, race, tastes), and where one gets one’s personal spiritual “batteries recharged” each Sunday.
It’s also easy and fun to point a judging finger like I am doing now, but probably of limited value. I have to say this version of Christianity—both Protestant and Catholic—has been very convenient for me. But I’m sorely found wanting when it comes to actual Christ-following, red-letter, biblical Christianity.
I am challenged by the realities of the Gospel—challenged to the point of utter failure. The love of God comes to us through His Son, bringing total and complete salvation to each person, to each group, to each nation, to the whole world and to the world as a whole. It is an integral salvation as the quote above states. It is a salvation that embraces the whole person, in totality, including their social, economic, and cultural contexts. And one of the great joys is that we not only are offered salvation but also bring about salvation through our actions. We participate in God’s salvation of our neighbor. But I consistently retreat into my private personal relationship with Jesus, failing my neighbor and the Gospel.
But who is this whole person? Naturally we assume it’s me for me, and you for you; I focus on myself and my relationship with Jesus and you do the same for yourself, and we meet at church on Sunday (or we don’t) and feel good that we’re on the same, winning team. But I am bothered by this. Christ preached the kingdom of God as a present reality and not merely a future hope. The kingdom is at hand, He said. He then explained it in terms of love, forgiveness, service, humility, peacemaking, feeding the hungry, giving up our lives for others, and caring for the needy and the poor. It is a tangible kingdom. Consistently He did not describe faith the way we do—feelings and fundamental tenets—but focused on how we relate to others. The test at the end is not a theology exam but an accounting of how we related to others.
The social doctrine of the Catholic Church teaches this. The whole person is the other person as much as it is you or I. The whole person isn’t merely one’s set of beliefs or psychological needs or feeling like one has a personal relationship with Jesus. The whole person is the person in entirety, including all their basic needs, all their needs above that, and even their potential for human flourishing and becoming the creature God intends. The whole person is the human creature in the world, in society, in relationship.
[T]he Church does not tire of proclaiming the Gospel that brings salvation and genuine freedom also to temporal realities.2
Quickly one realizes, that although the best one might be able to do is give alms, salvation for the whole person requires more than giving alms, it requires a society different than what we have. It requires a society built on love and justice, on sacrifice and trust in God, on forgiveness, meekness, empathy, and long suffering. It demands dealing with temporal realities. I hope we all see this and know that each of us can personally do better, but I also hope we look at our world and see that it does not evidence these traits and that it ought to change. Our politics, our economics, our social structures, and our multitude of prejudices seem mostly to serve the rich and the ideologies of the rich. Just one example: there are Christians who honestly dismiss systemic racism when our faith says we should expect it everywhere. Another: great numbers of Christians claimed a moral reprobate and billionaire thug was this nation’s savior, God’s hand-picked chosen one. The spirit of anti-Christ is alive and well in much of Christianity today.
Our world is corrupt with sin and we ought to be about changing that, living lives of love and actively battling sin in the world as we do in ourselves. Loving our neighbors includes levels of intimacy because it requires knowledge and empathy, and it includes addressing the prejudices, the bad laws, the bad politics, the ideologies of the rich, and the economic forces that are allied against human flourishing for all, especially including the “least of these.” It is all too easy to praise a court ruling that protects the unborn, it’s another thing to actively work towards overcoming the sin that rules this world and produces concrete and structural forces that compel women to see abortion as a necessary option in the face of such social, political, economic, and interpersonal cruelty. Salvation is physical and spiritual, now and future, of the body the soul and the mind. Salvation is God saving us. Salvation is us loving our neighbor, helping those in need, overcoming oppression, seeking the kingdom which is at hand, which is within us.
I grieve how bad I am at these things. I am a poor example of a Christ follower. I sit here typing what we all ought do and I do nothing.
1 John Paull II, Encyclical Letter “Redemptoris Missio,” paragraph 11.
2 Pontifical Council For Justice And and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. 1st: USCCB Publishing, 2005, page 1.