What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "righteousness"? For some, I'm sure, concepts of moral behavior and personal conduct will come to mind--the concept of refraining from sinful behavior, of being pure before God. For others, however, something more systemic may come to mind, something pertaining less to personal behavior and more to social consciousness and responsibility for those on the under-side of society. Some will think of righteousness as a moral high-ground and others will think of righteousness as justice (its etymological counterpart from the Greek language). The side on which you land will likely be determinative of your more general theological position and your ability to make substantial connections between social activism and religious identity.
See, there are two camps within the church; those who are primarily dependent upon a postmortem, ahistorical soteriological framework for theology and those for whom soteriology is an essentially historical and physically validated subset of a larger theological framework.
Lemme try to define these two camps in a little bit more simplistic terms. Some people just can't help but put "where are you going when you die?" at the center of their theology, as the starting point and foundation for all their subsequent theological reflection. Even when they start to discuss social issues, they cannot quite see them as soterioilogical in nature, they can't see them as manifestations of the salvation of Christ. The other camp, however, sees salvation as something essentially linked to social justice, not just to post-mortem destination and ethereal justification. Desmond Tutu once said, "the good news [the gospel] to a hungry person is bread." someone from the former camp might have a difficult time accepting or even making sense of that statement.
Too many evangelical theologians are adherents to the postmortem, save-your-soul philosophy. The word righteousness is less about making sure hungry people are fed and more about what Christ's atonement "imputes" upon believers. When it comes to the ethical responsibility of the church they are, at their best, only on their way to a good point but it consistently alludes them, for they can never really make the historical, eschatological, and physical connections between social justice and salvation. And the social practice of the church in America has suffered for it. Christian theology is essentially eschatological and unless our conduct has eschatological implications it will never reach the heart of our ethical or religious identity.
We need theologians to guide the church toward a more wholistic view of God's salvation, to a more socially conscious sensibility toward righteousness. The implications are political as well as theological. The proclamation and relevance of the church--indeed the gospel itself--is at stake, because Tutu was right... the good news is bread sometimes.
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