ME and WE
God’s New Social Gospel
by Leonard Sweet
ME and WE: God’s New Social Gospel by Leonard Sweet is a lively and lovely introduction to a re-imagined, metaphorically rich present/future church. This church, Sweet writes, must learn how to face three of the biggest challenges of today’s culture: individualism, racism, and consumerism. These three, says Sweet, “…are interwoven into a complex fabric of other ills that infect society due to our fallen dreams and drives.”
The clear and incisive title of the book does not prepare the reader for the beauty contained within it. ME and WE is an exquisite book, in many ways.
First, the book is artfully planned. Presented in three short parts, Part I is called “The Me/We Gospel – A Biblical Story”; Part II is called “Me/We Creation – A Birthing Story”; and Part III is “The Me/We Economy – A Garden Story.”
Second, the book is beautifully written, especially Part II, which is a deep and meditative look at the need to sever the identification of black with evil and white with good. This imagery runs through the “whole range of human behavior”, according to Sweet, and deserves our honest attention as well as our best, prayerful efforts at correction. “The path we need to tread is not from darkness to light but from the light of darkness to the darkness of light. The gospel is theologically equinoctial, with the day and night of equal length and equal value. Darkness and light are of equal importance. Without Jesus, day is night, and night is day. With Jesus, day is day, and night is night.”
“A whole Me/We gospel, however, requires a nuanced probing of the images of light and dark in scripture, theology, literature, and art. A whole embrace of life includes the dark, not as something always negative but sometimes as positive. In the words of T.S. Eliot’s East Coker:
I said it to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.
Third, the book is sublime in its application. Using the symbol of the menorah, Part III offers a seven-branched view to incarnating light-and-life giving practices. “Each of the seven candles can be seen as a means of (en)lightenment and discernment of Jesus in the world. Each [candle] tip flickers constant reminders of the impartation of Christ in us and his “inspiritment” into our lives. Each metaphor of inspiritment — Incarnation/Identity, Integrity, Initiative, Intentionality, Intuition, Intimacy, and Innovation — helps us embody and enlighten our faith with a Christ identity.” The emphasis in Part III is on relational theology and individual responsibility, as we live together in God’s House and Garden communities — our churches.
Sweet notes early in ME and WE that nineteenth century efforts at implementing a social gospel were a dismal failure. “To treat [individualism, racism, consumerism] organically, one must address problems of the whole organism — body, mind, and spirit — which is precisely what the first social gospel movement failed to do, and why we are calling this God’s “new” social gospel.” Sweet warns, “Any attempt to see Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of God as a political movement, an apocalyptic regime, or a social justice program – anything other than the revelation of God with a Trinitarian personality and path to the heart — is to put ideology in the place of faith.”
A vibrant description of “Me/We” social gospel living is the section on “Conserve and Conceive”. In Genesis, God asked Adam to “till and keep” the garden. Sweet prefers to use the phrase “conserve and conceive.” This term is then used to refer to a broad scope of holiness-living activities, beginning with conserving and conceiving “God’s creative identity in our current relationships and (conceiving) God’s creativity in new relationships. It starts with Me and moves to We… When Christ is in control and the body is being re-formed by the Spirit into wholeness and harmony, the body remains organic, living, growing, healthy. A Me/We gospel is a salvation gospel.”
I have been reading Leonard Sweet’s books for many years. It would be a tough assignment to pick a favorite, but ME and WE — God’s New Social Gospel would be close to the top. I believe it is not only one of the most beautiful books Dr. Sweet has written, but it may also be one of the most important. For churches that desire to cultivate healthy, fruitful, and faithful communities of Jesus followers, ME and WE would be an excellent book to read and discuss together as a congregation.