Part of the difficulty lies in some thinking that we've inherited from our founder "no one ever got saved while they had a toothache". This simple statement reflects a continuum of assistance that begins with helping people's physical needs and concludes with the guarantee of eternal life. It's a way of thinking that is bolstered by an interpretation of Maslow's heirarchy of needs, which has a foundation of material necessity and builds towards a pinnacle of spiritual fulfillment. So what's wrong with this?
- It suggests that assisting people with material problems is only (or at least 'more') valid if we're moving them towards the spiritual goal of conversion. This places us in an ethically inferior position to people of secular persuasion who just offer help because it's the right thing to do.
- It invariably prioritises 'spiritual' work over social work.
- It fails to fully recognise God's presence in the world, redeeming suffering and calling us to partnership in this task. Instead, it implies a removed God, waiting in Heaven for us to send our converts skyward.
There's a lot of talk about holistic mission but I think this worthy goal is fundamentally flawed whilst we continue to separate the material and the spiritual. Somehow we need to move beyond thinking that physically helping people is a means to spiritual outcomes and even beyond dividing our work to include both social and spiritual tasks. We need to rediscover the spiritual reality that is implicit in a compassionate response to someone in need. For the person with an unbearable toothache, in that moment, 'salvation' is relief from pain.
I've suggested previously that this is what the idea of 'sacrament' is all about - seeing beyond what appears to be physically present in the moment. Good sacramental theology understands that such thinking doesn't denigrate the physical but in fact infuses the material with spiritual significance. It's a 'panentheistic' way of thinking for those of you who like the big words.
I'm fully aware that this prompts more questions than it answers but I'm happy to do that. I'm also quite prepared to acknowledge that I don't have all of the answers. However, I do think that it is exactly these kind of questions that we must be asking because most of the time we're not even aware of our dualistic presuppositions.
I'm not sure William Booth finally resolved this question but I think there's a hint of the right direction here:
Someone asked Booth “what about the Salvation Army proper? Has
it suffered from the competition of the Social Work?” “I know what you mean,”
Booth responded; “but in my estimation it is all the Salvation Army proper. We
want to abolish these distinctions, and make it as religious to sell a guernsey
or feed a hungry man as it is to take up a collection in the barracks. It is all
part of our business, which is to save the world – body and soul, for time and
for eternity” (The War Cry, 1889, quoted in Fairbank, Booth’s Boots, 1983, page