Someone recently said, “The future of our country depends upon whether we can take the policeman off the street corner and put him in our hearts,” thus unwittingly expressing one of the central doctrines of our Christian faith. For the genius of our Christian religion is this: Its followers are supposed to have an inner motive and power that compels them voluntarily to love, to be just, to live righteously. The Bible sets this forth clearly, in both the Gospels and the Epistles.
Our Lord was charged with being opposed to the Hebrew law. In dealing with this charge in one section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), he declared that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Having said that, he set forth a higher form of righteousness that he expected of his followers, a righteousness that would “exceed,” go beyond, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and that struck deeper than the law because it went beyond the head to the motives and the thoughts of the heart. Later he stated that both the law and the prophets depend upon two commandments: man is to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself (Matt. 22:36 f). Jesus did not lay down rules for his followers but sought rather to produce followers who would impose rules on themselves. He did not try to coerce the wills or compel the devotion of people. He invited them to follow him cheerfully of their own free will. In short, he summoned them to a voluntary righteousness that is generated by the expulsive and the compulsive power of a great affection.
We commonly speak of one of Jesus’ sayings as “The Golden Rule,” which is not a legalistic rule at all but another way of stating what he had previously said about loving one’s neighbors. In effect it says: “Before anyone asks you to do so, before some authoritative body threatens to pass a law to make you do so, treat your fellow men rightly and generously. Do this voluntarily, of your own initiative and volition, because you want to do it, because to satisfy the promptings of your heart you must do it.”
Paul set forth this same general teaching. In the sixth chapter of Romans he explains that the Christian’s acceptance of Christ by faith is a vital union with him, in which, so to speak, the believer experiences the events through which Christ passed in his death, burial, and resurrection. These events are typified in Christian baptism, in which symbolically the believer descends into, is buried under, and ascends out of the water. Hence Christians, he says, are to think of themselves as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v.11, RSV). Once they have gone through this transforming experience they are to live as transformed people. He exhorts them, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies.… Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (vv. 13, 14).
The word “grace” is unquestionably the most significant single word in the Bible. It is our English word for Hebrew and Greek words that indicate the nature of God out of which proceed his gracious acts of the creation, the preservation, and the redemption of his children. Always these acts grow out of his unmerited love. As soon as a person experiences that grace, it has the singular effect of making him want to be gracious to his fellow men and manifest toward others the kind of love God manifests toward him. Out of sheer gratitude to God for his forgiving, redeeming love in Christ, the Christian is compelled, not by outside pressures but voluntarily, from within the citadel of his being, to be loving, just, and fair.
Later in the letter to the Romans (chap. 13) Paul faced the charge, which Jesus himself faced, that Christians are against the law. He repeated what Jesus tried to make clear, that Christians are under a new, more significant, more inclusive law, the law of love. He pleads with his readers: “Owe no man anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (vv. 8, 10). When he wrote to the Corinthians he said, “The love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14), and “… you are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19b, 20a). Because of the costly love of God in Christ for him, the Christian is bound to love his fellow men.
New Testament Christians did not undertake crusades to persuade the Roman government to outlaw great human wrongs such as slavery. The reason was not that they were indifferent to those wrongs but that they were engaged in a much more fundamental work. Because they recognized that the roots of all wrongs are in the hearts of men, their efforts were directed toward the regeneration of those hearts. Throughout the Epistles of the New Testament, it is implied that to the degree human hearts can be Christianized so social wrongs can be overcome.
Stones That Grow
In his first letter Peter calls Christians “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5)—a graphic figure of speech. Real stones are dead, inert, and have to be lifted into place when a house is being erected. But a living stone would be magical. Put in place it would grow the foundation, the wall, or the cornice. If Christians are living stones, then as they are put down anywhere in the social order, they will on their own initiative become the growing edge of a new Christian society.
Moffatt translates Philippians 3:20, “You are a colony of heaven.” The people in Philippi were largely Romans who had moved to Macedonia and had constituted themselves a colony for the purpose of Romanizing Macedonia. Dr. Moffatt, therefore, believes that Paul was really saying to the Christians of Macedonia that they were expected to perform a similar function representing their heavenly King.
Whether or not that is the proper meaning of Paul’s words, it is true that everywhere a Christian is in the social order he is expected to be a living, transforming force for the Christian way of life. Each Christian ought to be able to say to every other Christian, “You do your Christian job where you are; I’ll do my Christian job where I am. I’ll do it without needing a policeman to check up on me, or threaten me with punishment if I don’t do it.”
Today large segments of people in the Christian churches are forgetting or repudiating this fundamental New Testament teaching. This in itself is not new. During Christian history some group has, on one ground or another, theological or otherwise, questioned the value and the validity of practically every type of experience reported in New Testament times: evangelism itself, sudden and radical conversions or second births, strange leadings of Providence, personal communions with a personal God, answers to prayer, and claims to having received the Holy Spirit.
Nor is it unprecedented for the churches to lay aside spiritual means temporarily and engage in a concerted campaign to bring the Kingdom of God to consummation hurriedly by political or other secular means. Witness the zealous effort decades ago to secure passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and thus revolutionize public morals.
Goodness By Constraint
What is unusual, certainly for the churches in recent times, is for them to discard their traditional spiritual efforts to persuade their members to “be good” voluntarily and embark on a crusade to use their ecclesiastical machinery, resources, and power to force their members to “be good,” and thus hasten the end of injustice in the world.
This is what seems to be happening in the present effort of the churches to bring about racial justice in our country. On the surface, at least, it appears that many of the leaders of our churches have all but lost faith in the power of spiritual means and have decided to put their trust in secular means. By “on the surface” is meant that in their public and official utterances little or nothing is said about spiritual means; these have been pushed into the background. Instead of embarking on an intensive crusade to instruct their members anew as to the meaning of their Christian faith and commitment, to appeal to them “by the mercies of God” to practice in all their social relations what they profess to believe, and to exhort them to engage in dynamic confrontation with the Spirit of God in their souls over racial injustice and all other forms of sin and wrong, the churches are bringing all available external pressures of the organized church upon their members to coerce them to treat all other races fairly.
Evidence to support these statements is abundant. Consider only the recent official statements of two leading denominations (the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches) and of the National Council of Churches on the subject of racial injustice. In Presbyterian Life, November 15, 1963, under the title, “The New Commission on Race: What Exactly was Launched?,” there appeared the manifesto of the Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race (CORAR) by its executive secretary, Gayraud S. Wilmore. CORAR was set up by the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963.
Dr. Wilmore states that the Presbyterian church has failed to contribute substantially to the solution of the problem of racial injustice in our country. The time has come to put the full weight of the organized church’s “prestige,” “authority,” “power,” and “money” into direct action to achieve concrete results. The distinctive feature of the Presbyterian form of government, its system of graded courts, lends itself to the kind of action he envisages, because the authority given to a commission duly appointed by the highest ecclesiastical court, the General Assembly, can be handed down to all the lower courts (the synods, presbyteries, and sessions of local churches), each of which has authority to require obedience to its directives by all individuals, institutions, and agencies under its jurisdiction.
With the authority of the General Assembly behind the commission he heads, Dr. Wilmore notifies the personnel of all the boards, agencies, institutions, and courts of the church of what methods the commission proposes to use to achieve its objectives. They intend to “investigate” all Presbyterian agencies and organizations as to their racial policies and practices, including their business contracts and investment policies. If necessary, “pressure” will be brought to bear to “correct” these practices and policies. He warns that sooner or later the presbyteries, which actually have all the powers given to bishops in some other denominations, will “examine” the policies of every local congregation and, where necessary, demand that a church “purge” itself of the sin of race discrimination. Aside from the question of this development of presbyteries into “bishops,” it is obvious that this correction of internal practice within the Presbyterian church is to be accomplished chiefly by external pressures rather than by moral suasion and spiritual appeal to the Christian hearts and consciences of its members.
A Catalogue Of Pressures
Among the many specific procedures indicated for correcting what is wrong within the church and without are these: pressures to end discrimination will be applied to banks from which Presbyterian boards and agencies borrow money, to individual Presbyterians who have rental property, and to housing projects undertaken by local churches, demanding that they be unbiased racially in their dealings; Presbyterian women will be encouraged to boycott merchants who practice discrimination; church members will be asked to collaborate with “secular action groups,” to “work with Negro mass movements,” to practice the “symbolic act of civil disobedience against an unjust law,” to bring the influence of the church to bear upon civil governments and legislative bodies, and to recognize openly “the moral use of coercive legislation.” Dr. Wilmore also announces that the commission will make use of the $500,000 now at its disposal and an additional amount of the same size yet to be requested to support, in a number of ways, individuals and organizations working for civil rights—because, as he says, “money talks.”
The Episcopal plan, proposed by the church’s Division of Social Relations and approved by the Bishop and Diocesan Council, as it was presented by Bishop James A. Pike to the Episcopalians of California for their consideration and adoption, was outlined in the San Francisco Chronicle of February 6, 1964. From this is appears that the Episcopal plan to achieve racial justice is of the same general nature and proposes to utilize many of the same methods as the Presbyterian CORAR. There is one notable difference between the two, however. The Episcopal document rightly stresses the need for teaching its members the meaning of the Gospel as it relates to the race problem, while the Presbyterian document contains no significant reference to education.
The plan contains several “directives” and several urgent “appeals” that are equivalent to directives. These deal with the use of the services and facilities of churches, including the sale and rental of property, on an equal basis for all races; the education of members on the many phases of Christian racial equality; and the refusal to deal with any job-discriminating business. This last directive was withdrawn after objections to it were voiced from the floor. Another proposal was that Episcopalians support the Rumford Act, a California law that bans housing discrimination and has been the cause of heated public controversies. This was carried, although objections to it came from the floor. Specifically one objector disliked being told by the church what to do. “This,” he declared, “should be voluntary.”
The statement of the National Council of Churches was adopted at the meeting of its General Assembly in Philadelphia on December 7, 1963, and was shortly thereafter publicized widely in both the secular and the religious press. (A report of this may be found in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, January 3, 1964, pp. 34 ff.) Since the specifications recommended to the member churches of the council have nearly all been incorporated in the Presbyterian plan, they need not be repeated here.
Obviously there has been close cooperation between the National Council and the leaders of Christian churches in planning details of the present nationwide crusade for civil rights. We therefore should not go far astray in assuming that all the leading member churches of the National Council, each in its own way and in accordance with its own form of government, has, or soon will have, a plan for civil rights campaigns similar to those of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.
The Pivotal Conviction
The entire racial rights program of the churches appears to be predicated on the conviction that the time has come to make full use of the power inherent in the corporate church as a social institution.
Several pertinent responses to the racial rights crusade of the churches are now in order.
1. The objectives of the churches—to achieve civil rights and justice for every person of whatever color or racial background in every nook and corner of our land—deserve the enthusiastic support of every Christian.
2. Christian citizens, like all other types of citizens in our land, should work for appropriate legislation against racial discrimination. Our nation must have a civil rights bill. Laws have their own distinctive functions—political functions—to perform in every organized society.
3. But the means that the churches as corporate bodies propose to use to reach these goals should be critically scrutinized and evaluated in accordance with the basic tenets of our Christian faith. It would be a fatal error for any Christian church to refuse to hear members who question the validity and prudence of the means it is using to achieve racial justice, or to equate the dissent of its members with disloyalty to the church or with opposition to racial equality itself.
4. In the crusade for racial justice, so little emphasis is laid by the churches on spiritual means and so much on secular means that we should ask whether many churchmen must now be thought of as belonging to that group Jesus referred to as “men of violence,” who are determined to take the Kingdom of God by force (cf. Matt. 11:12). In short, our Christian churches seem to be going secular with a vengeance.
Have we forgotten what the prophet said to Zerubbabel in the name of God, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6)? The Kingdom of God cannot be established on earth by human resources alone—not by social engineering, legislation, the use and manipulation of economic power, group pressures, or armies and wars, even though some of these may have important functions to perform in an organized society. The Kingdom of God can be established only by the power of the Spirit of God working upon, within, and through the hearts of men.
5. The distinctive role of the organized church in society is to be the instrument of God whereby human beings may find the inner, spiritual resources and motivations—the moral and ethical convictions, constraints and restraints, and undergirdings—necessary for their striving, each in his own sphere, to become instruments for building a Christian society. The Church, therefore, is engaged in the fundamental spiritual work of the world. If it fails to perform its unique, distinctive work, all other institutions ultimately fail. If it allows itself to become just one more institution among others in society, using primarily secular means, it betrays its divine trust and is disloyal to the people who look to it for aid in finding spiritual resources for living.
6. If and when the Church embarks upon campaigns that necessitate its using primarily legal coercion and economic and group pressures in order to compel its members to treat their fellow men justly, it has already failed in its central purpose: to make Christians who love their fellow men voluntarily, from inner compulsion and desire. Every church member is the extended church in action in the particular spot in the social order where he lives. When he fails, it is not so much the Church’s failing as his failing the Church: his failing to live up to his teaching, his professions, his promises; his failing to maintain his spiritual disciplines.
7. A church-wide campaign that contemplates setting up a group of officials, arming them with ecclesiastical authority and power to punish, and authorizing them to pry into the private practices and personal policies of its members, smacks of ecclesiastical totalitarianism. It is disturbing, to say the least, to discover that major Christian churches are deliberately planning to engage in activities comparable to those of such organizations as bureaus of investigation, offices of district attorneys, and detective agencies. It is also discouraging to find them presuming to purge their members of their sinful ways. Purging is God’s prerogative. And God never coerces human wills or compels human conduct.
8. Many observers have commented on the churches’ launching and carrying on their crusade for racial justice with Pentecostal zeal. But it should be remembered that the zeal at Pentecost was inspired by the Holy Spirit, not for bringing secular pressures upon people, but for proclaiming the Gospel to them, for beseeching them to give the redemptive love of God a chance to change their hearts. The human heart is the perennial target of all the Church’s efforts. Unless the hearts of men can be radically changed, the campaign against racial injustice and all other forms of evil will ultimately fail.
One Evil Forgotten
Hawthorne has a strange tale, “Earth’s Holocaust,” about a time when the inhabitants of earth, “overburdened with an accumulation of wornout trumpery, determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.” All night long a stranger, with cynical smile and haughty air, stood watching them bring things which they considered evil—trashy books, implements of war, liquor, tobacco, and what not—and toss them into the fire. Late in the night the stranger approached and said: “There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all—yes, though they have burnt the earth itself to cinders.” “And what may that be?” someone asked. He replied, “What but the human heart itself: and unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes, or worse ones, which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes.… Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet.”
The Christian Church has been entrusted with the spiritual means for purifying the heart—the Gospel of God’s redeeming grace in Christ. That Gospel is our “last, best hope” for a better world. To proclaim and explain the Gospel with never flagging zeal; to bring unceasingly all known powers of persuasion to bear upon the minds, the consciences, the wills, and the hearts of men to accept God’s proffered grace, to yield themselves to the power of the Gospel and live by it, and under its inspiration consecrate themselves and their abilities to the job of transforming this earth into God’s Great Society—this is the Church’s fundamental work in the world. All its energies, resources, and organizational machinery should be continuously devoted toward the effectual performance of this task.
Ilion T. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo, California. While in the pastorate he was chairman (1940) of the Social Education and Action Committee of the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) General Assembly. His books include “A Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship” and “Practice and Principles of Preaching.”
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