Geneva conclave of ecumenical churchmen will reflect WCC attitudes on political involvement


Ought the Christian Church as a corporate institution to champion a specific political program? Is economic revolution a proper ecclesiastical goal? Should Christians welcome socialism as an aspect of the Kingdom of God? Is Karl Marx a latter-day Christian prophet?

When the World Conference on Church and Society meets in Geneva, Switzerland, July 12–16, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, millions of churchgoers will gain a clearer impression of the political attitudes of the ecumenical movement, which is already the center of mounting controversy over organizational Protestantism’s “meddling” in secular affairs.

Since the prestige of the institutional church has already been widely undermined in our generation by theological and moral confusion, many evangelical spokesmen insist that world ecumenical endorsement of direct political engagement as an authentic ecclesiastical mission, and beyond that the official encouragement of a socialist society, may provoke a disruptive break in ecumenical cooperation. Some view the prospect of a politically active world church as the final stage of the unevangelical secularization and the spiritual irrelevance of corporate Christianity.

Moreover, the possibility that differences over official ecumenical commitments in social ethics may increasingly pull apart the world Christian community is conceded by the Rev. Paul Albrecht of Geneva, secretary of the section on social questions at the Evanston (1954) and New Delhi (1961) assemblies and now executive secretary of the Department on Church and Society of the WCC Division of Studies.

“God is a ‘politician’,” contends Professor Paul L. Lehmann, formerly of Princeton Theological Seminary and now of Union Theological Seminary, New York (Ethics in a Christian Context, New York, Harper & Row, 1963, p. 85). An advocate of “contextual ethics,” Lehmann distrusts absolute moral principles and thinks Christianity should support relative and pragmatic positions in politico-economic affairs. With an eye on the socialist revolution, Dr. Denys Munby, a British lay theologian and Oxford economist, writes: “God is in the process of transforming our economic order.” The Church, he insists, should “participate in that activity” (God and the Rich Society, London: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 179).

A background book for the upcoming WCC Geneva conference edited by President John C. Bennett of Union Seminary, New York, shows a marked ecumenical bias toward socialist theory. The volume, entitled Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World (Association Press and SCM Press, 1966) and promoted as “insights from world Christian leaders on the Church’s role in national and international politics,” almost invariably views capitalism critically; moreover, it repeatedly approves socialism and advocates for it spirited ecumenical support. Copyright to the volume is held by the World Council of Churches. (See editorial pp. 22 f.)

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Revolt Against Revealed Truths And Principles

One dominant emphasis of this initial Geneva background volume is its rejection of fixed moral principles, irrespective of divine revelation and the Bible.

This development marks a further declension from the older liberal conception of Christian social ethics evident in the Oxford Conference (1937), where, as in the earlier Stockholm Conference (1925), numerous church leaders still insisted on an ethic based on New Testament principles (albeit particularly the Sermon on the Mount) despite Emil Brunner’s rejection of divinely revealed principles and truths. In Britain, Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and the Social Order (1942) stressed principles of social order above the expanding ecumenical tendency to submerge these. But the Oxford report finally placed itself over against the inherited Christian view by sharing largely in the revolt against an ethics based on revealed social principles; moreover, by applying the principle of “love” beyond purely personal relations, it broke with Reformation ethics. The principle of “justice” was now regarded as the relative expression of the love-commandment in criticism of economic, political, and social institutions. The revolt against fixed revelational principles in ecumenical social theory has increasingly led on toward an unprincipled, situational ethic.

Defenders of an existential and contextual approach to social ethics point out that, in practice, most ecumenical social thinking is already situational. Social radicals deplore as “legalistic” and “moralistic” whatever remnants of biblical norms, standards, or general principles survive in ecumenical social thought and plead instead for ethical commitments based wholly on an existential or contextual approach. For this reason, ecumenical positions in the social arena threaten to become highly pragmatic and subject to frequent revision.

Dr. Russell Chandran, principal of the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, considers contextual ethics one of the “best guides for Christian thinking in the future.… Christian ethics and particularly Christian social ethics does not consist in absolute moral precepts” (Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World, pp. 222 f.). (Chandran has been Henry W. Luce Visiting Professor on World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary.)

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Although Dr. Harry Aronson of the University of Lund, Sweden, views the Ten Commandments as “words of eternal truth,” he stresses that “they were given in a historical situation. Our historical situation is a different one. Our life, given to us by God, has its own law; man has to listen to God as he speaks and guides in each place and in each historical situation (ibid., p. 260).

Adeolu Adegbola of Nigeria, Methodist theologian and chairman of the WCC’s youth department, espouses “trinitarian pragmatism” in ethics. In new social situations, he contends, man’s ethical responses cannot be laid down “once and for all” but rather “need to be rediscovered anew under the impulse of the ever-acting Spirit of God.… We have at our disposal the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (p. 187).

John C. Bennett, long a champion of radical social theories, pithily summarizes the widespread ecumenical mood: “It is our contention that a contextual theology and ethic offer creative possibilities …” (p. 43).

The few favorable references to moral principles in the Geneva background volume are illuminating. Professor H. D. Wendland, of the University of Westphalia, points to socio-ethical possibilities of economic and political partnership as attesting “the need of our times for new principles of social order” (p. 139, n. 5, ital. sup.). Paul Albrecht of Geneva thinks that “probably the greatest challenge to Christian thought in the coming decade” lies in a discovery of “theological and social categories that will help to express the meaning of the Christian faith for the problems of an emerging world society” (p. 162). The continuing “search for ‘Christian principles’ for social action,” he adds, “is qualified by emphasis on the ambiguity of all programs for social justice. The search for ‘principles’ has arisen in the discussion of the new and creative forms of justice that might be possible in any particular social situation” (p. 163). The inherited moral principles transmitted by the Christian religion are implied by Bruce Reed of England, an Anglican, to be of “vague and uncertain” relevance to complex modern problems (quoting Morris Ginsberg, p. 116); “social ethics for Christ arose out of concrete situations,” says Reed (p. 105). The Christian, we are told by J. M. Lochman, is not to be “different on principle” (p. 239). An American Lutheran, William H. Lazareth, casts Luther in opposition to “all unevangelical ethics or principles” (p. 122); Christians, we are informed, do not have “principles to apply” (p. 128). The biblical ethic is tapered into “an ethic of concrete decisions in concrete situations” (Wolfgang Schweitzer, quoted on p. 251). The “responsible society” that the Church should seek rests on “a universal and ‘humane’ demand,” and not upon an unconditional divine command such as love for neighbor; but the Christian ethic “formulates the principles and postulates of a Christian humanism that seeks to determine … what can be done for the good of man” (H. D. Wendland, pp. 141, 147).

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Is Socialism A Providential Gift Of God?

President Bennett notes that Marxism alone considers revolution “essential to the creation of a more stable and just society” (p. 26). What Bennett especially protests is the fact that “after it comes to power, alters the structures of society and institutionalizes a new order … the very ideology that provided the dynamic for revolution gets in the way of a creative response to the problem of order and change” (pp. 26 f., ital. sup.). Bennett pictures God as a revolutionary deity, the Christian religion as revolutionary, and political and social revolution as the cutting edge of God’s humanizing action in history (here Bennett quotes Paul Lehmann); he therefore ascribes the social revolution to divine Providence (pp. 27 f.). The Christian may even detect “a relative coincidence in the direction of the revolutionary struggle with God’s humanizing action in the world” (p. 36). Wholly optimistic over the new patterns of society latent in the revolutionary struggle, Bennett urges that we understand this future through “an order of truth … not necessarily logical, but … determined by the providential ordering of God” (pp. 37 f.). Central to God’s humanizing activity in the world, Bennett says, are forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation (of perspectives!) (p. 41). Bennett’s this-worldly view of Christ’s Kingdom is clear from his emphasis that “revolutionary structures can contribute to this goal only as they provide all classes and groups in society with an opportunity for increasing participation in the shaping of the life of the community, the economic order and the nation” (pp. 41 f.). Students of the Scriptures must surely be disillusioned to discover how meagerly Jesus and the early Christians promoted the priorities by which Bennett defines God’s special historical providence.

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A leader of French ecumenical thought, Dr. Roger Mehl, candidly locates in Karl Marx the inspiration for the WCC’s aim of altering the structures of society. Marx, he writes, “brought out the factthat the social system itself needed to be changed.” In other words, “socialism discovered that the chief problems of social ethics are problems of structures.… The consequence of this discovery was the setting up of a science of social structures—sociology. Individual decisions and good will have no power over social structures.… It is puerile to suppose … that this change of atmosphere is enough to resolve social problems.…” (pp. 44 f., ital. sup.). While Marxism and Christianity alike claim to open a “way into the future of man,” the unique and irreplaceable element in the New Testament is its emphasis on a future already present (p. 53). Modern society “organizes systems of mutual help, of social security, of social services, which function anonymously … not by personal initiative but by virtue of legislation of universal application.… The state can also correct the too-anonymous, too-impersonal element in the system.… The social order can become a figure, a parable, an analogy of the order of love that is the law of the Kingdom” (pp. 54 f., ital. sup.). “We must be grateful to the World Council of Churches, especially since the Evanston Assembly (1954), for having launched the idea … of the responsible society.… The idea … appears to us to be the analogized transcription in the secular world of the brotherhood of the gospel” (p. 56, ital. sup.).

Some ecumenical planners even project a pattern covering all man’s social existence. Professor Wendland, rector of the University of Westphalia, identifies the socio-ethical task of ecumenism as “the formation and handing down of socio-ethical conventions that everyone in society can understand and observe, the demands of a general social ethos, binding and expressing the responsibility of all in every aspect of life.” This sweeping proposal he prefaces with the declaration that “the ecumenical social ethic cannot limit itself to an appeal to the individual to realize his responsibility for his fellow-man” (p. 139). He projects a social partnership built on “legal-ethical control of social differences” (p. 140). Wendland grants that social “partnership” is not the brotherly love insisted on by Christ, but he insists that “brotherly love … should make use of partnership as a form of practicing human solidarity that will pave the way toward reducing social difference.…” (pp. 140 f.).

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Louis Janssens, professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, asserts that the maxim “From each according to his ability,” constantly found in Marxist writings, merely paraphrases Paul’s instruction (2 Thess. 3:10) (p. 173); and “To each according to his needs,” so dear to the Marxists, is said to be taken from Acts 4:35 (p. 177). In an international society, Janssens contends, the authorities in control should tax highly developed nations in proportion to their income in order to promote world partnership (p. 174). Dr. Chandran of India hails the movement of the Indian National Congress toward “a socialistic pattern of society” as progress toward social justice (p. 221). “Society needs to be constantly reminded that revolutionary social and economic changes are called for which aim at nothing short of the liberation of every single person from the consequences of an unjust order” (p. 225). He approves endorsement of welfare state goals and of a socialist society by the National Christian Council of India and the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (p. 224). Chandran complains because the social revolution in India “is not radical enough”: the methods are too slow, and socialist objectives should be more swiftly implemented (p. 226).

Dr. Gonzalo Castillo Cárdenas of Colombia, executive secretary of the Commission on Presbyterian Cooperation in Latin America, writes: “Communism, socialism and other groups of the political left have gone ahead of all other groups in preaching a new system of values, which has as its motivation and goal a social justice that would satisfy the immediate necessities of the people for … social security.” “The priority of the moment,” he thinks, “is an ecclesiastical strategy adequate to this explosive situation” (p. 203). Cárdenas holds that the Church “must understand its mission in terms of the humanization of secular society” and “must speak loudly and clearly and even become actively involved in the struggle against the present political, social and economic organization” (pp. 212 f.).

The “responsible society” projected by the World Council of Churches is, Mehl makes clear, a socialist compromise of capitalism and Communism: “It excludes equally the type of individualistic society that is based on free competition and profit seeking and the type of authoritarian society that is entirely enclosed in the meshes of plans laid down at the top” (p. 56). Indeed, it aims to add ethical fulfillment to Marxism: “Does the purpose of human society consist in insuring that everyone can satisfy his primary needs (food, clothing, housing) and his secondary needs (health, security, culture, leisure)? Beyond these objectives should we not aim at a more brotherly society … not only a society whose needs are satisfied?… It is the duty of Christians to offer both to the capitalist world and to the communist world a social purpose with an ethical content. Originally, Marxism did this …” (pp. 57 f.).

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The need for “comprehensive social and economic planning” can be met, Wendland suggests, if partnership and democracy break through differences of social position and issue in a “social democracy” (p. 147). “The ecumenical social ethic” must oppose both conservative determinism and Marxism as condoning unjustifiable evils, whereas “the guiding concept of the responsible society … presupposes the changeability of social structures and the necessity for continually revising them” (pp. 148f.). Curiously, Wentland warns that all historical programs are provisional and cautions the Church against “falling into a new Christian social ideology,” yet espouses “social democracy” as if it were the will of God.

From within the socialist world, Czechoslovakian theologian J. M. Lochman tells of almost unprecedented changes that have overtaken the churches. “Their main emphasis has naturally been in the economic and social fields; their aim is reconstruction toward the socialist society.… This reconstruction is based on the sharply defined presuppositions of an ideology that claims to be the sole authority in all essential social spheres. It is the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, consciously materialistic, which has never had a positive relationship to religion” (p. 231). The Church is ultimately regarded as a relic of a past epoch, which for pragmatic political reasons is to be tolerated but which (at least in its original, religious form) is intrinsically foreign to the future of a socialist society (p. 232). In Czechoslovakia, neither the Marxist state nor the church, Lochman writes, encourages the ideological blending of Marxism with the Gospel, or the assimilation of the church and socialism into a “socialist Christianity” (p. 234). But he esteems Communism for its “constructive and humanistic possibilities” above “destructive and nihilistic fascism” (p. 236). And he emphasizes that a socialist society can be creatively molded because it is dynamic, not static. “Skeptical doubts about the possibility of a Christian existence and mission in a socialist society are not justified; and, from the theological point of view, they must be dismissed” (p. 236). In a Marxist-socialist society, new ways of secular witness must be found. It is a judgment on the Church, he writes, that socialism recognized more clearly than most Christians that Christian philanthropy requires not simply personal charity but a “purposeful, organized and planned system of welfare for the whole sphere of men’s social life, a reconstruction of society, not only the dealing with crying individual needs” (pp. 246 f.). Lochman professes to derive the socialistic revolution from the Bible and to find in the Gospel a basis “for our saying ‘yes’ to socialist reconstruction, to its principle and to many of its results, such as the generous provision of our health services” (p. 247). Since in a Marxist-socialist environment everybody lives consciously in “the new society” and nobody seeks to maintain political “anticonceptions,” concludes Lochman, new possibilities of witness are created by the fact that “Christians cannot be dismissed simply as reactionary partisans of the past system” (pp. 239 f.).

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(New Program of the Communist Party, U. S. A. [A Draft], pp. 116 f.)

In this respect we are guided by these principles:

1. We oppose all attempts to create division and antagonism among the people along religious lines. Accordingly, our Party is made up of believers and non-believers. What unites its ranks is a common social-political outlook.

2. Marxists disagree philosophically with the supernatural, mystical elements of religion; nevertheless we recognize many positive, humanist values in ethical and moral precepts of the several religions. We salute the increasing attempts of social-minded religious individuals and groups to apply the positive precepts of their faiths to the struggle for a better life on earth. A salutary development of our time has been the growing involvement of clergymen of all faiths, frequently on the front lines, in the battles for civil rights, peace, civil liberties and economic welfare. To all such efforts we extend the welcome hand of friendship and solidarity.

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3. We subscribe to the fundamental tenets of democracy that are deeply imbedded in American tradition (even though they are too often violated): the right to freedom of conscience (which includes, of course, the right to atheistic convictions as well as religious beliefs), and the separation of church and state.

4. Full freedom of conscience and worship will be guaranteed in a socialist United States. (Quoted from the Marxist Quarterly, No. 17, Spring, 1966, p. 30).

A Warning From Sweden Against Idolatry

It is highly significant that from Sweden, where “the social democratic dream of the welfare state is approaching realization” (p. 258), the Lutheran philosopher of religion Harry Aronson offers the most telling comments on “Christian socialism” to be found in the Geneva background volume. “It would be unrealistic and somewhat naïve to assume,” he writes, “that the Christian understanding of man … as created and fallen and current ideas of the welfare state should be identical. There are certainly common ideas that should be emphasized and that can serve as a starting point for continued conversation. But in all ideologies their dynamics, their goals, arise out of very real conditions. These presuppositions and goals, bound up as they are with human needs, give them consistency and a relative ‘truth’.… It may be argued that the church has the same goals as social forces of humanist origin, but it must not be forgotten that it has a very special contribution to make” (p. 263). And Swedish culture today, as Aronson sees it, shows obvious signs of “laissez-faire in the spiritual and moral field.… The Church of Sweden has to face the challenge of a welfare ideology and cultural pluralism, which easily becomes ethical and religious relativism.… The Bible as a book of eternal truth is no longer a reality for most people” (p. 264). “Mass culture appears to be essentially materialistic, a reflection of an economic system and of physiological materialism.… Theologically, the process must be labeled as idolatry” (p. 265).

Ncc Leader Calls Fear Of Socialism Ridiculous

Professor Roger L. Shinn of Union Theological Seminary, a leader in social-action movements sponsored by the National Council of Churches, writes that “the Christian Church, in its centuries of history, has lived through many revolutionary eras. It has learned, or should have learned, not to ally itself too closely with any specific social environment” (p. 266). Yet Dr. Shinn considers a “major reshaping of society” along the economic lines of the Scandinavian countries a divine imperative (p. 277). “The United States enjoys its high production partly because of and partly in spite of a devotion to free enterprise. It is out of tune with the majority of mankind in its ritual deference to a traditional economic ideology.… In some respects the fear of socialism in this country is ridiculous” (p. 281). As a matter of fact, notes Shinn, socialism has already made strategic gains on the American scene, and the process should be accelerated. “The United States has led the world in socialized education. It has considerable socialized housing, socialized parks, socialized water systems, socialized dams and power plants.” As Shinn sees it, the Church “must carry out four tasks” in the social arena, including a major reconstruction of society along socialist lines.

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Socialism And The Kingdom Of God

To what extent do ecumenical spokesmen find the good providence of God and the presence of Christ in the socialist revolution?

While much ecumenical social theory unabashedly endorses socialism, ecumenical theorists are divided over the precise connection of socialism with God’s Kingdom.

Wendland notes that all orderings of human society, as provisional and historically conditioned, lack the “ultimate character” of the eschatological telos (goal) of God’s Kingdom. “The responsible society” (apparently an ecumenical synonym for socialism) “is not the Kingdom of God on earth nor even a transitory stage or bridge on the way to it in the shape of a ‘Christian society’ ”; rather, it is secular and historical, and “must and can exist among non-Christians.… One need not become a Christian in order to work for its realization” (p. 141). “It is the expression of a ‘world-wide’ humanism” (p. 142). Hence Wendland avoids utopian claims for the ecumenical “responsible” (or socialist) society—which is relative and historically conditioned, and “makes no illusory claims to absolute justice or to creating a totally ‘new’ man” (p. 143). The law as socio-ethical demand does not effect “social redemption”; “the responsible society” cannot “take the place of the Kingdom of God or of the Church”; and “the Christian expectation of the Kingdom of God indicates that the secular character of social-ethical programs must be clearly recognized” (p. 151). The Gospel is neither a “socio-revolutionary” program nor a “legal catalogue” for social reform. Yet when Wendland adds that the Church’s refusal to assail the social structures “would mean the eschatological abolition of all provisional forms of the Kingdom of God, such as church or social institutions” (p. 150), he seems to concede what he had refused—a principal connection between socialism and the Kingdom.

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The Church And Revolution

The Geneva document includes some acknowledgment that the Christian must not be committed to revolution per se. Wendland clearly states that the Christian thrust for social justice cannot be assimilated to “ ‘absolute’ revolution, which regards radical negations as a sufficient basis for a new ordering of society” (pp. 144 f.), nor identified with the “illusion of a society without government, which could be organized solely through communal sentiment, or, according to the claim of Christian enthusiasts, solely through love” (p. 146). And Cárdenas asserts that Christians “must demonstrate their presence in the revolutionary process by a concern for the integrity of men. They must refuse to allow them to be manipulated and used as mere instruments …” (p. 213).

One might expect Christian religious leaders familiar with the recent collectivistic view that man is merely an instrument of state policy to offer a few relevant observations on this perverse theory, or, in lieu of this, to expound social justice in terms of the commandments of God. But their appeal for social change is set mainly in the context of approval of socialism and criticism of capitalism. The overwhelming impression is given that free-enterprise economics, even “Calvinistic capitalism,” has little if anything to commend it, and that Christian social conscience, if authentic, must approve socialism and even promote it. That “justice” is to be understood in terms of transcendent norms, or of the revealed will of God, and not simply in terms of socio-economic adjustment along Marxist lines, is here and there briefly stated in passing. But the truths and principles of the Bible are handled gingerly in relation to divine revelation by most participants in this ecumenical dialogue; both anti-intellectual theories of revelation and higher critical theories of Scripture have left their mark.

Professor N. H. Söe of Denmark asks, “Was not Karl Marx an instrument in arousing a lazy church to see more clearly its social responsibility?” (p. 300), and adds that “the Christian church could learn much from Karl Marx and his modern disciples” (p. 305).

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Surely Christianity takes a critical-transcendent view of society and culture. Surely it is interested in the abolition of social abuses and injustices. But by what right does Marx define the critical norms of an ideal society? And how is socialistic social planning as a “divine” imperative to be squared with the precise teaching of Jesus and his apostles and with their example? If the Church is to identify “Christian economics” with a socialist economy, what happens to its claim that all of life is under the judgment of God? How are “the principles and postulates” formulated by ecumenical social theory to be reconciled with the principles and postulates of the biblical revelation of God and his purposes for man?

Surely, in facing a revolutionary world situation in which the alternatives of anti-religious Marxism and ecumenical socialism seem equally objectionable, evangelical Christians must avoid an addiction to a mere negative “theology of anti-Communism” or to a secular endorsement of materialistic capitalism. They are called to rediscover the searching judgment that the biblical revelation passes on all social and personal life. Can they move their hearers in this age to grasp their genuine interest in the elevation of the working world, and in righteousness in the social, economic, and political order? Can they expound the implications of justice in the sacred tradition of the Bible, in powerful relevance to crucial modern concerns without the offensive meddling in non-ecclesiastical matters that characterizes much of institutional Christianity today?

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