New light on old themes often forces contemporary scholars to surrender jealously guarded ideas. One of the most closely held but erroneous notions is that John Calvin ran a theocracy in Geneva that controlled all of life and indissolubly united church and state.
Calvin believed in two orders—the ecclesiastical and the governmental. Both are divinely ordained, each having its own function and each its own sphere of influence and power. Calvin sought to protect the rightful authority of the Church and to sustain its spiritual prerogatives. At the same time he refrained from involving the Church in matters belonging to the secular, not the spiritual realm.
New light on old ideas about Calvin, the theocracy, and the Church’s control of the totality of life comes from The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Eerdmans, 1966, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, ed.). According to these records, which cover the period from 1546 to 1564, the pastors of the Genevan church, while deeply involved in ecclesiastical and spiritual matters, stayed out of political and economic affairs. No one can read into these records, even by indirection, any effort by the ministers of the church to direct the political and economic life of the community or to influence the decisions of the council, the secular arm of the Genevan government.
Moreover, when Calvin preached—and this he did regularly—he used the pulpit to expound the Scriptures, not to control the political and economic destinies of Geneva. As an individual he had the right to his own opinions and could use the franchise to influence the political and economic order. But for the record it should be stated that Calvin came to Geneva as an immigrant and was not granted bourgeois status until 1559, twenty-three years after his arrival and only five years before his death. Before 1559, then, he could not vote and thus had no part in choosing Geneva’s elected officials.
Anyone who thinks that the Church should become institutionally involved in secular governmental affairs will get no help from the example of Calvin and the other ministers, or from this illuminating Register. Modern churchmen would do well to ponder the evidences and follow Calvin’s example.
Some pointed suggestions for evangelical action in the race conflict
Mounting clamor for “black power,” tensions among Negro civil rights leaders, lawless and inexcusable violence in streets of cities all over the country, brutality in the North unmasking white hostility toward the Negro, as in Chicago—these are warning signs of greater trouble. Meanwhile, a third major civil rights bill about to be debated in the Senate centers attention on jury practices, interference with lawful exercise of constitutional rights, incitement to violence, and housing.
Slogans are powerful and also dangerous. Occasionally they boomerang. Already “black power” has shown both its varying and destructive potential. Unwelcome to a leader of Martin Luther King’s stature because of its overtones of racism and violence, it attracts many a Negro who feels at the end of the road. Appealing because it promises to right old wrongs by direct political action where Negroes are a majority, it is suspect because of its Black Muslim roots. Many government leaders are unhappy about it. Many whites are deeply afraid of it. Yet the call for “black power” will not go away. The recent statement by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen (New York Times, July 31) reminds us that reason and compassion require that it be understood as an outcome of laws unenforced, crimes unpenalized, and personhood and identity denied. But to understand is not necessarily to approve.
What is happening within the civil rights movement may be too complex for precise evaluation now. Some in the racial struggle seem to have made a right-angled turn toward what might become overt revolution. Yet amid all the complexities of the crisis, certain facts are plain.
Chief among these is the empty place within the civil rights movement. It is not necessary to spell out all the causes—ranging from jockeying for leadership, frustration at injustice, and persistent repudiation of personal worth, to lack of personal Christian faith—to realize that a vacuum exists. Emptiness may be very dangerous; we have it on Christ’s own authority that the demonic may enter the empty human heart.
This emptiness confronts Christians with an opportunity unparalleled in recent social history. That Jesus Christ is the answer to the vacuum in the civil rights struggle is as certain as that he is the answer to every other human problem. Nevertheless, what is principially true demands application through humble, realistic, and sacrificial action.
The Cleveland riots were touched off when a Negro was refused a glass of ice-water in a tavern. Taverns do not exist to serve ice-water either to whites or to Negroes; but if the petition was sincere, the denial was also a denial of neighbor love. Few evangelicals are in taverns, but many are lacking in love. Let it be said bluntly: Evangelicals, while maintaining their historic distinction between the corporate church and the political realm, have too long failed to become personally involved in neighbor love. The Church is people. Thus it deals with human problems and reaches people not through committee actions and pronouncements but through what individuals do in expressing love in person-to-person relations.
In the practice of such love, evangelicalism has a long and honored history. But history cannot bear present burdens. And, to our shame, in recent years personal involvement in the hard problems of society has often been left by evangelicals to others who do not give the Gospel priority.
But how are evangelical churches, acting through concerned individuals, to shoulder a share of responsibility in the present crisis? While there are no panaceas, there are answers.
Central to any answer is the necessity for re-evaluating personal attitudes. The Rev. Don De Young, pastor of the inter-racial Elmendorf Reformed Church of Harlem, has said (June 10 issue) that when he began his work he had to give up an ingrained patronizing attitude and learn to come to a different people “in weakness, that the Lord might receive the glory rather than a ‘home church’ or sending denomination.” And thus for the attitude that he was his “brother’s keeper,” he had to substitute with God’s help the attitude that he was, as Luther said, his “brother’s Christ.”
But attitudes not only must be changed; they must also find embodiment in deeds. Jesus made it wholly clear that we must bring forth fruit. Here are some lines of action open to those committed to the principle of non-involvement of the corporate church in political action.
Let evangelical churches prayerfully and repentantly devote one or more congregational meetings to considering their responsibility in the present crisis. Let them ask themselves whether their members ever have a right to pass by on the other side.
Some members might resolve to cultivate friendships with Negro neighbors just for the sake of friendship. Others with special talents might follow the example of a California writer, Budd Schulberg, who is conducting a writing workshop for Negroes in the Watts area. Christian personality and faith can be communicated through programs in the arts and education and also through playground and athletic services. More Evangelical churches could open their facilities to Operation Head Start. Possibilities are numerous.
Or consider the vexed problems of housing. Here neighbor love may quite literally be costly. Yet personal sacrifice pleases God. Surely Christians ought, without legal compulsion, to do what love dictates. And though some may raise constitutional questions about legislating the use of private property, the expression of neighbor love knows no such barrier. The Christian has, of course, an obligation to all his neighbors, but he owes discrimination to none. A similar problem that Christians in the North must now seek to solve in a way compatible with the love of Christ is that of equal opportunity in public education.
But action by white evangelicals has realistic limits. The turn the Negro civil rights movement is taking tends to exclude white participation, liberal or evangelical. Significant is the establishment this summer by the National Negro Evangelical Association of a family counseling center in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The center’s “hot line” will be open twenty-four hours a day, and the program will include a series of weekly youth meetings with refreshments, inter-church programs of evangelism, and a literature campaign. And there is the recent evangelistic crusade held at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem by the Rev. Howard O. Jones, the well-known Negro member of Billy Graham’s team. About 10,000 attended the crusade meetings July 25–31, and 500 made decisions for Christ. (Mr. Jones’s recent book, Shall We Overcome?, combines deep involvement in the justice of the Negroes’ cause with realistic appraisal of their great spiritual need.) Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship is finding more interest at Howard University, a predominantly Negro school in Washington, than on any other local campus.
With the rapidly changing complexion of our Northern cities through the influx of Southern Negroes, some evangelical churches are considering removal to the suburbs. This problem must be met, not on the basis of expediency or of what is pleasant, but on the basis of spiritual need and opportunity for proclaiming Christ by word and deed.
As for suburban churches, they might well consider supporting evangelical inner-city work with both money and volunteer workers. The American Sunday School Union, after nearly a century and a half of work in sparsely populated areas, has established an urban ministry department for promoting Sunday schools in slum areas teeming with the unchurched. It deserves enthusiastic support. So does Young Life, begun as a ministry to middle-class teen-agers and now active also in Harlem and in blighted parts of other great cities.
Future evangelical vitality in America may depend in good part upon evangelicals’ practice of neighbor love in the racial crisis as in every other part of life. The young generation of evangelicals neither understands nor respects what has come to be middle-class aloofness to human needs. A young assistant minister in a leading evangelical church endeavored to evangelize youngsters in the church’s own community. But because more than half the children were Negroes, the congregation put its foot down. It wanted Negroes evangelized but mainly by Negro churches. As the young man said in his disillusionment, these church members are telling the Negro child, “You need to know more about Jesus Christ and his love, but I can’t tell you about him here.” Such attitudes turn our young people from the faith of their fathers.
Evangelicals need to present to youth and their elders alike the heroic call to practice neighbor love. They should do this just as urgently as they are presenting the challenge of foreign missions and world evangelism. Those who obey the command to take Christ to every man everywhere cannot overlook the lost and hungry sheep on their very doorstep. And if evangelicals are found wanting here, they may discover in eternity that the white sheep are really black sheep.
Death Of A Great Newspaper
“Today is a day of mourning,” remarked publisher John Hay Whitney. A crippling labor strike has spelled death for one of the nation’s great newspapers, the New York Herald-Tribune, long distinguished by literary brilliance and gifted reporting. In 1869 the paper sent Henry M. Stanley to “find” Livingstone, and Stanley returned to Africa at Livingstone’s death. Those who, like this writer, had some modest past connection with the paper in its Stanley Walker era—when top American writers were its rewrite men—share deeply in the sense of loss. The Herald-Tribune died not of old age but of paralysis of its pressmen.
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