The breathtaking developments of the last few days provide a highly polished mirror on the unsteady American scene: President Johnson’s withdrawal from the election campaign, his peace overture toward Hanoi, the brutal and outrageous murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the widespread rioting and destruction that swept scores of American cities. The stunning suddenness of these events points to an even less predictable future.
King’s murder reinforced Ho Chi Minh’s claim that the United States is a nation of violence and special privilege. The task of clarifying the issues for the world at large now becomes more difficult than ever. Many persons overseas refuse to believe that American intentions in Asia are anti-aggressor and that no minority anywhere is making swifter gains than the American Negro.
America, like other nations, falls embarrassingly short of full devotion to justice and freedom. Even though the Civil War freed the slaves, many Negroes have been second-rate citizens. King emerged a powerful and persuasive leader in the movement to improve opportunities for American Negroes. He helped them develop a sense of racial pride. As that pride quickened, black men’s hearts and consciences burned indignantly over social inequalities in the South and economic inequalities in the North. The American Negro became impatient for change. Had he not become impatient, he probably would still be discriminated against in public places and unwelcome in restaurants and hotels simply because of his pigment. Avowedly as an apostle of nonviolence, King courageously led the struggle against racism. He disowned arrogant concepts of black power but encouraged nonviolent civil disobedience in the name of “higher moral law.”
King was under increasing constraint to intensify the coercive force of his protest to secure swift social change. In the last article he wrote before he was slain he said, “The tactic of nonviolence … has in the last two years not been playing” a transforming role (Look, April 16 issue). He blamed “white racism” for dividing America and asserted that “we need, above all, effective means to force Congress to act resolutely.” His program called for a series of summer “mass nonviolent protests” beginning in Washington, D. C.
King coupled civil disobedience with militant activism. In Memphis, where 200,000 Negroes seek economic parity and center their hopes in a strike of garbage workers that has inconvenienced the city since February 12, he championed mass protest as a political weapon. Although the first Memphis protest march had already been infiltrated by Negro rioters given to violence and looting, King said he would not bow to a restraining court injunction, and valued a second march above the law of the community. Before he could lead it, he was assassinated.
What the American Negro seems not to grasp is that Supreme Court decisions and the widening claim of law in American life have done more for Negro equality than has civil disobedience, except as the latter has been ventured only for the sake of a test case in the courts. Public marches have lost impact; they can regain it only through escalation. And the rioting and violence to which they easily lead breeds a counter-reaction. A public show of ugly temper, indifference to property rights, and insensitivity to the wrong of stealing may temporarily reinforce a man’s right to equality, but it also reinforces prejudices and makes him seem an undesirable neighbor.
Necessary social advances for the Negroes, including open housing, ultimately depend on more than legislation if the realities of community are to be preserved. Men must respect and obey law. Americans are in Asia presumably to rebuke lawless forces and to promote law and justice, and no American ought to minimize the importance of law at home.
It was no tribute to King’s memory that violence, looting, and arson became the widespread Negro response to the Memphis murder. Multiplied injustices hardly advance reconciliation of the races and respect for human rights. To combat widespread burning and looting in the nation’s capital, where Stokely Carmichael warned of impending “retaliation” because “white America” killed Dr. King, it was necessary to summon twice as many armed troops as were stationed at beleaguered Khe Sanh in South Viet Nam.
At the height of the tourist season in Washington, cherry blossom festivities were canceled. Instead many thousands of visitors saw downtown areas gutted as if by war, while firemen tried to cope with as many as seventy fires at once. Property damage in Washington alone ran into many millions of dollars. Hundreds were left homeless, and burned-out stores will widen unemployment and lengthen relief rolls. Newspapers carried pictures of rioters scarcely able to walk under their load of television sets and other appliances. Women filled blankets with merchandise and dragged the bundles to their homes, and even children pushed baby carriages full of booty.
The sad implication is that in an ideal society, whatever one doesn’t have he is free to grab. Should this mentality find support among the black militants, America faces not only a long, hot summer but also the chill prospect of wintry death. Most American Negroes, we believe, are upstanding, responsible citizens, but their cause and convictions were set back by the militants who turned mourning into an immoral sport. What needs to be heard now is the voice of Negro disapproval and rebuke.
The racial turmoil so complicated President Johnson’s bid for peace in Viet Nam—a bid supported by his withdrawal from another presidential race assertedly to concentrate on problem-solving—that he canceled a Hawaiian conference on the war in Asia to ready a civil-rights action program for Congress. The President’s plea that the nation “deny violence its victory” and seek rule “not … by the bullet, but only by the ballot of free and: of just men” was eloquent.
But Johnson’s move to end the Viet Nam stalemate gratified wearying doves and hawks for differing reasons. And it remained to be seen whether Ho Chi Minh would use negotiations for military advantage, and whether American de-escalation would truly promote a just and durable peace. Johnson has shown the same hesitancies in regard to domestic injustice and to international aggression; in both cases he tends to reward mere cessation from brigandry.
The root of the modern problem is summarized readily by the slogan “Great Society,” which so easily deteriorates into the idea of fulfillment of human wants by political handout. This is quite a different prospect from that of a free and just society devoted to human rights and sensitive to human needs. The American Negro has learned from the American white—victim of materialistic hallucinations that he has become—that fullness of life is to be sought especially in an abundance of posessions.
Many Washington Negroes reacted to the murder of King in a way that was primitive, even barbaric. To reward this response and not to rebuke it in depth would show hesitancy toward justice, despite the professed desire to advance it. Looters tried to rationalize their conduct in various ways; they cited unemployment, personal need, reprisal for King’s death, retaliation for race discrimination, or merely the fact that “others are doing it.” Many were well-dressed; one driver of a Cadillac made off with a television set. Washington police said the “average looter” would be a Negro of about twenty-nine earning $85–95 per week. Many speciality stores were targets, and looters converted themselves momentarily into the nouveaux riches with $40 shoes, $150 suits, and color television sets. One appliance store lost $80,000 in merchandise. The intoxication that followed widespread looting of liquor stores compounded the problem.
Some rioters grinned and asked newspaper reporters, “Now will they pass a civil-rights bill?” Their tragic misconception that the only barrier to a Negro heaven on earth—conceived in terms of material plenty—is lack of legislation and appropriation shows where modern welfare-government propaganda has brought us. To dignify any demand for blackmail would be to give a corrupt response.
The invisible thread that holds together many major headlines is the pursuit of political millennialism. Over and above the persistent and necessary denunciation of social injustice, contemporary Americans seem obsessed by a passion for social utopia and look to politico-economic forces to provide it. Whether they center the coercive pressure for a new order in revolution (as do Communists, radical theologians, and black-power militants), or in welfare legislation for a Great Society (as does Lyndon Johnson), or in nonviolence escalated into civil disobedience for political goals (as did Martin Luther King), the assumption reigns that environmental re-adjustments can achieve the future ideal society.
Despite deepening awareness of rampant wrongs and social evils, most vocal leaders today ignore human degeneracy and the stark need to humanize fallen man. Contemporary analysts focus on social and economic imbalance as the fundamental problem of history. Their underestimation of man’s sinfulness, and consequent unrealistic view of society, spells inevitable disillusionment for proponents both of reform and of revolution. Modern crusaders borrow their indignation against social evils from prophetic Judeo-Christian sources, yet forfeit the revelatory and regenerative facets of scriptural revelation. They concentrate instead on limited politico-economic objectives.
It is noteworthy that politicians now plead more often for a “reconciliation of the races” and for personal cleansing from racism. But the tendency to reward violence, to look upon wanton destruction of property and assault upon human life as something that calls for larger appropriation of funds, is so superficial—and so often coupled with political self-interest—that public resentment is mounting against an excessive economic orientation of all national concerns. Crime in the American streets may still be the dominant issue in the fall election. The public is not likely to respond happily to a political view that congressional appropriations will nullify violence.
Yet the United States has a plain duty swiftly to carry out constructive measures for overcoming racial injustice. Equal opportunity before the law ought to become a concern of every citizen. God has published the criteria by which both men and nations will be judged, and race discrimination must come to an end.
At the same time, legal structures create only the formal possibility of a just society. Desperately needed is a cultivation in American life of the simple Christian virtues of love of neighbor, good will toward men, and a spirit of reconciliation. Here the evangelical churches—if they can find the courage—stand remarkably positioned to reach across racial lines and encourage a new spirit of brotherhood. If Negroes, like their white contemporaries, are strangers to the ultimate realities, we have a more profound task than condemnation; for the fulfillment of it, white and Negro believers can and ought to venture a common witness. Martin Luther King is dead; the task of the Christian community is to rescue those who are slowly dying of the prejudice and hopelessness that leaves men strangers to the full dignity of human nature as God intends it.
If and when peace returns to Viet Nam, if and when the United States has enacted the last necessary item of civil-rights legislation, and if and when racial tension comes to an end, Americans will discover that their hearts are still restless and troubled. One can forgive Ho Chi Minh, stranger that he is to Christian views, for pursuing the delusion of political millennialism. But one can only pity Americans—white or Negro—who nibble at the same materialist bait.
Only the Christian revelation holds out firm hope for a new and better future. At a conference on urban affairs at Princeton University, a speaker emphasized that America may be counted on to solve her most vexing problems because of man’s basic rationality and goodness and faith in liberal progress. When an announcement was suddenly made that King had been murdered, the speaker confessed that his argument was now demolished. But it is precisely at the point of man’s wickedness and social deterioration that Christianity has something to say. The demolition of liberal optimism need not lead to hopelessness that turns only to violence and destruction as a last resort—a solution that undermines the foundations of social stability and human worth. Christ’s incarnation and resurrection are the pledge and assurance that human nature can be recovered for enduring righteousness and dignity. Because of his triumph, sin and injustice cannot forever prevail.
The United Church of Canada is questioning its motivations for world mission, and, to judge from papers distributed by its Board of World Mission, the new answers are not promising. The papers, written by Dr. Pieter de Jong, speak of a crisis in the world mission of the Church caused by a loss among church people of the conviction that the Christian faith is unique and that a man’s decision about Christ in this life determines his destiny. A number of Canadian pastors think the papers blunt evangelism and encourage a departure from the revealed will of God declared in Scripture.
De Jong wishes to reopen the question of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. At one point he notes that the New Testament claims uniqueness for Jesus, but then he suggests a change in emphasis—from “exclusiveness” to “centrality.” He speaks of the possibility of an “unconscious Christianity” in which the worshiper acknowledges Jesus without actually knowing his name. Mission work, he says, is a dialogue that brings a man to awareness of “his saving relationship to Jesus Christ.”
The basis of this view of the Church’s mission is not the teaching of Scripture but the humanistic belief in an essential unity between God and man that can never be ultimately severed. The old liberals spoke of the “divine spark” in man. The new liberals, such as the late Paul Tillich, say that thinking is “rooted in the absolute as the foundation and abyss of meaning.… Theology and philosophy, religion and knowledge embrace each other.” For Tillich, man’s search for God is really a quest for his own being and meaning. Salvation becomes recognition of an already existing fact, awareness of a truth already there. Such philosophical idealism is a repudiation of biblical Christianity. It lacks an adequate doctrine of sin, of Christ, and of the way by which man accepts God’s gift of salvation.
An apostolic presentation of the uniqueness of Christ would include at least the following: (1) his pre-existence; the birth of Jesus marks not his beginning but his becoming man for us and our salvation. (2) His mediatorship; he is the mediator of creation and the only mediator of salvation. John writes that “all things were made through him” and Jesus said, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” (3) His person and work—the “only begotten of the Father,” the Saviour crucified “for our sins and raised again for our justification.”
“The uniqueness of Jesus Christ is the reason for his centrality in the Church’s faith, life, worship, and work,” argues William Heath in a paper commenting on the mission report. “If he is denied this biblical exclusiveness, the Church inevitably fails to worship and serve God as God and sinks into superstition and idolatry.”
A second reason given for a crisis in the “world mission of the Church” in the UCC papers is a loss of the belief that man’s decision for or against Christ determines his destiny. According to de Jong, the human race stands in a relation to grace both by its creation and by its change through the coming of Christ. He argues that God is bringing the human race under his control.
The old approach to mission, says de Jong, has two defects: dualism and individualism. Dualism gives priority to the soul and to the hereafter and only secondary interest to the here-and-now. Individualism emphasizes the necessity that each person repent and believe the holy Gospel. But if this old order of priorities is wrong, then Jesus Christ was in error when he warned against the possibility of losing one’s soul and urged his hearers to “seek … first the kingdom of God.” He claimed, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Physical birth is an individual thing, and so is spiritual birth. Both make men members of a family. The writer to the Hebrews notes the awful consequences of unbelief and urges his hearers to have faith. The New Testament makes it clear that there is no spiritual life without the new birth brought about by the creative power of the Word of God and faith in Jesus Christ.
The conviction that the Gospel makes the difference between “eternal weal or woe,” as de Jong terms it, remains sound, for it is derived from the teachings of Jesus Christ. Nowhere else in the New Testament is there a description of a lost soul more awful than that given by Jesus himself. Was he wrong in what he said about heaven and hell? If not, then this paper on mission errs in playing down the importance of the response of the individual to the Gospel.
The doctrine of the “wrath of God” comes from the Lord as a revelation of the enormity of sin. Only holiness can realize the greatness of the evil of unbelief, rebellion, and corruption in men. The Bible admits of degrees of punishment (Luke 12:47, 48; Rev. 20:12, 13) but also recognizes the persistence of habit and the failure of suffering to produce repentance. The human will, depraved by its insubordination to God, is capable of continuing to resist God, so that there is the possibility of endless sinning (Rev. 22:11; Mark 3:29). The Scriptures, especially the words of our Lord, speak of eternal punishment; they lack the notion that all punishment must be corrective.
Some strains of contemporary theology attempt to find man in a saving relationship to God by right of creation, but the Bible sees men as alienated from him. True, in Romans Paul argues that the heathen cannot escape divine revelation (1:20). The eternal power of God and his divinity are the context of their daily living. But this revelation does not result in saving knowledge. Rather it results in perversion, in man’s distortion of that revelation. Exposure to revelation does not necessarily bring a proper recognition in natural man. Man lives in the sphere of God’s sovereign working in nature, in history, in human existence. But he will not acknowledge God, and this brings guilt, condemnation, and “wrath.” Because heathen religions foster a distortion of God’s nature and encourage a departure from God as God, the missionary purpose must first be to preach the Gospel, to call men to repentance and faith. Repentance is turning from false ways, from all evil. Faith is a turning to God, to the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord who pours out the Holy Spirit on all who receive the Gospel.
A genuine “love of God” calls believers to preach the New Testament faith. Paul knew a great love—for Christ and for men. This made him the great missionary of the early Church. But he also knew a great deliverance—from sin and from the “wrath to come.” The love of Christ constrained him to preach the Gospel, and he urged men to be “reconciled to God” through the death of Jesus.
The missionary efforts of the United Church of Canada or of any Church must not move away from the motives and goals that gave rise to the modern world-missions movement. To do so would be to cherish the traditions of men more than the Word of God.
Among the centers that seek to instill new life into the Church today is the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago. However one appraises the institute’s contribution, one cannot deny that something noteworthy is happening in the heart of the West Side ghetto. In 1957 the Church Federation of Greater Chicago organized the Ecumenical Institute in Evanston as a conference center for ecumenical activities. Five years later Joe Matthews, a Methodist minister, and his wife were called from the Christian Faith and Life Community in Austin, Texas, to direct the institute program. Several other couples from the Austin community came with them to Evanston. Then in 1963 the institute, with its new dean, Joe Matthews, moved from Evanston to “where the action is,” the inner city. It is now located in an old seminary on West Congress Street. The area is 98 per cent Negro.
The Ecumenical Institute conceives of its role in various ways. First, it seeks to be a laboratory for the church of tomorrow. As Dean Matthews has expressed it, its principal task is research geared to the creating of a new church in a new world. It is also a training center where people from various races and creeds learn how to participate in revolutions in theology and culture today. Another part of the institute program is a nursery school for neighborhood children.
The Ecumenical Institute is also a religious community, a fellowship that lives a common life with financial resources channeled through a common fund. To put it more precisely, the staff of the institute is the community and the institute itself is a conference and training center. The community has more than 200 members, divided into interns or novices, fellows, and permanent members. Originally ministers and their families made up the institute staff, but now most of the members are laymen. They come drawn from all mainline Protestant denominations, and there are also six lay Roman Catholics and one Catholic priest. Jews too are welcomed as members. Only 2 per cent of the members are Negroes. Twenty per cent are single. The community views itself as a third order, i.e., one composed of married as well as single people. Every morning at 6:15 the community assembles for worship, and after breakfast there is a dialogue on some problem or concern. On Sunday evenings the Eucharist is celebrated as part of a common meal.
At this pioneering center a visitor detects enthusiasm and commitment. The community views the mission of the Church in a particular way and seeks to propagate its views through seminars and study classes. It holds that the present Church can be renewed but that renewal will entail a radical break with old thought forms and structures. As one of the staff put it: “At the institute we believe that the old brick and mortar church, with Sunday preaching and all the rest, is on the way out. We must serve human needs. And the deepest needs in our times are in the city” (quoted by Jean Orcate in Chicago, Autumn, 1966). It should be pointed out that the needs the institute speaks of are not the spiritual needs for divine forgiveness and redemption but rather the cultural needs to develop individual initiative and a positive self-image. The institute sees its role as helping the defeated people of the inner city to help themselves. This is beyond doubt a worthy objective. But we must question whether it is the Christian mission.
The traditional doctrines of the Church are drastically reinterpreted. The community holds that we are living in a one-story universe and that the idea of God as a supreme being is no longer tenable. God is redefined as a creative process within nature—or even as a “happening.” One member has described God as “the on-goingness of things.” Christ is a symbol or model of the new humanity. Whether or not Jesus actually lived is not really important; the meaning of the gospel story is that we can attain authentic selfhood by giving ourselves to others. The existential meaning of the cross of Christ is that “to die is to live.” Prayer is regarded, not as communication with a personal deity, but as a mechanism by which one articulates his deepest concerns to himself and to the community. As one member defines it: “Prayer is opening oneself to the needs of others and listening to the demands of being open.” Salvation is equated with humanization rather than justification; it is said that “the individual finds himself, saves himself, only through identification with the group,” that is, with “the family, the neighborhood, the nation, the world.”
In this community the sermon is considered a thing of the past. What is advocated in its place is a very brief witness to the Word, which means the sharing of personal insights on some matter of concern. The Bible is viewed more or less as a work of art rather than as the Word of God or a vehicle of revelation. Although the proclamation of the Word is virtually abandoned, liturgy is highly prized. Yet liturgical symbols are regarded simply as aids that help one “to dramatize his self-understanding.” What concerns these people is not God’s act of reconciliation in Christ but the breakthrough into authentic existence. They often speak of the Christ-event, but by this they mean the experience of a new reality that brings self-understanding. It is implied that such an experience is possible for non-Christians as well.
An optimistic philosophy of life pervades the community. Members speak not of the death of God but of his birth or emergence in a new secular culture. They believe that they are preparing the way for the future city of man—indeed for a new civilization in which man will be able to realize his potential to the fullest. One of the favorite slogans of the community is, “All that is, is good.” As Dean Matthews has said, one must believe that he is “totally accepted, that everything is approved, that the future is possible and open.” These new-style religionists do not, it seems, take seriously the idea of original sin. In their view, what seems evil to man can be made to work for good. Their only moral criterion seems to be: Does this thing advance or hinder the cultural or secular revolution of our time?
Education, not proclamation, is believed to be the “master key to the future.” The institute has a curriculum of sixteen intensive study courses. Over the past year 16,000 people participated in them. Nearly 300 persons are enrolled for the weekend theology course, RS-1, which introduces students to writings of Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and H. Richard Niebuhr.
The community sees itself as a new spiritual elite that through education and science can bend the course of history. Indeed, its members seek nothing less than the creation of a new humanity, the revolutionizing of culture. A recent community document entitled The Declaration of the Spirit Movement states that we must seek to “rebuild the economic and political design for the planet. In this hour of total cultural revolution, the people of God are those who know they must … rebuild the structures of education and the structures of urban community life” (p. 11). Again we read: “Experiencing himself as an agent in the creation of the future, man has felt the claim of the inescapable task: to predict the future and so to create it.… Man, come of age, is the master of his own destiny” (p. 9). This is not the religion of the Bible but of the emancipated post-religious man. Father Arthur McNally, a Catholic priest who took the course RS-1, has described this religion as “perilously close to atheistic humanism” (The Sign, Jan., 1968, p. 34).
The pattern of thought that has developed in the Ecumenical Institute is in a sense tragic because such a community has great possibilities. Its members can be admired for identifying themselves with the plight of the Negro and the oppressed and defeated in the inner city. They should also be praised for their selfless dedication and their high sense of vocation. Their intentions to create a new style of life for our secular age and to relate Word and deed are commendable. There is indeed a place for religious communities as vanguards in the carrying out of the Church’s authentic mission today.
Yet the Ecumenical Institute is not a community under the Word. What it espouses is a kind of secular humanism, not the evangelical catholic faith. The community seems to share Tillich’s idea of a universal Religion of the Concrete Spirit that will supersede organized Christianity. Because it erroneously believes that God blesses everything indiscriminately, it tends to hold that almost any means are acceptable in the realizing of its mission. This is pragmatic opportunism, not evangelical obedience.
Church renewal is greatly needed today, for the Church is becoming secularized, and the proclamation of its message with power and integrity is decreasing. The Ecumenical Institute is right in believing that the Church can be renewed from within through dedicated, spiritually alive laymen. But we will achieve renewal not by accommodating the message of the Church to the spirit of the age, but by bringing this present age under the judgment of the Word of God.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more