The shooting of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in a land that earlier witnessed the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and then of the Negro crusader Dr. Martin Luther King, is further evidence that the American dream is turning into a nightmare. The stunning shock will serve the nation best if the initial disbelief yields a new awareness that the American temper is changing. “The world has gone mad,” remarked Senator Henry Jackson, when informed of the assault on Kennedy. But the grim fact that madness now stalks the streets from Washington to Los Angeles, in a land that long has been a symbol of hope around the world, compounds the tragedy. The worsening crime rate and widening violence in America can only add to the spirit of contemporary despair.
We extend Christian sympathy to the Kennedy family and urge the prayers of believers everywhere in their behalf.
Political assassination has an ancient if unpromising history, and the casualty risk for kings and politicians has often run high. But over against brute totalitarian powers, the contemporary free world prides itself upon rule by law and order, and by democratic processes.
The American trend signals three awesome elements:
1. A decline of confidence in reason and persuasion, and a reliance instead upon existential thrust and compulsion, is a conspicuous factor. Political demonstrations that are motivated by civil disobedience and that ignore available democratic processes in order to achieve coercive pressure and swift change have contributed to this mood. Many in the political arena today privately pray for law and order yet publicly identify themselves with those who seek rapid change by compulsion.
But what federal or state law in the United States, we ask, still seriously discriminates against a minority (particularly the Negro)? If perchance an exception remains to the rule of American equality, why cannot this be changed by existing democratic processes? All forums of social change congenial to democracy are fully available; all branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—are responsive to persuasion and the majority will. Minorities today even have a disproportionate access to a free press and all the mass media, and have the right of peaceful demonstration. Why does a vociferous minority forgo reason and persuasion and the democratic process to seek objectives by militancy and violence, by blatant disrespect for law, by disregard of majority will? The demand for instant millennium by political magic is not far removed from a demand for utopia by revolution.
2. The American academic arena is also in dire trouble. Not only do the campuses neglect the great concerns of the intellect that must stand at the center of any enduring civilization—such concerns as spirit, truth, conscience, and above all the reality of God—but they also increasingly reflect the spirit of the age rather than challenging and criticizing it. A decade ago many educators were saying, “The Church has had it”; today not a few observers are tempted to say, “The universities have had it.”
3. The deepest disappointment of all, however, is the institutional church. Many of its leaders have forfeited the mission of redemption for the game of politics. Spiritual vitalities in America are passing rapidly outside institutional Christianity into cell groups and lively efforts not grounded in ecumenical power-structures. But these movements still are unable to give visibility to spiritual concerns in national life, while agencies that could express the public significance of the will of God are largely preoccupied with partisan political particulars.
Some two hundred ecumenical churchmen now misuse ecclesiastical influence to support social revolution. For the ecumenical movement to escape the baneful influence of this cadre of revolutionary activists will take a decade—unless it becomes self-perpetuating. A half century ago, social activists confused Christianity with a social-gospel “democracy”; but instead of bringing in the Kingdom, their efforts gave rise to a massive muddle. Now the activists confuse Christianity with social revolution and create needless sympathy for Communist goals. Their abandonment of democratic processes is treacherous, and their abandonment of spiritual priorities is knavish. If God is “where the action is,” Hitler and Mao Tse-tung belong to the galaxy of saints.
The American atmosphere now contains more of the early-morning fog of revolution than we dream. The scores of urban riots this spring along with the shooting of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy should shatter our illusion that widespread revolution cannot happen here. It can and will happen if we allow dissension, vituperation, angry demonstrations, hate, and eventually violence to take the place of cooperation, tempered judgment, and orderly change. Without these, America will not long endure.
The Church of Jesus Christ must seize the opportunity to be the healing balm and agent of reconciliation in our troubled nation and world. Denominations must decisively repudiate leaders who promote church involvement in the violent revolutions of our day. All Christians must unitedly bring the message of the eternal Christ to all men in the midst of unrest. Students must be shown that only Christ, not utopian dreams for hedonistic pleasures, makes life joyful and purposeful. Affluent materialists must be helped to see that the Son of God alone can fill the void in their lives. Disadvantaged citizens must learn that Jesus Christ can bring stability to their lives and give them the power to persevere and change their circumstances. Unless the Church, through proclamation of law and love, exerts significant influence on these and other groups, America could soon lose its national identity. If we respond rightly to God’s gracious demands, the gathering clouds of revolution could become refreshing showers of divine blessing on our land.
FIASCO AT RESURRECTION CITY
Poor People’s campaigners at Resurrection City have turned an elm-shaded grassy park below the Lincoln Monument into fifteen acres of debris and scarred ground. In a similar way, the Ralph Abernathy-led crusaders are making a shambles of their campaign to boost the cause of low economic groups in America. Belligerent demands and irrational and illegal tactics are antagonizing rather than influencing government officials and the public, and contributing little to true racial harmony and economic progress. In the process, hundreds of unfortunate people, many of them recruited by high-pressure SCLC spokesmen, are being exposed to the health hazards and hardships of living in shanties that one day are cold and wet, another day hot and humid. For the good of the hundreds of poor people who have left their hometowns for shanties in Resurrection City, for the safety of Washington citizens, many of whom are now apprehensive about possible violence, and for the effective working of our system of government, we hope the marchers will leave the nation’s capital peacefully when their campaign permit expires this month. If they choose not to do so, we feel appropriate steps should be taken to prevent their continued encampment on federal property.
Passage of open-housing legislation by Congress prior to the establishment of Resurrection City was proof of the government’s desire to improve the status of disadvantaged citizens. But despite this constructive congressional action, Poor People’s leaders have relentlessly castigated government officials and staged unruly demonstrations. Their language has often taken the form of demands and threats. Invoking a biblical reference to totalitarian oppressors, and giving it a modern economic turn, Mr. Abernathy recently said, “We must plague the Pharaohs of this nation with plague after plague until they decide to do something about the plight of the poor people in this country.” Marchers have made nuisances of themselves by hounding the residences of House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills and Senator Robert Byrd (Dem.-W. Va.) without having made any attempt to obtain appointments with them. Demonstrations on Capitol Hill have resulted in arrests of noisy protestors and in the breaking of windows in the Supreme Court Building. Perhaps the most exasperating tactic occurred at the cafeteria of the Department of Agriculture when militants refused to pay their lunch bill of $292.66. SCLC leader Jesse Jackson asserted that the bill should be compared with what “the Government owes to the poor people of this nation” because of its failure to feed them. “Whoever owes the other,” he said, “will pay.” Payment of the bill the next day did not undo the ill will created by the incident.
To many Americans, the television-covered exhibitions staged by Poor People’s leaders have smacked too much of Madison Avenue techniques to generate great personal involvement or release profound feeling. The use of mules, largely outmoded even in the rural South, to lead the Poor People’s march at its outset was a theatrically ineffective ploy. Few appreciated or even laughed at their naming the noble beasts “Eastland” and “Stennis.” Abernathy’s occasional wearing of Levis while he lived in a comfortable modern motel—to the displeasure of the shanty-town inhabitants—failed to communicate the image of a destitute man. Even the placing of certain unfortunate people—the crippled, the aged, the raggedly clothed child—before television cameras has had little impact because the appearances were so obviously contrived.
Poor planning and internal friction have further contributed to the fiasco at Resurrection City. Housing frequently has been unavailable to meet marchers’ needs at their time of arrival. Intolerable living conditions have caused hundreds to leave prematurely. Mexican-American and Indian marchers have complained that the dominant Negro leadership has given them short shrift. Demonstrations have lacked coordination, and legislative objectives have been unrealistic, ambiguous, and sweeping. Campaign spokesmen have frequently contradicted each other. The shake-up and reassignment of SCLC leaders has shown plainly that the campaign was never adequately planned or staffed. To the Negro civil-rights movement mesmerized by the charismatic oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is becoming increasingly clear that new leader Ralph Abernathy possesses neither the eloquence nor the administrative ability to attract and hold followers and mold a movement that will exert significant influence on the public at large.
To the extent that legitimate food or economic problems qualifying for government assistance exist, Poor People’s campaigners can render a distinct service by calling them to the attention of local, state, and federal officials. The American people are more than willing to help destitute people incapable of providing for their basic needs, and both voluntary and public agencies are alert to destitution and unemployment. They want to see jobs made available to all who can and will work. They desire nutritional diets and adequate housing for all citizens. But the government and the public will not and should not respond to the angry demands of pressure groups that assert that the world owes them a living. Campaigners who misrepresent the severity of the poverty problem, persist in implacable demands, and maintain a pugnacious stance do harm to the cause of the truly disadvantaged and sow disunity among people. Men of good will in protest groups must follow reasonable courses and not allow those who would destroy the American way of life to exploit a movement for their own ends. The government and citizenry also must not be deceived by men who use humane causes to advance nefarious objectives. Compassion must never be lost, but it also must never become blind to evil committed in its name.
The bellicose spirit and combative strategy of Resurrection City will not enable the really poor people to arise from their low position in society. This can occur only as communities—primarily the private sector—provide opportunities for the able-bodied to help themselves. The poor must work to better their living conditions. Bread may be secured temporarily by forceful means, but dignity is conferred only on the basis of merit. If everyone will seek to help his fellow man and will assume his own responsibilities—as God would have him do—economic progress will surely take place. Men must abandon their angry efforts to build resurrection cities and follow the spirit of the Resurrected Christ in devising humane legislation and practicing genuine brotherly love. If America chooses his way, not only the poor will be blessed but all men throughout the nation.
In preparation for the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Uppsala, drafts for the sections have now been published. These are not official pronouncements; they are simply preparatory documents for discussion. But it is obviously hoped that they will be the basis of, or at least the guidelines for, the ultimate findings. Therefore, they call for provisional scrutiny and assessment.
A rather disquieting feature is the proportion of space allotted to the various aspects of ecumenical concern. While it is no doubt good that this should vary somewhat from council to council, questions of life and work easily predominate in these drafts, claiming at least two sections to one each for faith, order, and mission, and exercising a certain domination in all but the first section. Does this express a purely temporary reorientation or is it a reflection of the change of secretariat and of a wider penetration of the outlook of the U. S. National Council of Churches into the WCC? If the latter, the prospect is by no means promising.
Of the various sectional drafts, the first, on the Holy Spirit and the catholicity of the Church, is in many ways the best, and the second, on renewal in mission, is in many ways the worst. Since this second section seems to epitomize many of the most unsatisfactory features of the whole booklet, some more detailed comments on it may be of help and interest, partly with a view to its amendment, partly as a warning against its implications.
On the surface, much of the main presentation and the accompanying commentary seems to be healthily biblical. We read of God’s mission, of all things being made new, of the sighing of creation, of conversion and discipleship, of Scripture and the Spirit. A closer examination, however, shows that the statements do not stand up to exegetical analysis. Thus the sighing of creation is not related to the redemption of the body. The vague idea of a new humanity is only a distant echo of the new man referred to in the New Testament. The term “world” is tossed around with little sense of the various nuances and patent ambivalence of the biblical “cosmos.” Even in the fine passage on shalom, the dimension of salvation seems to have dropped out. The discussion of conversion in the commentary is good enough as far as it goes, but it is extremely generalized and also at times tendentious.
Apart from more detailed exegetical points, there are many other signs that the thought of the section is biblical in only a superficial sense. For instance, a call is made for dialogue. Listening to artists, scientists, and agnostics bears little relation, however, to the great dialogues of the Bible, the dialogues of God with Abel, Cain, and Job, the dialogues of our Lord with the Pharisees, the “Jews,” Nicodemus, and Pilate, the dialogues of the apostles Peter and Paul with the crowds at Pentecost or the jailer at Philippi. Similarly, there is much talk of mission, but in concrete terms little is said about mission as it was understood by Christ or enjoined on the disciples or fulfilled by the early Church. The brief section on conversion introduces briefly the eschatological note, but through the section as a whole this clear-cut biblical dimension is conspicuous only by its absence—unless we have here the situation feared somewhere by Barth, that everything is eschatology, and that there is therefore no eschatology!
The broader divergence from true biblical content carries with it a theology that by no stretch of the imagination could be called either biblical, orthodox, or evangelical. That is most apparent in the identification of the work of the Church with the movement of God in history. The undoubted truth that God providentially superintends all history is here given a new and sinister edge by the identification of God’s purpose with the historical process. The specific work of God is confused with the general. Penultimate things become ultimate. The fact that the true and eschatological work of God goes beyond history, and may often have to be achieved in spite of history, is nowhere expressed.
The draft does recognize, of course, that God is not to be confused with the historical process in Hegelian or Marxist fashion. But it fails to state clearly either that good goals in this world are provisional and temporary or that there is a definitive goal that entails, not just a renewal of this heaven and earth, but a new heaven and a new earth. The dangerous saying that a Christian is not to resist change but to see in it the hand of God is one that even the draft itself has to qualify at once. Was the change to National Socialist Germany to be supported rather than resisted by Christians? What about the judgments of God that may fall even on that which is relatively better? Who is to know with certainty the change that is really of God as compared with the revolution that, though overruled by God, is basically an outbreak of human greed or violence? What about the specific ministry of the Church that is to go in all the changes and chances of this mortal life? To see the Church or individual Christians as those who identify their mission with joining every advance-guard movement because a new divine order is always replacing the old may not be the real point of this section, but this is what it seems to amount to. To put it that way is to bring to light its theological and practical absurdity and its appalling exegetical and historical naïveté.
The talk about adopting the world’s agenda as the Church’s business is also theologically shallow. It misses the real point that God’s agenda is the Church’s business, and ought indeed to be the world’s business. It tacitly presupposes that the world and God are one and the same at this level. It overlooks the dimension of sin and fall that alienates the world from God and makes many of the items on the world’s agenda—on the agenda of actual governments and commercial concerns and individuals—the very things Christians must resist. In effect it is more often than not referring to what the Church thinks ought to be the priorities on the world’s agenda, whether the power structures of the world are prepared to deal with them or not. Even then, and even supposing that these judgments are correct, it fails to ask whether these things are the priorities, not merely on God’s agenda, but in his marching orders for the Church. The pleas (1) that the Church not raise its evangelistic item under other business and (2) that theological items not be substituted for the world’s items, merely bring to light the need of true theological work instead of procedure by slogans. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the third plea is that the world’s self-understanding be taken seriously so we can begin with what is common on both sides. Such a statement is surely possible only where there is no biblical understanding of the world, no recognition that the world’s self-understanding is a misunderstanding.
A further point that emerges only too vividly in this draft is that, for all the brave words about the Bible as a signpost, a profound theological relativism lies at the heart of the presentation. Now, no one denies that certain things are indeed relative. One cannot preach to a university professor precisely as though he were a medieval serf. The forms of mission and church structure undoubtedly change. New jargons rise and fall in the theological world. Conversion may indeed have different orientations in different ages and situations. Great harm can be done by clinging to what is relative as though it were absolute. Perhaps this is where the readiness for change that is so underscored in the draft is indeed required. Perhaps this is where “yes” has to be said to the movement of history, though with the modest recognition that the new form may be less adequate for its age than the old one was for a previous age.
Nevertheless, if the relative is not to be absolutized, by the same token the absolute is not to be relativized. It is here that the draft seems to be on unstable ground. To be sure, there are hints of a better understanding. The possibility is at least considered in the commentary that the world’s agenda may be nonsense, though unfortunately this is only in parentheses and the point is not explored. On the other hand, the statements everywhere seem to assume that the forms of church life are relative only to the historical circumstances of a given age. Thus one reads that “missions” are “historically determined answers of the churches to the challenges of the past,” or that in true mission the forms must be “conditioned by challenges of one’s own age.” What is not perceived or brought to light is that such forms, while indeed relative from one standpoint, must also conform to an essential content that does not change. Thus missions were also answers of the churches to the revelation and command of God. The failure to develop this complementary aspect may be accidental. Or possibly it is rather naively taken for granted. The whole tenor of the draft suggests, however, that there is here a deeper and illegitimate relativizing that is implicitly applied to the content as well as the structure, to the absolute and unchanging element as well as the relative and changing, to the divinely given norm as well as the form. If this is not the intention of the draft, then a far more profound discussion is needed that will consider seriously the danger of secularization as well as that of sacralization. Anyone acquainted either with biblical theology or with the history of the Church knows that this delicate and complex issue, that of the Church’s being in the world but not of it, cannot safely be presented in terms of one aspect alone, whether it be the proper absolutizing of the absolute or the proper relativizing of the relative.
This leads on to a final point. Perhaps in self-defense, the Uppsala drafts claim to be accepting what past assemblies have said. In this sense, are not the drafts themselves relativized? Are they not additional statements that imply all that has gone before? Are they not new developments that possibly overstate a particular point when taken in isolation but that fall into place when set against the wider background?
Up to a point there is merit in this argument. Nevertheless, three considerations suggest that caution is needed here. The first is that the material in the drafts is said to focus on the “precise issues” of the day or “the relatively few subjects which are most relevant to the contemporary situation.” The rest no longer has any such urgency, in the view of the drafters. Secondly, what is tacitly assumed may easily be modified in a drastic way by additions that are explicitly made. This is particularly easy when the earlier statements are no longer presented for inspection. Finally, if a principle of relativism be adopted, then past statements can always be applauded as relevant for their own age; but this means very little, since only those things that present writers still believe, or still think to be pertinent to their own time, are really accorded any genuine recognition. The endorsement of the past may thus be quite sincere. It may also be meaningless.
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