The long story of the way in which the forces of the Christian faith, though operating slowly, finally made a difference in how men lived, should give us, if we are willing to observe it, a practical hint about the problems that we face at the end of the twentieth century. Many, it is true, talk glibly of the sacredness of persons, and this includes several who have no conscious adherence to the faith of Christ, but it is quite possible that without a religious anchorage the doctrine of inherent human sacredness cannot be maintained. The forces of impersonalism, we must remember, are very strong. The deepest roots of what we call democracy are not to be found in ancient Greece, where democracy experienced one of its greatest failures. It was, after all, the Athenian democracy that pronounced the death sentence upon Socrates, “concerning whom I may truly say,” said Plato, “that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.” (Phaedo, 118A). The deepest roots of democracy are found in the Bible, particularly in the revolutionary story of Naboth’s Vineyard, in which both king and commoner stand on exactly the same level because both derive from the Divine paternity.
Whether the dignity of the individual, which lies at the heart of the entire struggle for equal rights and social justice, can be maintained permanently on any other basis we cannot know, but we shall, if we wish to be realistic, pay careful attention to the one basis that is known to be an effective place to stand, and from which many loads may be lifted. When we realize, with Whitehead and other historians of ideas, the way in which a free society traces its roots back to a religious belief and commitment, we shall not lightly neglect this revelation of how emancipation comes. Contemporary thinkers can profit from a new study of a striking essay, “The Free Society and Individual Rights,” written by Theodore O. Wedel in The Christian Demand for Social Justice, edited by Bishop William Scarlett (A Signet Special, 1949). Canon Wedel was at great pains, in this essay, to show that the doctrine of the worth of every man is fundamentally derivative, rather than “a truth standing on its own.” The needy neighbor may, in fact, be an unlovely person and might, in a purely secular society, reasonably be liquidated to the profit of the state. The most notorious of Roman dictators operated unashamedly on this basis, but Christianity, with all its mistakes, became an opposing force.
“The dogma of individual rights,” wrote Wedel, “is not a truth standing on its own. It is a derivative dogma and depends upon divine, not secular sanctions. It does not derive from a doctrine of the inherent goodness of human nature, or a sacredness of personality which man has earned. It derives, rather, from the doctrine of the sinfulness of human nature and the universal judgment and grace of a righteous God” (p. 15). Here is a profound and exciting idea. If every man, in spite of his personal ineptitude, is God’s handiwork, and if every man, including the leader or the king, is under judgment, we have a powerful motive for the creation of a social order in which there is maximum chance for equality of opportunity as well as equal justice. No one is outside the law, just as no one is outside the Divine Concern.
Such an understanding of the nature of the human situation provides a far stronger motive for overcoming racial injustice than does any merely economic or political or legal conception. If it could be followed with any sincerity, it would provide an antidote to all racism, whether of the white or the black variety. General acceptance of such convictions would not make laws unnecessary, but it would lead to the enactment of laws and, furthermore, help to provide some of the spirit that keeps men from circumventing laws by their own clever devices. A world in which men of different races can look upon men of contrasting color as Children of God is one in which equal freedom can come without bitterness.
We cannot say too often that Christianity is the most revolutionary of faiths, far more revolutionary, indeed, than any known form of communism, whether Marxist or Maoist. Contemporary schools of communism claim to be revolutionary, but they are not thoroughly so. They may decide to distribute property and thereby aid the dispossessed, but there is nothing, in any of their systems, about compassion for the person from whom the property is to be taken. He is a hated imperialist, and that is enough to say about him. But the Christian, if he understands his Lord, goes further. He is, of course, eager to help the poor, but he is not willing to settle for hatred or contempt for the original owner, since the owner, too, like the landless, is an unconditional object of Divine Concern. We need to work in all known ways to see that the Negro in America is given a chance to earn a decent living, to enjoy equal schooling, and to inhabit equal housing, but underneath all these forms of equality is that of equal respect. This is what every man desires, and the most powerful motivation for giving it is that provided by the Gospel of Christ. We do well to insist upon voting rights, but if we end there, the battle has only begun. We are never far on the way until the white man sees the Negro, not only as an equal politically, but spiritually as a brother.
Any honest observer is bound to admit that some of the worst examples of oppression have occurred in areas in which the Gospel has been preached and believed. But while this is true, it is only part of the truth. The other, and the more important part, is that the most encouraging changes in the southern part of the United States, in regard to race relations, are coming from primarily religious motives. Anyone who spends much time in southern states can hardly fail to notice the role of Christians in the effort to solve the problem that is so deep-seated and that has been with us so long. (For a careful estimate of this, written by one born in the South, see Kyle Haselden’s book entitled Morality and the Mass Media (Broadman, 1968), page 68). Wherever the Bible is honored there is real hope, because the Bible clearly teaches that all mankind is of one family.
Another valuable teaching, which needs to be remembered when we are working to bring about a better social order, is that we shall never have perfection in the relations between human beings. Much of the frustrated anger of our time results from utterly naïve expectations that are inevitably unfulfilled. The Christian faith, when understood, helps to avoid the bitterness of disillusionment by making it clear in advance that there will be no Utopia. The impossibility of Utopia follows logically from the chronic character of human sin, which infects the planners in the same way that it infects those for whom the new social order is planned. The experience of ideal communities in America is pathetically uniform, and the sad truth is that each fails.
We shall avoid much bitterness and idle recrimination if we realize in advance that there is a wide difference between the degree of perfection possible in an individual and in a society. There was, for example, much more that was admirable about the character of William Penn than there was about the “Holy Experiment” that he sought to execute in the new world. Though his experiment had some good features, it was, in considerable measure, a failure, as is bound to be true with anything that has people in it.
The personal life, particularly in its solitude, can often attain a high degree of excellence. It is more nearly possible, in short, to learn to pray well than it is to serve well, because, though some prayer involves others, all service involves others, and that is where the trouble begins. A man has made a few steps on the road to wisdom if he knows the difference between the two complementary realms. The door to life represented by “we” opens more widely than the door represented by “I,” but it is harder to keep it open.
There are two forms of foolishness to be avoided assiduously in this connection. It is equally foolish either to entertain Utopian hopes or to abandon the struggle because of lack of perfect accomplishment. Perfectionism … causes people to give up when they learn that the ideal commonwealth cannot be established on the banks of the Wabash or anywhere else. Perfectionism is always harmful when the abstract best becomes the enemy of the concrete good. The intelligent procedure is to understand that the ideal will not be achieved and then to try, with all our might, to make the situation relatively better than what it was before. We shall not experience a perfect social order, either now or a thousand years from now, but some improvement is possible, and this is what keeps thoughtful men going.
The person who sincerely desires to serve his fellow men soon finds that the service side of his life, far from standing alone, requires not only a deep inner life of devotion, but also the third leg of our stool, the life of critical intelligence. Without careful thought, the individual may easily find himself upholding positions that once made sense, but do so no more because the battle front changes. A good many people are still fighting old battles on the supposition that the major danger is still what it formerly was. It is part of our needed realism now—a realism in which committed Christians should take the lead—to point out that we are in a new day in which the major danger, which once came from the right, now comes from the left.
Without vigilant examination of what we are doing, it is easy to evince more interest in causes or in dogmas than in persons. It is not uncommon, for instance, for white crusaders, deeply committed to civil rights, to have no close friends or even acquaintances among the Negroes, but social action cannot meet the test of authenticity unless it is profoundly personal. Careful intellectual attention may likewise save us from the mistake of supposing that others who do not share our particular solutions of social problems are less concerned with social action than we are.
Almost everyone has heard some public speaker deplore the obvious gap between what we do technologically and what we do socially. If we would only put as much disciplined intelligence and money into psychology or sociology as we now put it into physics and chemistry, it is implied, we should do as well with the social order as we have done with landing men on the moon. This popular judgment reveals a pathetic fallacy. We are dealing with problems of a radically different character when we deal with persons rather than with things. It is possible to achieve striking success in producing a rocket, since we are dealing with essentially passive materials that do not exercise freedom of decision and do not sin. But people, by contrast, cannot be manipulated as physical objects can be, and we are glad that this is true. The study of psychology is worth pursuing, but it is naïve to suppose that such study will bring to human society the kind of success possible in a scientific laboratory. Scientists, it should be carefully noted, find it far easier to manipulate their environment than to manage themselves.
The much-publicized gap between scientific success and success with human life is not surprising to anyone who understands something of the Christian faith. We must use all the intelligence that we can muster in the organization of human behavior, for emotion will not suffice, but even when we do so, there will be disappointments at every level. We must build colleges, but colleges will be centers of dissension; we must support labor unions, but unions will be involved in power struggles; we must have a movement for civil rights, but the movement will be exploited by demagogues; we must administer welfare, but there will be corruption in its administration. Only the realist can operate without debilitating discouragement.
We need to give careful attention today to the relationship between social service and evangelism. The danger is that service may take the place of evangelism or that evangelism may be redefined so that it is social service and nothing more. However desirable it may be to help workers to organize or even, in extreme instances, to strike, this does not and cannot take the place of evangelism in the sense of confrontation with Jesus Christ. The more deeply involved a person comes to be in the Christian Cause, the more he will reject simplistic approaches, and the reduction of evangelism to social action is such an approach. The early injunction of Christ was to become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17), and this is quite as significant as the injunction to feed the hungry. To feed a man is important; but man does not live by bread alone, so it is equally important to make him sense the love of Christ. If we do only the one and not the other, we may, in the end, undermine the motivation even for the feeding itself. It is a serious mistake to seek to change the environment without also changing the man.
The people who think that evangelism is dead or is fully incorporated in acts of justice and mercy would do well to think again. How is the fire of social sensitivity to be sustained and replenished? The Christian is a man who, regardless of the century in which he lives, knows the answer; he knows that the way to become ignited is to approach the Source.
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