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GENERAL ATTITUDE OF THE GOSPEL TOWARDS SOCIAL ARRANGEMENTS
THE Gospel is the glad tidings of benefits that pass not away. In it are the powers of eternal life; it is concerned with repentance and faith, with regeneration and a new life; its end is redemption, not social improvement. Therefore it aims at raising the individual to a standpoint far above the conflicts between earthly success and earthly distress, between riches and poverty, lordship and service. This has been its meaning to earnest Christians of all ages, and those who are unable to appreciate this idea, fail to appreciate the Gospel itself. The indifference to all earthly affairs, which proceeds from the conviction that we possess life eternal, is an essential feature of Christianity. It is the result of a twofold mental attitude, which may be summed up in the following words: “Fear not, be not anxious; the very hairs of your head are all numbered”; 10and “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” In accordance with these two precepts two principles arise. One may be called the tranquil, quietistic principle, and the other, the radical; the former impels men to acquiesce, with faith and resignation, in the whole course of the world, whatever it may be, or, however it may develop, while the latter urges them to renounce the world, and live for something new. In the Gospel itself, then, a problem is thus presented, for it is obvious that between the tranquil and the radical principles there is a possibility of conflicts. Indeed, the radical principle, where it predominates to the exclusion of the other, allows of further subdivision according as it finds expression in one of two ways,—either in complete renunciation of the world, or in the attempt to do away with all the existing ordinances of the world, as being all impregnated by sin, combined with an endeavour to establish a new order of world. History will show us how, through directing one-sided attention to one or other of these principles, instead of harmonising the two, Christians have evaded the difficulty.
But the same Gospel which preaches a holy indifference to earthly things, embraces yet 11another principle: “Love thy neighbour as thyself” This spirit of love likewise is to be a guiding rule of the character built up by the Gospel. Accordingly Christianity originally took the form of a free brotherhood,—a form essential to its very nature, for, after trust in God, the very essence of religion is brotherly love. In addition, then, to the quietistic and radical principles we have a third,—the social, active principle. I give it this name of a social, active principle, because the Gospel nowhere teaches that our relations to the brethren should be characterised by a holy indifference. Such indifference expresses rather what the individual soul should feel towards the world with all its weal and woe. Whenever it is question of one’s neighbour, the Gospel will not hear of this indifference, but, on the contrary, preaches always love and mercy. Further, the Gospel regards as absolutely inseparable the temporal and spiritual needs of the brethren. It draws no fine distinctions between body and soul; sickness is always sickness, and want is want. Thus, “I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink.” Again, when it is a question of giving signs to prove that the promises of God have now been fulfilled, it is said: “The blind see, the lame 12walk—, . . . and to the poor the Gospel is preached”; while in the Gospel of the Hebrews we read in the story of the rich young man: “Behold many of thy brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad with dung, dying with hunger, and thy house is full of much goods, and there goeth out therefrom nought at all unto them.”11Nicholson’s standard translation: but Saunders’ in “What is Christianity?” might be preferred. Thus, in the simplest and most emphatic terms possible, Christians are urged to help the needy and the miserable with all the strength of love. But it is to the rich that the most earnest exhortation is addressed. While it is assumed that wealth tends to make its possessors hard-hearted and worldly, they are warned that their perilous possessions impose upon them the highest responsibility.
A new spectacle was presented to the world: religion hitherto had either clung to what was earthly, adapting itself readily to things as it found them, or else built in the clouds, (and set itself up in opposition to everything; but now it had a new duty—to scorn earthly want and misery, and earthly prosperity alike, and yet to relieve distress of every kind; to raise its head to heaven in the courage of its faith, and yet with heart and hand and voice 13to labour for the brethren upon earth. The task thus set them has never been wholly abandoned by Christians, who consequently, have held fast the conviction that no economic system can oppose to the mission of Christianity a really insuperable obstacle, while, on the other hand, no economic system can ever release it from its duties.
But does not the Gospel contain much more than this? Does it not include definite teaching on the subject of temporal welfare, and a definite social and economic programme? So indeed men have believed, both in the early ages of Christianity, in the Middle Age, and at the present time; and yet the belief is wrong. Undoubtedly the Gospel contains definite teaching concerning temporal good, but none that could be summed up in the form of national economic laws, and consequently no economic programme. Only if the Gospel or the New Testament be regarded as a legal code, can social and political laws be found in it; but we have no right to regard it thus, and any attempt to do so will speedily end in failure. It is unauthorised, because our faith is the religion of liberty, and its duties are specially imposed upon you, and upon me, and upon every age, as an individual problem for each to solve. 14And it must needs end in failure, because no self-consistent economic precepts can possibly be derived from the New Testament. Are we, in accordance with the story of the rich young man, to sell all that we have? Or are we, at least, not to lay up treasures for ourselves? Or are we, as taught by the Apostle Paul, to turn to profit every gift, wealth and property included, but so as to convert them into instruments of service? May a Christian never settle vexed questions of inheritance? Is it right for him to make large outlay only, as in the Gospel story, on ointments; or is this always justifiable? May he, or may he not, keep money, in a strong-box? “Labour, working with your hands the thing which is good, that you may have to give to him that needeth”: that surely is the gist of the matter, and firm resistance must be offered to all attempts to read into the Gospel any other social ideal than this: “You are accountable to God for all the gifts you have received, and so for your possessions also; you are bound to use them in the service of your neighbour.” Anything in the Gospel that seems to point in any other direction is merely apparent contradiction, or is relevant only to some particular case, or results from the undeveloped economic conditions and special 15historical circumstances of the time in which the Gospel arose. An age in which capital was almost always hoarded in a useless way, as a dead thing, cannot be compared with an age in which it is the greatest economic power; and an age which believed the end of the world to be approaching is not to be compared with one which recognises as sacred the duty of working for the future.
But conversely, it does not at all follow from the lack of economic precepts in the Gospel, that the matter is one which does not concern a Christian. On the contrary, where he clearly perceives that any economic condition has become a source of distress to his neighbour, he is bound to seek for a remedy, for he is a disciple of the Saviour. If a man falls into the water, one may help him by simply pulling him out; but if any one is imprisoned in a burning house, the exits being fast closed, the only way to help him is to effect a change in the circumstances: that is to say, to extinguish the fire. The question whether such an act belongs to Christian economics, or is simply and solely Christian, or should rather be called humane, may be left to those who delight in argument. Love knows that it is always bound to help in such a way as to render real assistance .16
The Church has from the first availed itself of three means of helping the brethren and relieving misery and want; and the same three methods are still at its command. The first of these consists in rousing the individual conscience, in such a way as to awaken strong, regenerate, self-sacrificing personalities. This is the all-important thing; but the means to such an end vary; as the Lord’s method of teaching shows, it may either begin within, and work outwards, or it may penetrate from without to the inmost being. But the vital point is that there should be a Christ-like personality, and that in every action the power of love from one person to another should operate, and make itself felt. The kingdom of God must be built upon the foundation, not of institutions, but of individuals in whom God dwells and who are glad to live for their fellow men.
The second method consists in converting every congregation of individuals into a community full of active charity, and bound together by brotherly love; for without such a bond all effort is sporadic. This fellowship was strongest in the early days of the Church, and the consciousness that Christianity cannot exist upon earth in any other form never altogether 17passed away, although, as we shall see, it became enfeebled.
Then there is still the third line of action. Religion is not independent in its growth; even if it takes refuge in solitude, it must enter into some relation with the arrangements of the world as it finds them, and it cannot regard with indifference the nature of these ordinances. It was, indeed, at a time when extortion and violence were common, and slavery and tyrannical oppression prevailed, that the Apostles instructed the faithful to “take no anxious thought.” But at the same time they at once began to exert their influence against so much of the existing order of things as was in fact disorder and sin. Christians were urged so to walk that their example should both make others ashamed and incite them to imitation. Only a few decades later, representatives of Christianity were presenting petitions to the emperors and the governors of provinces, and addressing written appeals to society, demanding the abolition of gross and flagrant abuses and outrages. But, as far as I can see, the limit of their interference was clearly defined: it did not occur to them to propose economic improvements, or to attack fixed institutions, 18such as slavery. What they demanded was the suppression of such sin and shame as could not but be recognised as sins and scandals even by a Greek or Roman conscience. They were convinced that the divine image in man cannot be destroyed by oppression and suffering of any kind (never was there an age of less sentimentality with regard to want and misery than the early days of Christianity); but that it is effaced by uncleanness and sensuality, and that therefore conditions which plainly tended in that direction,—for example, a tolerated and privileged unchastity, secret murder, exposing of children, and wholesale prostitution,—are altogether intolerable.
This brings us to a most important point. At the present time Christianity is being reproached with never, at any time in its history, having taken the lead in economic reforms. Even if the facts were in accordance with this sweeping statement, it would be no real reproach, in view of the distinctive character of the Christian religion.
It is enough if religion prepares men’s minds for great economic changes and revolutions; if it foresees the new moral duties which these impose; if it knows how to adapt itself to them, and perceives the right moment 19at which to step in with its forces, and do its work. A religion which aims at saving the soul and transforming the inner man, and which regards a change in outward circumstances as but a small matter in comparison with the power of evil, can only follow in the wake of earthly changes and exercise an after-influence; it is not qualified to lead the way in economic developments.
To be sure, that is not the conclusion of the whole matter. It is undeniable that the greatest danger of Churches once established has always been lest they should become in a bad sense conservative and indolent, and should hide this indolence under cover of very lofty conceptions of their creed. Instead of helping their poor brother, they preach to him that “pious indifference” with which individuals should regard their own earthly fortunes. Even in the days when the Epistle of St. James was written, Christians would say to a destitute brother: “God help you!”—and yet give him nothing. The other-worldly aspect of religion was exploited to such an extent that love in this world was forgotten, or, in other words, the present world was not forgotten, but love was.
It is no mere coincidence that from the very 20beginning this perverted quietism has always had as its counterpart the tendency which I have called radicalism. If indifference towards all earthly matters is to take the place of love in determining our relations with our neighbours, there is at least as much justification for radicalism as for quietism. Therefore let all earthly possessions be forsaken, divided equally, or held in common! The fantastic idea, derived from antiquity, of Communism in matters economic, has always clung to the Church like a shadow, faint at one time, at another more distinct. Combined with thoughts of complete renunciation of this world, or with material hopes of another world, it seemed to offer the best solution to the problem of the evangelical-social mission of the Church, and at the same time declared war against indolent indifference. The idea, though naïvely conceived, and never really carried out, or capable of being carried out, was valuable in so far as it stirred up easygoing Christians, called attention to faults in the prevailing economic order, and modified obstinate ideas of individual ownership; but the merits were outweighed by the disadvantages of the movement. Wherever it attempted to practise its theories—indeed, wherever it was able to gain a hearing at all—the result was to 21make men blind to the duties nearest at hand and within their powers; it always undervalued the simple, personal acts of charity in the interests of its own institutions, supposed to be capable of overcoming all evil, and eventually it degenerated into the opposite of its own ideals, its “heaven upon earth” becoming a degradation of religion. Moreover, in those ages of the Church in which the communistic theory was most common, religion was most selfish. For the strongest motive that impelled towards Communism was scarcely ever brotherly love; it was at one time a desire to escape from the world, incompatible with concern for one’s fellow men; at another time, a longing for earthly welfare, encouraged by the self-deluding belief that heaven could be established upon earth.
I have tried to describe briefly the moral attitude of the Christian religion towards social questions, and at the same time to call attention to points at which an overstraining of certain ideas was bound to lead to unfortunate developments. Let us now turn our attention to history.22
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