Chapter 1: Is There Any Hope?
A vague uneasiness is abroad in the land. It is shared to some degree by nearly everyone who reads the newspapers and watches the evening news on TV. In the film The Graduate, Benjamin is asked why he is so glum at the party arranged by his parents to celebrate his graduation from college. “I’m just a little worried about my future,” he says. Most of us are these days. We are anxious about what is happening in our country. We are concerned about where the human race is going. We wonder what will happen to us and our children. Thousands are dying of starvation in Asia and Africa. Inflation and recession deal a double blow at home. Prices rise and unemployment increases. In order to feed, clothe, and house a growing world population, economic growth must speed up. But increasing production pollutes the air, the land, and the sea. It also runs the risk of using up certain nonrenewable natural resources. In particular, energy sources are limited. Even if an inexhaustible supply of energy were available, danger still lies ahead. The production of goods requires energy. Energy throws waste heat into the environment. There are limits to the amount of heat that the earth can absorb without warming up so much that it becomes uninhabitable.
The industrial world tells the poor countries to reduce their birthrates, since overpopulation is so dangerous. They reply that the rich nations must reduce their extravagant consumption and share their bounty with the rest of the world. In the second round of discussion, the affluent nations claim that, after all, they produced most of this wealth, so they have a right to enjoy it. The underdeveloped countries come back by saying, “Yes, you have produced enormous wealth. But you did it partly by exploiting us and using up our natural resources. The average citizen everywhere hardly knows what to think. A distinguished biologist looking at the situation concludes that it will be impossible to feed everybody right away, no matter what we do. Imagine the Titanic sinking in the distance. The lifeboat will hold only 50. There are 150 people floundering in the ocean crying for help. Against that background, Garrett Hardin makes this case against helping the poor: to attempt to feed all now only means that more than ever will be born to starve later.1
Local wars keep popping up. The Middle East remains a powder keg. Even now Russia and the United States have missiles aimed at each other’s cities. The prospect is that more nations will soon be able to make nuclear weapons. Looking at this situation, a leading economist suggests that countries with an increasing scarcity of food may well fall into the hands of strong-arm dictators. Authoritarian government may be inevitable where mass starvation generates social chaos. And once these tyrants are armed with nuclear weapons, the industrial nations may confront blackmail. A massive transfer of wealth to the poor may be demanded as the price of saving some large city from nuclear holocaust.2
If these global terrors are not enough, there is the recent suggestion that the lowly aerosol can will do us in. The spray that holds our hair in place and keeps our underarms dry releases chemicals that rise up toward the heavens. There they destroy the layer of ozone that screens out some of the sun s destructive rays. Should one laugh or cry at this prospect? Probably the first thing we should do is keep our common sense and recall that most predictions of doomsday turn out to be nonsense. Indeed, pronouncements about the future are famous for their inaccuracy. The well-known surgeon, Alfred Velpeau, wrote in 1839 that pain would always be associated with surgery. It was absurd, he said, to think otherwise. A week before the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, the New York Times urged a rival plane-builder to give up such wasteful experiments. The editorial urged Professor Langley to use his scientific talents for better purposes than trying to fly. Surely there must have been someone who came up with a projection of trends about 1890 that showed conclusively that by 1975 the streets of New York City would be six feet deep in horse manure. Not long ago, Kenneth Boulding was asked about the alleged “aerosol-can ozone crisis.” He replied that science was in danger of losing its credibility with the public as the result of such scares. He reminded the audience that most of them are based on very scanty evidence.
Nevertheless, many problems are real enough. Even when we allow for hysteria and exaggeration, it remains true that enormous challenges lie ahead for the human race. We may pretend they do not exist. But we cannot wish them away. Our discomfort has two sides to it. One aspect is that there is good reason to be anxious about the future, since the problems are so difficult. The other part of it is that we have doubts about our ability to cope with these dangers. The primary issue here is not simply whether “the human race as a whole can guide itself through the perils of the next few years safely and perhaps even realize the promises of the future — indeed, the promises are as astounding as the threats. The more immediate concern is. the bafflement that individuals feel, which I feel in con-fronting these huge global issues. Do you recognize your own thoughts in the following statement?
I would like to be a good world-citizen and make life better for myself and others. My problem is that the world has become so complicated that I no longer know what I should do. Can I do anything that really makes a difference? Sure, I can give money to good causes and help needy individuals and families as opportunities arise. But the big problems that affect what life is going to be like for most people in the near future are overwhelming. We seem caught up in forces beyond our power to control. Yet these forces will determine whether millions of people have food and shelter and jobs and a chance for some kind of decent existence. I mean problems like the nuclear arms race, inflation, the population explosion, pollution, world hunger, the energy shortage, health care, welfare, and so on. How can you connect an individual’s actions with problems as big as that? Isn’t the world too complicated to understand or to do anything about?
If you are one of the millions of Americans who are “a little worried about the future” and I wonder what it means to be responsible to others in today’s world, then this book may be for you. It is intended to speak to people who really want to live out their religious faith in ways that make a real difference for themselves and others. It is directed to those who feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues they face. Granted that we ought to love our neighbors and seek justice for all, what does that mean in the complicated world of today? Is there any hope? What are our chances for peace and happiness in the years ahead? Can we leave our children a decent world and the prospect of a future in which they can find their own joy and peace? These are the questions I intend to deal with.
Two features of our complicated world stand out at once. Both are crucial to the problem of living out our faith in everyday life.
1. The first is that the work of the world is increasingly carried on in large organizations in which the individual seems swallowed up. Hospitals, schools, corporations, charities, labor unions, agribusinesses (huge farming corporations), and others that we could name all from a complex web. These organizations grow our food, manufacture necessary goods, and build our houses. They also provide health care, education, transportation, communication, and other services that make life possible in our society. The largest organization of all is government — the overseer and policymaker whose responsibility it is to give some order and direction to our common life. The way these systems work separately and interact determines to a large measure whether there are jobs for everybody at decent wages, whether everybody has enough food, a comfortable place to live, and the opportunities to make the best of his or her talents.
If visions of the good life are to have any effect on the actual quality of life, they must find their way into this system of organizations. Rescuing the perishing today is not primarily a matter of lending a helping hand to individuals injured or robbed on the road to Jericho. Rather it means creating a safe and efficient transportation system. It means providing hospitals and doctors that the poor as well as the affluent can afford. However, recognizing that we need a strategy in dealing with organizations just as we need principles in dealing with individuals is only part of the complexity of being morally responsible today.
2. We have increasingly become aware that to the whole set of problems that go under the heading of peace and social justice we must now add another group of issues. I refer to the large spectrum of challenges that we now associate with ecology — world population, food supply, pollution, dwindling supplies of nonrenewable natural resources, and so on. Even as I write these words, the newspapers are full of reports that the world is on the very edge of a chasm between food production and the growing population. A United Nations report issued in June of 1974 indicated that as many as 800 million people, nearly a quarter of the human race, are now suffering from malnutrition. World reserves of grain are lower than they have been for twenty years. A major crop failure would mean death for innumerable hungry people.
Mr. A. H. Boerma, General Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is calling upon the world to set aside 15% of the annual grain yield in a global food bank for emergency use to prevent starvation. North America is about the only region that has much surplus. The United States and Canada are to grain what Saudi Arabia is to oil. The sharp rise of prices in the grocery store puts a strain on most American budgets and is especially hard on the poor. Yet the moral responsibility of preventing starvation in other lands weighs heavily in the balance. By 1985 the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts an 85 million ton gap between grain production and world need. Those with money will get it unless a world bank is built up for the needy who may not have funds. The short-term strategy, then, is to build up grain reserves. The long-term solution is, first, to reduce population, and second, nearly as important, to increase the output of millions of peasant farmers around the globe. Recently it took S million Americans to produce 239 million tons of grain, while 364 million Indian farmers grew 105 million tons.3
And the race between population and food supply is only one among many warnings that the human race may be courting ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions. A team of highly respected scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has published a report in which they maintain that the world is headed for a major catastrophe within the next century unless some dangerous trends are reversed quickly.4 If prevailing rates of increase in world population, food production, pollution, resource depletion, and industrialization continue, the limits to growth will be reached within a few generations. The consequence will be a sudden, sharp, and uncontrollable drop in world population and industrial capacity. These conclusions are buttressed with diagrams showing such complex interrelationships among ecological and economic factors that it took a computer to work them out. The pessimistic conclusions of The Limits to Growth are matched by those of a group of British scientists and philosophers who authored A Blueprint for Survival, which urges that growth be brought under control as soon as possible. These doomsday documents are highly controversial and subject to criticism from many angles. Nevertheless, they point vividly to a new dimension of the human predicament that must be faced by anyone concerned about the future of the world.
Even from this brief survey, two important lessons about our future come into view with startling clarity. (1) The whole world has become one interdependent system in which national and global issues blend into each other. (2) The concerns of justice and of ecology are inseparable. We do indeed live on Spaceship Earth, and we are all dependent on it. All we have for the foreseeable future is this planet with its limited resources and each other with all our fears and hopes. The magnificently beautiful picture that the astronauts on the moon took of the earth — that cloud-enswirled blue-green ball floating in space — is an image that must penetrate increasingly into our consciousness. Spaceship Earth is the most powerful symbol of our time. It must be a constant point of reference for everyone who wants to think responsibly about what the love of neighbor and the quest for justice mean for the present and future. The picture of earth made from the moon is a vivid image that impresses upon us anew what the psalmist taught long ago. “The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” (Ps. 24:1) We are all one family under God, on God’s earth, and no individual or nation has any right to Superior status or privilege.
Let me illustrate the connection of nation with world and of ecology with justice by posing two problems. I invite the reader to think about them with me.
Fact: The two greatest drains on the global environment today are rampant population growth in some of the underdeveloped countries and rising rates of consumption in the industrial nations. The increase in the global consumption of goods and services is due about equally to the population explosion and to the rise of individual affluence.5
Fact: With about 6% of the world’s population, the United States uses from about 30% to 50% (estimates vary) of the world’s raw materials.
Rich nations and poor nations alike must he prepared to rethink some of their values and change their life-styles for the sake of all of us who are passengers on Spaceship Earth. When is enough enough? How many children are enough? How much income and how much consumption are enough? It is probably no easier for people in poorer countries to get used to the idea of having fewer children than it is for us to change our attitudes toward economic growth. Yet both are threatening the limits of the earth’s capacity to sustain life. Do people have a right to consume all they can pay for? On the other hand, suppose industrial nations have fewer people but a higher level of per capita consumption. Is this not as legitimate a claim on world resources as that of extra mouths born in countries where population is outstripping food?
Do you agree that if the developing nations are asked to reduce their population growth, the affluent nations should be willing to reduce their rates of consumption?
The average American or Canadian consumes about 2000 pounds of grain each year. In the poor countries, the average is about 400 pounds. (In North America, 150 pounds of grain are eaten directly in bread, pastries, and cereals; the rest is consumed indirectly in the form of meat, milk, and eggs. In the poor countries, most of the grain is eaten directly; little can be spared for conversion into animal protein.) Hence, the agricultural resources in land, fertilizer, and water required to support an average North American is five times that required for the average Indian, Nigerian, or Colombian.
Conversion of grain into meat is an inefficient way to get food value. It takes seven pounds or more of grain to produce one pound of beef, four pounds of grain for one pound of pork, and three pounds of grain to get one pound of chicken.
Per capita beef consumption in the United States has grown from 55 pounds in 1940 to 117 pounds in 1972.6
If individuals in this country ate less meat, especially beef, this would free grain to be used directly to feed malnourished people. Of course, the money saved from not eating meat would have to be used to buy grain that would go to some hungry person. And reducing meat consumption would actually improve the diet of many Americans.
Do you agree that North Americans should make an effort to reduce their consumption of beef for the sake of a more efficient use of available grains for the hungry nations of the world?
This book is mainly about values, what we treasure and what we live for. Already two basic values have come into view: (1) our attitude toward our nation and the needs and claims of other nations, especially the poorer ones, and (2) our attitudes toward individual consumption. Again, without presuming to have the right answers, let me raise some questions. Given the present ecological realities of rising consumption and dwindling natural resources, can we be content with a situation in which 1/16th of the world’s people use up at least 1/3 of the world’s nonrenewable raw materials? What is a fair share? Viewing our own nation alongside others, how are we to define the good life and the income it requires? For a family of four, when is enough enough? $15,000 a year? $20,000? $50,000? A million a year? The point is not that there is some level beyond which consumption becomes automatically immoral. There is no right or wrong as such about enjoying the benefits that money can provide. The issue is one of fairness in a world where wealth and privilege are distributed so unequally. The issue also involves ecological prudence: increasing consumption and population are beginning to press toward the biological limits of the earth.
In a time of rapid inflation and recession combined, most Americans do not feel very affluent. Nearly all of us are having budget problems these days. Nevertheless, by world standards, the majority of Americans are wealthy. Those families with incomes of $15,000 or more are in the upper half of the population of this country as far as money is concerned. Jesus told the rich young ruler that he should sell all his goods and distribute the money to the poor. Many Americans share the sadness of the wealthy young man as he turned away. We have worked hard for what we have. Much sacrifice and discipline have been necessary to get us where we are. We have finally achieved some comforts — a good house, a decent job, and the prospect of making life better for our children. Now we are told that we should feel guilty for having achieved the American dream. Why should we be prepared to give it up for the sake of the poor and the starving peoples who have never done a thing for us? Yet we can also understand that mothers and fathers in rural Appalachia or in Africa who have little food to give their children can hardly appreciate our dilemma. And it is unrealistic to suppose that the poor do not know what we have, or do not want it: communication has become cheap, universal, and intelligible even to the illiterate; and the ethic of acquisition we have instilled in ourselves we have also proclaimed to them. It is no wonder that there is a vague uneasiness and at times a deep troubling of the spirit throughout the land.
Let me move to the practical and immediate by indicating how the issues of wealth and justice come home to me as an individual. My family lives on the salary I make as a professor in a theological seminary. My income is modest compared to that of many other professionals with similar academic credentials and experience. Yet my family has more to spend than over half of all American families. In addition to my salary, which is a specific sum I can be sure of, I earn some additional money every year from lecture fees, preaching engagements, and even a little from book royalties. But since these vary from season to season, the income they produce cannot be counted on for regular budgetary purposes. For example, I may receive an invitation tomorrow to give a lecture in a month for which I may earn, say $100. This money is, in a sense, “extra.” How do I decide what to do with it? I could, of course, use it in a thousand different ways to purchase something the family needs or at least wants. Or I can save it to pay for the college expenses of my three children or for security in old age for my wife and myself. But instead of spending this extra $100 on myself and family, I could also find a thousand ways to spend it to benefit some person, family, or group that has a desperate need for food, clothes, shelter, or medical care. I could send it to CARE with instructions to send a food package overseas to some area of famine. There are families in the city of Rochester who barely have enough to get by on from month to month. Newspaper stories tell of elderly people who are eating pet food. The possibilities for using this extra money are endless.
How can I enjoy a color TV set when there are children who lack even a crust of bread for their shriveling bodies and distended stomachs? How do I weigh this: should I give my income to develop the talent and intelligence of my children, or should I give it for other children who do not even have enough food and medical care to keep them alive and healthy? Every child is as precious to God as my child. How can I give my children cake when other children have no bread? What does the command to love one’s neighbor equally with oneself mean in these circumstances? I do not argue that there are simple answers to the questions I have raised. I am troubled by the customary assumption that there are no limits whatsoever to the amount that a family may rightfully spend for its own necessities, wants, luxuries, and whims. In a world so full of need and creeping ever closer to the brink of ecological disaster, is there some point where we must finally say right out loud that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH?
My effort is to show that individual behavior is tied into global problems. I have tried to illustrate the kind of thinking we must be prepared to do if we are to deal with the problem of being morally responsible in a complicated world. To follow this out a bit will help us to see even more clearly how everything is connected to everything else. Suppose that a large number of affluent families in America made a conscious choice to restrict their consumption. What would the consequences be for the economy? What would and could be done with the excess over, say, $18,000 to $20,000 a year? Remember that either of these amounts is considerably higher than the income of more than half of American families. Would large sums suddenly invested in something other than consumer goods and services have potentially disastrous results for the stability of the economic system? Suppose that forty million Americans deliberately restricted their consumption of meat as a way of combating world hunger. What would be the consequences for cattle-raisers, for companies and workers in the meat-packing and distributing industry? What would happen throughout the whole economic system at home and abroad?
All we need do is recall some recent events to be reminded that we live in a complicated network of interrelated systems and forces. A change in one sector produces waves in some places and ripples nearly everywhere. In February of 1974 lines at the gas stations grew long and tempers grew short. Earlier the Arabs had imposed an oil embargo to protest our friendly policy toward Israel. The profits of the automobile manufacturers dropped sharply. The public started a rush to buy small cars. Workers in automobile factories were laid off. The tourist industry got scared. Makers of mobile homes, travel trailers, and other vehicles using gasoline faced financial ruin. Deaths from automobile accidents dropped 25% over a period of months, presumably because of reduced traffic and lower speed limits. Despite the continuing protests of environmentalists, Congress quickly passed legislation enabling construction to go forward on the Alaska pipeline. Demands were made that pollution control standards for auto emissions be relaxed in order to allow more efficient mileage from available gasoline. Meanwhile, the profits of the oil companies skyrocketed as prices at the gas pumps rose sharply. Word came from India that the increase in oil prices and in all the products made from oil threatened to bring an already shaky economy to its knees. When the oil embargo was lifted, the Arabs justified the rise in prices of crude oil by pointing out that inflation increased the cost of goods they had to buy from the industrial nations. Everything is connected to everything else. The whole world has become one giant trading center. Economic and political events in one part of the globe affect all the rest. Our hope for survival and prosperity depends on how well these vast systems and forces can work in harmony to achieve worthwhile human goals.
Another lesson about our world comes into view here. One of the problems in our world is the difficulty of getting reliable information about what affects vested interests. Were the oil companies taking advantage of a crisis to boost prices and profits, as some critics and some evidence seemed to show? By June we were told that gasoline supplies for the summer seemed ample, and the embargo was lifted — apparently for good. The oil companies argued that, after all, they only made about 2¢ a gallon profit, so what was all the fuss about? Don’t blame us, they said, we are only passing along the higher costs of crude oil to the consumers. Besides, although these profits seem high, they are necessary to promote exploration so as to insure supplies for the future. It costs a lot of money to drill for oil and to build refineries these days. What was the truth of the matter? Were the oil companies taking advantage of us? Or were they just working very hard to keep the country running as their ads claimed, only wanting to make an honest and modest profit for their efforts? Again, commercials on TV told us over and over again how much the oil companies loved the environment. Exxon showed us pictures of hordes of fish swimming around their offshore drilling platforms. Meanwhile, Jack Anderson maintained that these same companies were being allowed to tone down, before its release, a government study which shows that oil spills have done great damage to the ocean.7 How can we act responsibly if we can’t even find out what the facts are?
The problem, however, is not simply getting the straight facts. It is also important to know how the facts and forces interact to form a total system of events. But to figure out how the world works calls for the kind of theoretical knowledge and practical know-how that only technical experts have — and even they do not always agree. I have already mentioned the pessimistic predictions of The Limits to Growth. The claim was that we were in danger from the consequences of exponential growth — the kind of increase where something keeps doubling over given periods of time. Critics, particularly economists, pounced on these doomsday predictions at once.8 Their view was that what we had in this study was a classic example of “Garbage In” and “Garbage Out” from the computer. The MIT team, it was asserted, had taken the obvious mathematical fact that exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world. Then they slanted the evidence so that the outcome was bound to sound as if catastrophe was ahead. They overestimated the threats of growth to the environment and underestimated our capacity to deal with them. The critics agreed that population growth does need to be curbed. But economic growth is not necessarily a villain if we manage it rightly. In particular, we can change the incentives to industry. We can make it costly to them to pollute and beneficial to them to find nonpolluting ways to produce their goods and dispose of their waste. Moreover, technology can find ways to substitute materials for depleted ones, discover ways to recycle what we already have, and so on. Hence, what we need is not to curb growth as such but to manage it prudently. How are ordinary citizens to decide for themselves when the experts don’t agree on how the system works and on what should be done to keep it going?
Let me continue for a moment the debate over growth by showing how issues related to politics and values also enter. Many economists argue that it is unnecessary to curb economic growth, if we change our presently unwise policies that allow and encourage waste and pollution. They also argue that continued economic growth is the only way to overcome poverty. The percentage of the total wealth of the nation going to the poorest families and to the richest families has continued about the same over many years. Roughly, the upper 5% of the families have 20% of the income, while the poorest 20% get 5%. It would be relatively easy to redistribute wealth by political means, if those in power had any desire to. But our history gives little reason to suppose that significant income redistribution will come about politically.
In the fall of 1971, when Senator McGovern was beginning his campaign for the presidency, he proposed that all inheritances to a child over $500,000 should be taxed at 100%. He later modified the suggestion because it simply didn’t go over very well. I thought it was a good idea. I knew I would never have that much to leave even one of my children, much less enough to give half a million to all three. I said to a young man in jest, “What? You mean I can only leave each of my children $500,000? How horrible!” To my surprise I found that he was seriously horrified at that notion. The likelihood that he will ever have half a million dollars to leave to anyone is about as great as that Ralph Nader will be the next president of General Motors. However, even though he would never have that kind of money, the man was shocked at the idea that the government would take away all above $500,000 for each child. Here we are talking about attitudes and beliefs. It is perhaps reasonable for individuals to be rewarded differently according to the contributions they make. But wealth is in a large measure the product of many people’s work. Shouldn’t there be a limit to what any person should be allowed to keep for purely private use? Elizabeth Taylor can command a million dollars for a single movie. But that million would not be available unless hundreds of thousands of ordinary people plunked down their three bucks at the box office. Why shouldn’t the whole society share in such huge earnings? Henry Ford, it may be argued, deserved a sizable reward for his contribution to the automobile industry. The truth is, however, that he could not have made that fortune except for the workers who assembled his Fords and the millions who bought them. Did he deserve a billion dollar reward? The idea that the president of a huge corporation must have half a million dollars a year to provide incentive is incredible to me. Isn’t there something at work here more than the money? What about justice? What is a fair share? When is enough enough? We are dealing here with values.
How, then, do we improve the lot of the poor, given the prevailing values and political facts of America today? Realism tells us that poverty can be relieved most easily by enlarging the economic pie. Then everybody can have a bigger slice. That way nobody objects very much. It is much harder to divide a smaller pie into more equal pieces. But suppose a reduction in economic growth becomes necessary for ecological reasons? Suppose we can’t make the pie any bigger without risking environmental catastrophe? In this case, we can be sure that redistribution of wealth through political means will become a crucial issue in our society and will call for a decision from all of us.
It is time now to begin to sum up and to bring this chapter to an end. I have tried in a preliminary way to introduce some issues that this book will deal with. My basic concern is to throw some light on what it means to live as a morally responsible citizen in this complicated world. My analysis takes for granted that we live in a time of rapid technological and social change. It recognizes that necessary material goods and social services are provided by a vast network of interconnected organizations. These organizations now form a global system. We live in a world where social morality must recognize that planetary society is approaching the ecological limits of the earth. Put most succinctly, can we produce enough food and other material necessities for an expanding world population without polluting ourselves to death and without using up essential nonrenewable resources before we find substitutes or learn to recycle what we have? It is in such a world that the question of moral responsibility must be asked. My task in this book is to ask what it means to live out one’s religious commitment in a complicated world. I want to make some suggestions as to how the churches might perceive their task in the years ahead.
It dawned on me in 1970 that my older daughter, then ten, would be the same age in the year 2000 as I was then — 40 years old. At the beginning of the 21st century my children will be entering the midpoint of their lives. If for no other reason than that, it matters to me what the world will be like in another quarter of a century. I approach the questions in this book as a father, concerned about the future of my children. I write as an individual who wants some kind of satisfying life for himself — but one in keeping with being a morally responsible Christian. Finally, as a church member, I want to discover how the church may minister best to us and to our society.
Let me conclude this chapter by setting forth some of the convictions about the church and its ministry that are presupposed throughout the book. First of all, the primary function of the church is not to reform society. The first task of the church is to call people to religious faith, not to train them in social ethics. The church is not by original definition a social problem-solver. It has no special knowledge about how to change the institutions of society. The church is, first of all, a community which affirms a Creator and Redeemer who accepts us and loves us as we are with all our moral weakness. It celebrates the gospel of grace in the love and praise of God. The central focus of the church’s message is on the ultimate issues of life and death. It calls people away from the idols they worship and calls them to center their lives upon God as the ultimate object of their trust and loyalty. The “good news” is not that the burden of managing the world is on our shoulders. The first note of the good news is that the God who created us loves us still. The Almighty wills and works for our salvation. The Bible invites us to live as children of God who find our highest joy and intended destiny in loving fellowship with each other and with our Creator. That is the center around which the life and witness of the church revolves.
Nevertheless, love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable dimensions of the Christian life. The Bible is unrestrained in its condemnation of those who profess to be religious but have no compassion for the needy. Amos tells us that God despises the sacred ceremonies of worshipers who are deaf to the cries of the downtrodden (Amos 5:21-24). Jesus says plainly that those who see the hungry and don’t feed them, the prisoners and don’t visit them, the naked and don’t clothe them, and the homeless and don’t offer them shelter are to be cast into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:31-46). Translated into the conditions of the present age, the message is clear. The total mission of God’s people requires a corporate witness of the churches to the structures of society. My purpose, however, is not to convince Christians that they ought to change the world. If the Christians who read this book are committed to feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, and seeking a better life for everyone — that is, if they are Christians at all — they must wrestle with these issues.
In the second place, the churches do not have the kind of influence that would enable them to build a new society, even if they wanted to. They might have a powerful impact if they all agreed on some specific issue and threw their weight around in the political arena. Politicians do pay attention to churches where there are strong convictions likely to affect how people will vote. But the fact is that, generally speaking, most Christians do not see their responsibility as that of changing the political structures of the world or think of the church as an agent of social change. Nevertheless, there is a powerful fund of moral idealism among Christians. It needs to be mobilized and channeled into effective action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. Christian faith does nourish compassion for the poor and the helpless.
In the third place, church members don’t have significantly better ideas about what the future should be than people outside the churches. The political beliefs of Christians vary widely. Their social ideals tend to reflect the views of their race, region, economic class, age, and educational background. A few years ago the attitudes of white people on matters of race relations in the South could be fairly well predicted by examining a map which showed county by county the proportion of blacks to whites in the population. It appeared that where a person lived was a better indicator of beliefs about segregation than whether he or she belonged to a church. Besides, most of the people in America do belong to churches, so to say that the churches should change society is a bit like saying society should change itself. If by the church we mean the mainline denominations to which most Christians belong, they are part and parcel of the society in which they live. As social institutions they are more important as bulwarks of achieved social values than as instruments of change. Hence, whatever role our religious convictions tell us the churches should play in society, common sense compels us to be realists about the role mainline churches actually do play. Nevertheless, the mainline churches constantly generate within themselves smaller groups of highly motivated people who are at work on the frontiers of moral advance. A creative minority of Christians is committed to the achievement of ideals and goals not yet accepted in society generally. Wherever any evil is crushing out the lives of God’s children, Christians have been among the first to take up the cause, whether the evil be slavery or segregation or war or hunger.
To conclude, let me simply say that to be a Christian in a complicated world a person must combine a warm heart and a cool head. By warm heart, I mean a deep Christian experience of the grace of God that expresses itself in a compassionate love for the world and all of its people. By cool head, I mean a hardheaded search to understand the way the world works. Let me borrow two phrases from Paul to express my meaning in a way that I hope does no violence to his intentions. He speaks of his fellow Jews as having a zeal for God but without enlightenment. And he speaks of knowledge without love as amounting to nothing. Zeal without knowledge is a warm heart without a cool head. Knowledge without love is a cool head without a warm heart. Both are essential to Christian discipleship in our time. Good intentions and warm piety are not enough. Sound judgment based on realistic understanding of the facts is also required. In order to add enlightenment to zeal, we must be prepared to spend some time examining the world in which we actually live. As best we can, we must also try to discern where we are probably headed. My aim is to try to provide some clues to the workings of present society and the new society that is emerging. The argument will unfold chapter by chapter. I will be leading up to a discussion of the mission of the church. The first step is to show that “the future is not what it used to be.”
1. Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today (September 1974), pp. 38 ff.
2. Robert Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1974).
3. The Christian Science Monitor (June 5,1974), P. 1.
4. Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (Washington, D. C.: Potomac Associates, 1972).
5. Lester Brown, “Rich Countries and Poor in a Finite, Interdependent World,” Daedalus (Fall 1973), pp. 153 ff.
6. Lester Brown, “Global Food Insecurity,” The Futurist (April 1974), pp. 56 ff.
7. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (May 30, 1974), p. 2A.
8. See, for example, Peter Passell and Leonard Ross, The Retreat from Riches (New York: The Viking Press, 1973).