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John Bennett on Oxford '37

by David McCreary

Mr. McCreary was associate pastor of the United Methodist Church in Aurora, Nebraska in 1987. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 28, 1987 pp. 942-944. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The 1937 Oxford Conference "Church, Community, and State" of the Life and Work movement brought together many representatives of the ecumenical community. In the shadow of Nazism, it addressed the churches with words of hope and courage regarding social witness. Its concerns -- war, racism and economic strife – have proved enduring, and many of its declarations were surprisingly modern. The conference formed an ecumenical consensus for a common social witness that has remained durable in the face of more recent motifs: revolutionary. change, liberation and the nuclear threat.

John C. Bennett is one of the few Oxford Conference participants who is still living. Then a young seminary Professor of theology, he had a considerable role in the conference's preparation and was a secretary of one of its sections. Looking back over the conference and Christian Social thought since then, Bennett regards the Oxford Conference as a milestone in. the church's development concerning its social mission. Recently I discussed with Bennett the conference's implications for the church today.

"The Oxford Conference absorbed some of the most important theological changes since the 1925 conference of Life and Work in Stockholm," Bennett said. "It responded to important theological developments associated with Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was the major American voice at the conference in terms of theological thought, and his speech had a tremendous impact. While his theology was far removed from Barth's, who did not attend, his ideas reflected, to a considerable extent, the theological changes that had taken place in Europe since Stockholm

"Second, Oxford faced the new problems created by the National Socialist regime in Germany: problems of church and state; church and race; and, by anticipation, church and war.

"Third, Oxford faced the continuing dilemmas of the universal church existing in the world and took a step in clarifying Christian thinking about war and its diagnosis of the degrees of international anarchy.

"For instance, the church and war report recognized that there is no one Christian position on the subject. Second, it gave pacifism a surer status in the mainline churches. It described war in terms that would put a heavy burden of proof on any claim that a particular war is justified. For example, the conference said: 'War involves compulsory enmity, diabolical outrage against human personality, and a wanton distortion of the truth. War is a particular demonstration of the power of sin in the world and a defiance of the righteousness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and him crucified’ Yet the conference accepted the idea that criteria exist by which some wars can be regarded as just: to defend international law, or to vindicate 'an essential Christian principle' such as the defense of 'victims of wanton aggression.' We did not emphasize then, as we would now, the idea that the escalation of the destructiveness of the means used, as in the case of nuclear war, would make a war unjust. In this respect ours is a different world.

"Fourth, Oxford projected an ethic for the economic order -- without discussing revolutionary changes -- that is still relevant to Christian thinking in the industrial democracies. In fact, the normative elements of the American Catholic bishops' recent letter on the economy are very similar to the conference's report. Ideas about property and equality, poverty and unemployment, and the whole challenge to a prevailing view of what I call 'the almost moral self-sufficiency' of the free-enterprise system are similar in both documents. Interestingly, it seems we haven't moved so far from Oxford on those positions in the industrialized democracies."

"I noted that much has been written on the church's relationship to the state, at least as far back as Constantine, but little has concerned economic ethics. Bennett agreed in part, saying, "Traditionally, much thought has focused on the possession and use of property, on usury, and on a just wage or price, but the industrial revolution got ahead of the churches. They were not ready to deal with the forms of injustice that it created until late in the 19th century. The American Social Gospel and parallels in Britain, France, the Scandinavian countries, and in the Roman Catholic Church since Pope Leo XIII's famous social encyclical Rerum Novarum, began a new stage of Christian economic ethics, strongly reflected by the 1925 Stockholm Conference. The Oxford Conference gathered these threads together very well in the light of current theological criticism."

Bennett told me that the conference, while ecumenical, lacked a broad constituency. He said that only 30 people from the Third World, many of whom were missionaries from the West, attended. Because of Hitler's restrictions, no one represented the major German churches. The conference consisted chiefly of Anglo-Saxon North American and European delegates, and only 19 women attended. There were no Catholic observers, but 26 Orthodox were there. It was a limited group. Oxford did not represent the whole world, however, because of parallel ecumenical conferences held in the late 1930s.

Meeting in 1937, the conference took place in the context of militant nationalism-in Germany, Italy, Spain. I asked Bennett how the gathering responded to this increasingly tense atmosphere.

"While frequently criticizing totalitarianism, which was connected with nationalism and racism, it did not mention particular nations, except in the letter to the Christians in Germany. The Geneva headquarters of the Life and Work Institute pressured the conference not to identify itself closely with any one particular section of the German church. But in fact the delegates did ally themselves with the Confessing Church associated with Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Obviously, the prospect of war was very much on the delegates' minds, and no one saw a prospect of improvement in the German situation. "

The Oxford Conference is well known for the phrase: "Let the church be the church," a central issue at the meeting. Church freedom or the freedom of the church from narrow cultural norms, Bennett explained, was understood in a new light..

"Not only was Oxford for many a more significant embodiment of the universal church than they had previously experienced, but it also confronted them with both theological and ethical thinking about the church, which transcends nations. Not used in a triumphalist sense, the admonition was an emphasis on the church's freedom from the power of states and the pressures of the culture. It called upon the church to be true to itself as it was understood at Oxford."

The conference seemed more concerned about the church's present social mission than it was about uniting churches doctrinally and organically. Bennett indicated that this emphasis was created partly by the division of labor between the Faith and Order and the Life and Work movements. (Faith and Order had its own conference in Edinburgh that same summer.)

"The Faith and Order movement had paid special attention to those areas of doctrine involving the ministry, apostolic succession and the sacraments, which were primary obstacles to full organic union and Christian unity. Oxford did not deal with Faith and Order issues of that time. Since then, Faith and Order has broadened its concerns and under the World Council of Churches has had common projects with Church and Society."

I asked Bennett if prewar optimistic Americans clashed with pessimistic Europeans at the conference. He was careful to point out that the British stood in between their American and continental colleagues. For example, he noted, "I remember Archbishop William Temple telling me about his first meeting with Reinhold Niebuhr. He said, 'You are the man who's been troubling me. 'The whole British approach was based much more on continuities of church and society that was that of continental Christians. On the other hand, the British had a greater sense of tradition and more theological sophistication than did the Americans. But at Oxford the Americans did not strongly resist some of the influences which came from Emil Brunner and the other Europeans. For instance, the economic order report presented a very un-American view of the economy, yet the Americans barely protested."

A prominent American layperson at Oxford was John Foster Dulles. He participated in the international order section, called the Universal Church and the World of Nations. Bennett told me that the conference's critical approach to social thought changed Dulles. "He became interested in the church again. His father was a minister and theologian, so Dulles came out of the church. But I don't think he was very active in it until after the Oxford Conference. He was deeply impressed by the difference between a religious and a secular international conference, by the greater possibility at the former of generating truly international understanding.

"But Dulles changed in the 1950s. I once read a thesis that quite correctly shows that the Dulles of the '40s, who was head of the Federal Council of Churches' Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, was different from the Dulles of the '50s as U.S. secretary of state. He was not particularly anticommunist in the '40s, but about 1950 he became preoccupied with the cold war. When the Soviet Union got a nuclear bomb, Dulles shared the widespread fear of the results. I worked with him quite closely during the '40s, and his commission was well balanced, having a good many pacifists and liberals on it. His leadership at that time was generally accepted by the commission..

Reinhold Niebuhr was the other American at Oxford who proved to be very influential in politics. But his stance on communism, as Bennett pointed out, was quite different from Dulles's. "Niebuhr thought communism was idolatrous religion," Bennett noted. He often suggested that the communists of the late '30s and '40s, because they had this commitment to communism as a kind of religion, were even more dangerous than the fascists. It was in 1953 that Niebuhr published his strongest statement against communism. His stroke came in 1952, and after that he did not have the strength to develop a new systematic position. But he did give many signals that his mind was changing, beginning as early as 1958. And later, he opposed the U.S.'s Cuba policy, our China policy, and the Vietnam war, and he even changed his mind on his own earlier anticommunist rhetoric. He did not have the opportunity to develop a position that was as strongly and indeed as polemically expressed as had ben his anticommunist position of the ‘40s and early ‘50s.

"Neoconservatives are dead wrong in claiming that Niebuhr's anticommunist stance defines 'Christian realism.' Great changes have taken place in international communism and even in Soviet communism. Nuclear war is a much greater threat to freedom today -- as well as to existence. Realists must take account of these new situations. I think that neo-conservatives are also wrong about economic issues. Niebuhr did reject socialism,

but I doubt if he would have shared their celebration of capitalism or their tendency to see free enterprise as almost morally self-sufficient. I do not want to attribute ideas to Niebuhr, but I think that he would be as horrified as I am by the combination of wealth and poverty under American capitalism. While Niebuhr never advocated any scheme that imposes complete equality, he thought of justice as being under the criticism of equality.

Much Christian thought, on both the Catholic and Protestant sides, has been devoted to a theocratic ideal. But the Oxford Conference moved away from this pattern of thought.

"It saw clearly the contrast between the state, with its coercive power, and the church-and the importance of the freedom of the church against the state, especially where the state tries to control it," Bennett said. "Nor was there any emphasis on a dualistic interpretation of the 'two realms' doctrine, for which the Kingdom of God is irrelevant to the political order. The delegates were against identifying any political order with the Kingdom of God, but they left room for seeing signs of the Kingdom, even partial embodiments of it, in history. In studying the conference in a fresh way, I realize how important it was that they put community before state in the title. The totalitarian state does not distinguish between the community and the state.

"In a democracy, Caesar is the people, expressed in all kinds of different ways politically. And the people who are members of the church are, in a way, also members of Caesar. As Christian citizens, they cannot separate their ethics altogether' from their responsibility as citizens. However, they may be driven sometimes to emphasize the lesser evil so much that their decision may become remote from the Christian ethic, even though they don't intend that result. "

It has been 50 years since the Oxford Conference. I asked Bennett how it has personally shaped his life and thought. "It is part of the background for what many of us think now, for it has entered into the background rather than being a source of new ideas today. For a person .who enters into it now', it is partly out of a historical interest. But things we take as self-evident today were not self-evident then. The conference formed my mind."


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