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Christian Ethics by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published in 1957 by Abingdon Press. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 6: Duties to Self and Society


The previous chapter dealt with personal character, from the standpoint of both what it means to be a Christian and the thwarting of what God requires by sin. We move now to a very basic issue. Granted the validity of the love commandment, how does a Christian put it into effect?

It is an evident fact that modern life is not simple. It was not wholly simple in the Galilee or Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, or in the medieval era, or in the time of our Puritan fathers. Nor is it possible to escape entanglements by withdrawing to a cloister, for problems of the soul are there as well. It is an illusion to suppose that in some other time and place, being a Christian would be easy! Nevertheless, in terms of things and activities, with competing demands and possibilities, our lives are more complex than in any previous day, and this remains so in spite of our most earnest efforts at "the simplification of life." 1 And when duties to self, to those near at hand, and to the larger community conflict, how is one to know what to do? The more sensitive the Christian, the more he feels the impossibility of doing all that he ought in the service of human need.

The remainder of the book will deal with the issues involved in particular forms of social relationship, such as the family, economic life, the state, and the world of nations. Each has its own moral dilemmas. Yet certain principles are common to them all. With these we are concerned in this chapter.

1. Duty to self

Has Christian ethics any place for self-love? The question is not whether self-love is primary, for we have seen repeatedly that agape love is primary in the message of Jesus; it is whether self-love has any place at all in the Christian’s moral outlook. This is a question on which Christians both learned and sincere have often disagreed.

The primary arguments in the negative are, on the one hand, biblical and theological, and on the other psychological and pragmatic. The first type centers in the fact that there is no specific defense of self-love in the New Testament, and many warnings against it. The second is that if a justification for self-love is granted in any degree, consciences are too readily soothed and convenient rationalizations found.

Bishop Anders Nygren in his Agape and Eros has become the accepted and oft-quoted champion of this view. He holds that Augustine was wrong in admitting eros into the Christian’s outlook even at the point of man’s desiring and seeking after God. New Testament love, according to Nygren, is always giving love, never seeking, and Augustine’s distinction of caritas (man’s love of God) from cupiditas (the love of the world) he holds to be invalid. He maintains that Luther did a great service, as significant as that of his doctrine of justification by faith alone, to which it is related, in removing the eros, or self-seeking, motive from Christian love and leaving agape as the only legitimate type.2 Nygren is followed in this view by Paul Ramsey in Basic Christian Ethics, who regards the Augustinian position as essentially neo-Platonic, and the only right attitude of men toward God to be purely responsive love.3 Albert C. Knudson, on the other hand, not only defends the position of Augustine as to man’s duty to seek after God, but views the disjunction of agape and eros in general as a false abstraction.4 Says he:

To reject the eros idea, to exclude self-love and duties to self as non-Christian, and to limit Christian love to an "unmotivated" love to others is to create an abstract Christian ethic and to fall into a sentimental immoralism. . .The Christian ideal is self-realization through self-sacrifice.5

The objection to self-love from a practical standpoint is less subtle, and perhaps more persuasive. Certain it is that Christian ethics can never be stepped down to a policy of "look out for Number One," or "blow your horn, for nobody else will," without encouraging an egocentricity and arrogance that are the antithesis of Christian love and humility. Against this attitude such words of Jesus as, "Seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness," and, "Whoever would save his life will lose it," stand as a perpetual challenge (Matt. 6:33; 16:25). The danger of self-love, even in "spiritual" things, becomes apparent when God is used as a tool or instrument for curing neuroses and releasing tensions in order to have "peace of mind."6 The temptation to make of one’s faith a pleasant emotional luxury ever besets the path of the Christian. When this happens, religion becomes the "opiate" that Karl Marx claimed it is.

Yet it is by no means certain that either theological or practical considerations rule out wholly the place of self-love in Christian ethics. What can be said on the other side?

There is, first, the evident fact that Jesus said, quoting Lev. 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no suggestion, in either its Old or New Testament context, that such love of neighbor excludes all love of self. Indeed, that men will love themselves — and that such love suggests a standard of generous love for others — seems taken for granted. This is also the implication of the Golden Rule, "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them" (Matt. 7:12). But did Jesus mean by this that whatever I like, I must see that my neighbor gets? If so, there might be a duty to give him what is evil, for not all of our "likes" are good. "The Golden Rule, for instance, might be fully observed among sots and gluttons."7 Manifestly, Jesus did not mean this. We naturally and rightly assume it is what we ought to want that should in love be given to our neighbor. But if there is that which, as Christians, we ought to want for ourselves, then self-love cannot wholly be ruled out.

I said above that Jesus took it for granted that men will love themselves. Does this mean that he simply regarded all men as sinners? This is one interpretation, easily defended because all men are sinners. But it is not the only interpretation. When Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself," he probably did not anticipate all the theological web spinning that was later to center around these words! But it is at least credible to suppose that in taking self-love as a base line for love of neighbor he was not condemning it as wholly evil.

A second approach to the problem is by way of a "natural law" of morality, which though Stoic in its origin has been to a considerable extent taken over into Christianity. It appears in a familiar form in the "unalienable Rights"8 of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, in the Bill of Rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and more recently in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. Such statements are, of course, not distinctively Christian. Yet they stand for precious values which Christians have usually felt impelled both to defend for themselves and to seek for others. And there is at least a suggestion of a natural law of morality in Paul’s words when he speaks of the Gentiles "who have not the law [but] do by nature what the law requires," and thereby "they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts" (Rom. 2:14, 15). Unless an absolute line is to be drawn between the law and the gospel, there is no need to abrogate as unchristian all those personal rights that the "conscientious feelings of mankind" have declared to be good.

A third type of argument is that which is basic to Knudson’s position — the making of self-realization the Christian’s ethical ideal. This is eros doctrine, and while I cannot go with him in the emphasis he gives it,9 it may well be that the Christian’s agape obligation carries with it the duty of the fullest possible self-development for the sake of service. We are bidden "to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Eph. 4:16), and "every way" need not be limited to the specifically Christian graces.

Where, then, do we come out? The truth in my judgment lies in between the Nygren and the Knudson positions. I do not find in the New Testament any justification for the identification of Christian ethics with the ethics of self-realization. The latter centers in a blending of the Platonic theory of the Good with a sense of the worth and dignity of the human person, which has its roots partly in Christianity but also in Stoicism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Among the great classical ethical systems it is the best, and bears much truth. But it is not the ethics of Jesus and the New Testament.

On the other hand, the Nygren position, as Knudson rightly says, sets up a false abstraction by drawing too sharp a line between "motivated" and "unmotivated" love. Granted that agape love is the only type to which we are expressly called by the New Testament, to say that this does not permit us to seek after God, lest we fall into eros, is to contradict much that the New Testament clearly says. Every one of the Beatitudes is "motivated"; we are to seek God’s kingdom as we would a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price; we are told without qualification, "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." Every such injunction carries with it the implication that a Christian not only may, but must, desire for himself that which is of greatest worth.

What does this mean in daily Christian living? First, that we must not only wait receptively before God for his proffered grace, but desire it enough to seek it in repentance and humble obedience. Daily we must seek the divine presence, and endeavor to find light and strength from God for the duties before us. Daily we must cultivate self-discipline and self-control, in small matters as in great, and do this in order to be not only "better persons" but better servants and sons of God. The orientation is toward God in true Christian character. Yet honest self-examination and self-correction by God’s help are a duty which we neglect at our peril, and without which we cannot go far in the service of society.

But are there duties to self beyond the quest of these "spiritual blessings"? Yes, if they are kept within the structure of agape love, with this as the central motivation. Since every person is precious to God, one may well consider that one’s self is too! This means respect for one s own personality, as God wants us to respect those of others, and the avoidance of anything injurious to body, mind, or spirit. Positively, it involves the duty of care for one’s health, the pursuit of as much education as is possible without the neglect of other responsibilities, careful preparation for the best doing of one’s work, the finding of work that is both serviceable and congenial, fruitful and enjoyable use of leisure, wholesome family life, and the acquiring of enough material goods to make possible these other values. While it is a mistake to equate the "abundant life" with either material abundance or cultural advantages, it is a mistake also to limit it wholly to spiritual blessings.

The list of "good things" just enumerated may not, at first glance, look very different from those prized in a humane and cultured secular society. It is well that there are points of contact, for the Christian must often work with "men of good will" who are not Christians in order to secure these values for himself and others. Yet for the Christian, the perspective and the motive are different. Not because he loves himself on a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking basis, but because he knows God loves and prizes him and calls him to service, he must make the most worthy response he can. In short, he must be the best and most fully developed person he can be — not in moral excellence only but in every aspect of his nature — if he would seek to attain "to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).

A particular problem is involved in what is a familiar term on the lips of psychologists and psychiatrists, the need of self-acceptance. Often it is asserted that the Christian view of sin and guilt accents the lack of self-acceptance, induces feelings of inferiority, and therefore stands in the way of achieving personal maturity. Should not one be encouraged, then, to believe in himself, prize himself highly, come out of his shell of timidity and self-depreciation, and boldly take his place in society?

The issues are complex, and can here be only suggested. The major point in question is the total framework of meaning from which these charges are made and alternatives suggested. If it is contended that man has only the resources of himself and other persons to rely on, with a good social adjustment as the only criterion of excellence, the viewpoint is too narrow and by its narrowness becomes false. To the Christian, God is the ultimate source of strength, as his will is the final standard of what is good. But if the need of self-acceptance is acknowledged in a Christian frame of reference, it becomes a very important matter. One certainly cannot render his best service to God or neighbor when weighed down by timidity, self-depreciation, or excessive self-excoriation. A sense of sin in due humility we must have; this does not mean we must be torn apart by the tortures of remorse or rendered impotent by a crushing weight of inferiority which induces unhappiness and inhibits action. It is a Christian duty to try to find release, and in this process both repentance and respect for one’s own personality are important. We are bidden to "rekindle the gift of God" that is within us, "for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (II Tim. 1:6, 7).

The duties to self which I have been suggesting had probably better not be called self-love without qualification, for the term too readily suggests a self-centeredness which is not what Jesus taught. Agape is still the basic and covering category of Christian ethics. Yet within agape, there are certainly very important, God-given duties to one’s self. These ought not to be pursued either selfishly or in a morbid and unhealthy self-concern, but neither ought they to be depreciated. Without serious and resolute attention to them, we shall be but feebly equipped to serve God or our neighbor.

2. Duties in interpersonal relations

We shall look in this section at what has ordinarily been termed "individual ethics," or sometimes "personal ethics." Both terms are ambiguous, and have tended to draw too sharp a contrast with "social ethics." Every duty to another person is "social" in the sense that the obligation exists within a society of persons, in which there are greater or less degrees of intimacy of connection. Yet the setting within which Christian decision must be made and the obligations of Christian love must be met differs as between persons with a face-and-name relationship in the family, school, church, or other group of personal acquaintances and the vast complexities of society as a whole. No human being can be personally acquainted with more than a few thousand other persons, while there are many millions of other human beings who are beloved of God and toward whom some obligation of Christian love is presumably owed. It is within the circle of life touching life in direct relationship that our opportunities for the fullest expression of agape are found, yet with some of the greatest perils of perversion.

Ever since the publication of Reinhold Niebuhr’s epochal book Moral Man and Immoral Society in 1932, there has been a general recognition of the difference between the way Christians respond to the love commandment in personal relations and the large-scale indifference or "immorality" of Christians in the complex structures of political and economic life. It is clearly more possible, even though still difficult, for one to "love his brother whom he has seen" than one whom he has not seen, may never see, and is related to only in terms of political or economic subjection or dominance, if he feels related at all. This fact has led some writers on Christian ethics, notably Emil Brunner, to maintain that the scope of Christian love is necessarily limited to individual relations, and to substitute justice as the norm elsewhere. This dualism I must reject, for reasons to be stated in the next section. Yet Christians, as well as other men, may well believe that love evokes particular obligations to those nearest.

Unless a Christian is to go to the length of saying that he has no more obligation to provide food for his own children than for the hungry in Korea — and not many Christians in practice, at least, would go this far — this appears to be indisputable. Yet this does not settle for us the many problems that emerge in daily life as to whom to serve and how best to serve them when human need is overwhelming and time, strength, and money are limited. If we can draw some directives from our gospel, we must find them, even though to find ready-made answers to all these impinging dilemmas is a vain hope.

It is a significant fact, suggestive of the outgoing character of Christian agape even among those who have never given serious thought to its meaning, that the Christian tends naturally to universalize it even when he fails to live by such an implication. What is "brotherly love"? Even a churlish and parochial Christian hesitates to say in principle that it means only an obligation to one’s own family, or next-door neighbor, or fellow member of one’s own local church! The brotherhood of man is assumed to include everybody; the problems begin at the point of acting in a brotherly fashion toward one of another race, or nation, or politics. Therefore, there is a common tendency to read into the recorded words of Jesus more than he says, while at the same time their application is far too constricted.

An unbiased reading of the Gospels —or at least, as objective a reading as possible, since every reading is an interpretation — leads to the conclusion that most if not all of the sayings of Jesus preserved in the records were spoken to individuals about their relations to God and to other individuals. There is a conspicuous lack not only of large-scale social programs but of corresponding social directives. For example, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27), may well enough by us be taken to mean an attitude required toward the enemies of one’s nation, but it is doubtful that Jesus had this context specifically in mind. One who is bringing a gift to the altar and remembers that his brother has something against him is enjoined, "First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matt. 5:24).10 In all probability this meant to Jesus and to those who heard him speak these words neither a blood brother nor a fellow Christian, but another personally known individual. Even the immortal parable of the good Samaritan fails to define for us precisely who "my neighbor" is; it makes clear the quality of neighbor love and leaves it to our Christian imagination to supply the answer to the lawyer’s question (Luke 10:29-37).

From this fact, two cautions are in order, for Christians have often gone to one extreme or the other. The more serious error has been to restrict the meaning of Christian duty wholly to individual, or more correctly, to "small group" relations. This has been the traditional impact of Christian ethics through the centuries, cultivating the virtues of almsgiving, ministry to the sick and helpless, chastity, personal honesty, and in general a responsive conscience in the presence of immediate need, but with little sensitivity to those caught in the grip of an evil social system. To broaden the scope of the Christian moral imperative, and with it the scope of "brotherhood" and "neighborliness," the social gospel emerged. This was — and is — right in much of its emphasis on the need of applying the principles of Christian love to all men, but often wrong in its assumption that to Jesus, the kingdom of God and such a liberated and alleviated society were equivalent terms.

What we have to do is to begin from both the explicit words of Jesus and the implicit meaning of agape, and in times and conditions very different from those of first-century Palestine, attempt to discover how to be Christian in both immediate and large-scale relations with our fellows. There are no fixed rules but some basic necessities, in disregard of which we fall into error and what is more serious, into sin. In every case we need to find, not a middle ground in the neatly balanced Aristotelian sense of the mean between extremes, but the truth within a paradoxical relation in which to state one obligation without its counterpart is to miss the full meaning of the obligation.

The first fact to be noted is that within the immediacy of interpersonal relations lies man’s greatest capacity for self-giving love and his worst temptations to self-love. Not only within the natural biological unit of the family, but in the relations of pastor and people, teacher and student, employer and servant, doctor and patient, counselor and counseled, and many other relations of friend to friend, one sees at times very moving demonstrations of sacrificial love. Only the cynic can say that it is the desire for personal approbation or for mutual benefits that prompts every act of patient, forgiving, unrewarded, and possibly even to others unknown service. There are too many examples, not only of outstanding personal service to humanity in ways exemplified by such men as Francis of Assisi, David Livingstone, Wilfred Grenfell, Albert Schweitzer, and Frank Laubach but among thousands of unsung Christian saints, to say that all human acts are egoistic. "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." The counterpart of this is the fact that without thought of personal gain Christians have again and again given all they had, even to the giving of their health or bodily life to be burned away, in sacrificial love.

Yet this is not the whole story. Where do tempers most readily flare up, and where are caustic, stinging words most often spoken? In the home, among those we know so well that our inhibitions are down. Where do we most eagerly covet prestige and recognition? Among those who know us. There is slight comfort in being heralded by the world if among those near us we feel we are "not appreciated!" Where is self-pity most rampant? Exactly at this point. Where is the temptation to manipulate and dominate other personalities strongest? Where it is possible — and this possibility is usually greatest in interpersonal relations. Where are the most subtle rationalizations of self-will? Precisely at the point where they can most readily be concealed under cover of friendship, of parental duty, of "doing the Lord’s work," or some other plausible-sounding excuse for following our own desires.

As was earlier noted, the medieval Church showed keen discernment in focusing attention on the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. While these are not limited to the relations of individual persons to one another, their most frequent expressions (with the possible exception of avarice) are at this point.11 It is in the impingement of one life upon another, multiplied throughout human existence by both overt and covert forms of sinful self-will, that the most deadly damage is done.

The deduction is clear. On the one hand, we must recognize and be grateful to God for genuine expressions of Christian agape as we see them in others, and be challenged by them to fuller self-giving. On the other, as we look at ourselves, the warning is always in order, "Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (I Cor. 10:12).

A second paradoxical situation with regard to Christian duty follows from what has been said. A person’s first duty is to those for whom he has most direct responsibility. Yet it is this primacy of duty which most often narrows his vision and curtails his wider service.

To illustrate, it is the Christian’s duty, as well as that of every other man, to provide for his (or her) family not only the material foundations of life but the conditions of happy and creative existence. One has a responsibility to one’s own family that one does not have to any other. Not only by civil law and custom but by the obligations of Christian love it is wrong to sacrifice one’s wife or husband or children to a diffused idea of "serving humanity." This does not mean that in the intimate relations of the home sacrifices may not be shared; it is obvious that in most forms of devoted Christian service they must be. Still less does it mean that one party in this relation is justified in imposing his or her will upon the other under a selfish plea of being neglected. This is a too common form of self-love, and many an act of Christian service is inhibited by the partner’s whim or by a self-pitying assumption of martyrdom. Nevertheless, it does mean that it is not Christian to neglect or injure one’s own family in the service of others to whom no such direct obligation is owed. To serve the Lord is our supreme duty, but it may be doubted that God is well served in forgetfulness of immediate human duties or the immolation of those who ought to be loved and cherished. This applies to time, energy, and companionship as well as money, and many a "busy person" continually away from home at church meetings might well take heed.

A similar observation can be made regarding one’s work. When one has "a job to do," whether in the form of a definitely assumed voluntary responsibility or paid employment, it is his duty to get it done to the best of his ability, and not to let his time and energy be frittered away by a multitude of competing, and quite possibly more attractive, forms of work.

If, as often happens, duty to family and work conflict, he must decide as best he can — if possible by mutual agreement — what is the prior duty in the particular situation. John Calvin felt impelled by a rigorous sense of duty to keep an engagement at the church while his wife was dying; one may well doubt that it was his duty. On the other hand, there are many occasions when major public responsibilities must be met at the cost of minor inconveniences at home — and this with no diminution of the fact that one is never entitled to disregard or trample upon the personalities of those to whom one is bound by special ties of love and obligation.

But what of the other side of the paradox? Granted that there is a primacy of duty to those for whom one has most direct responsibility, what of its dangers? For dangers it certainly has! To protect one’s family and enhance their status, whether in regard to material comforts, social prestige, or in general the securing of "advantages," many a Christian will violate known principles of Christian behavior. In order to make one’s own work prosper, in a situation where motives of self-love and service to one’s group are mixed, one will do what he would sharply criticize another for doing. In such situations restraints of conscience are often less powerful deterrents than fear of the law or of social disapproval.

Furthermore, it is not in direct violation of known Christian principles that the most serious consequences occur. Where these are clearly confronted, there is a chance for the Christian conscience to operate in terms of repentance after if not prevention before the event. For this reason, Christian leaders without becoming moralistic must continue to give moral instruction with the hope that some of it will modify consciences and hence affect decisions. But the more serious situation lies in moral dullness, which in turn may be the result either of ignorance, or of willful moral blindness, or of unconscious self-deception, or a mixture of all of these factors.

This moral dullness, insofar as it is preventable, is sin. This is true, whether the moral dullness is with regard to the unconscious hurts one gives one’s wife or husband or child or the large-scale complacency before the evils of the world that makes an "immoral society" out of "moral men." It is willingness to enjoy advantages in one’s own situation with indifference to "my neighbor" in the broader context that both necessitates and imposes barriers to Christian social action. There is a legitimate primacy of love and Christian service in interpersonal relations; there is also an ever-present and often-yielded-to temptation to make of such relations a subtle cloak for self-aggrandizement and self-love.

There is a place for compromise. The absolute demands of love must be lived out within the relativities of human existence in which duties come mixed, and a perfect course of action is seldom open to us. This is true in interpersonal relations, as it more obviously is true in more impersonal social structures. The right course is the best possible course, not an impossible perfection. But compromise can be along the line of either the fulfillment of Christian love or its surrender. "To do what appears as relatively best is an absolute duty before God, and to fail in this is to incur positive guilt." All too often such guilt is incurred.

One further problem in this connection must be noted before passing on to look at the wider framework of society — a moral dilemma which seldom fails to confront the sensitive Christian. What of conflicting duties, not only among legitimate and needed services to others, but between one’s duty to one’s self and to others? There are times for noble self-forgetfulness, but the Christian owes some important duties to himself. What if he cannot pursue these ends and serve others at the same time?

To illustrate, virtually every Protestant Christian leader, and in particularly acute form nearly every married theological student, faces the dilemma of study versus family versus church to be served. Shall one neglect one’s reading, thinking, and in general his intellectual maturation under the pressing claims which come from the other two sources? The temptation is strong, and there is no single, all-time answer.

The answer must be found in terms of the largest possible service to God and to other persons within the total life span. This calls for careful and prayerful planning of the use of time. If Protestant ministers are to have homes, these ought to be good ones, and firm long-lasting foundations are not built by giving the family in the early years of married life the casually snatched fragments of one’s time and attention. If ministers are to preach and be Christian leaders for the next fifty years, they must have something to say. This means that, save for the most pressing instances of immediate need, nothing should be allowed to interfere with preparation for a lifetime of Christian service. Not willfully or selfishly, but in sober and calculated Christian dedication, it is necessary to keep one’s mind and soul fixed on the main objective. This entails that, not obstinately but firmly, one must sometimes refuse to serve for the sake of a larger service.

3. The larger society

We come now to the sphere in which most discussion of "social service" and "social action" centers — the larger society of individuals not personally known, who are related to us indirectly through large-scale and often very complex social institutions but not directly as persons with a face and name. Most relations in politics and economics, except in the immediate local community or small business unit, are of this type, and as schools and hospitals and churches increase in size to the point of including several thousands within one system, these traditional centers of personal ministry become more and more impersonal. There is a flexible line of division, varying with both situations and the capacities of individuals, between interpersonal and impersonal social relations, but somewhere the line must be drawn. What, then, is the Christian’s duty to those on the other side of it?

This is an enormous problem, some of the more specific issues of which will be dealt with in subsequent chapters. All that will be attempted here is to outline the meaning of social sin, and to indicate somewhat the possibilities of Christian love within these impersonal social structures.

Social sin, like any other sin, is compounded of attitudes and acts contrary to the will of God. It is social rather than individual sin when it is directed by groups of persons toward other groups. War is the major example of such collective sin. It appears, however, in peace times as in war on many fronts. Economic exploitation, waste of natural resources, acquiescence in or encouragement to preventable hunger, illness, disease, or delinquency, political tyranny or irresponsibility, racial discrimination, or any other voluntary curtailment by one group of the "abundant life" for another group is social sin.

It is hardly debatable that the world is full of it. But this is not to say that every form of social evil is sin. The presence of cancer and polio, for example, which to date the best medical research has not been able to eliminate, is an evil fact to be combated; it is not something to repent of. Any decision made by an individual responsibly and in the light of the fullest knowledge it is possible to get is not sinful if it turns out badly, and the same may be said of group decisions. To the degree that the German people under Nazi control and the Japanese under Japanese militarism were kept in ignorance of the true situation, they ought not to be judged sinful for supporting evil systems, and the same is true to a large degree of the people now living under Communist propaganda and censorship. Under varying aspects, it is true of every people who have not had the opportunity to have their minds informed or consciences stirred as to the evil in their accepted patterns of thought and action.

Though this must be said in the interest of both clear definition and tolerance in judgment, social sin nevertheless is rampant. No individual or group acts as fully or as well as could be done to bring about the "good society" or the "abundant life." Motives usually come mixed, and in such matters as defense of racial segregation, or the economic status quo, or autocratic political power, or ecclesiastical domination, or the curtailment of civil liberties, who but God is to say how much is due to sin? In such disputed matters there is usually a combination of knowledge with ignorance, of heavy-handed tradition with the confrontation of new and untried situations, of self-interest with concern for the status of one’s group. A sincere defense of conviction often merges with a stubborn and willful resistance to what others regard as the Christian way. In short, in every major social issue sin is present, but seldom sin only. To attack such a situation as if sin were the only factor involved is to breed the counter-sin of arrogance and unkind judgment; to overlook the fact of sin is to bypass evil with smooth words and by acquiescence, to become a participant in it.

What we have to do in such situations is easy to state but hard to do. We must attempt by God’s grace to "hate the sin but love the sinner," meanwhile endeavoring by such ways as are open to us to increase our knowledge of the situation and to support the best modes of changing it. Courage, resoluteness, patience, sympathy, are required — virtues not always easy to acquire in combination. But to the Christian, he does not have to acquire them save by fidelity, for they are the gift of God.

It is certainly more difficult to carry out the principles of Christian love in large-scale group decisions and in matters of social policy than in interpersonal relations.12 Some degree of compromise is always necessary. Nevertheless, as Edward LeRoy Long has shown in his very discerning book Conscience and Compromise, it makes a great difference whether one compromises at the point of having done all that he can within the particular situation in which social evil must be challenged, or simply conforms to the existing situation and accepts it as inevitable. Paul put the principle with tremendous potency when he wrote, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2).

This conjunction of adjectives is significant. What is the "good and acceptable" will of God? Not that which is ideally or abstractly "perfect," but that which is the best we can do — provided it is really the best we can do, and not some premature substitute. In every case of social decision there is an ideally right course, a best possible course, and the course we are tempted to take because it is easy or alluring or in conformity to the standards of our culture. Our guilt lies in choosing the third rather than the second of these alternatives.

With this in mind, what can a Christian do to challenge and change the gigantic structure of social evil and social sin that infests our world?

Though situations vary, there are in general three types of Christian action open to us. The first of these is generally termed social service. It consists of such matters as the relief of hunger and want, and the support of hospitals, homes, settlement houses, recreation centers, medical research foundations, and many other forms of "social welfare" and "charitable institutions" (as the income-tax blank designates them). It calls for the projection of Christian love through sympathy as well as through financial support into a multitude of situations of human need. Discernment must be exercised to know where to give preferentially, whether of time, effort, or money. Yet that through such channels we can give, and ought to give, in Christian love is hardly debatable.

A second type of duty to society is social education. It was noted above that in most evil situations, there is a mixture of willful sin with ignorance, provincialism, and narrowness of outlook, the blindness induced by the pull of the past through entrenched emotional attitudes, and in general a very complex set of social forces that thwart change under cover of identifying the will of God with things as they are. For example, one need look no further than the stubborn resistance that has arisen over the Supreme Court’s decision on racial segregation in the public schools, or the persistent unwillingness of many draft boards to respect the religious convictions of the conscientious objector, or the hysterical curtailing of civil liberties through fear of Communism. Christians who will take the trouble to understand such issues, even though opinions differ, and to spread general understanding by "speaking the truth in love" can serve enormously in laying the foundations for social action.

The third form of social action is political and economic. It is here that the knottiest problems lie, for such action requires not only the peaceful casting of a vote on election day or the decision to buy or sell certain goods, but the exercise by our representatives if not by ourselves of coercive force. It is the difficulty of combining coercion with love, particularly in the clashing relations of nation with nation and of powerful labor unions with great capital-holding corporations, that leads some to say that in such matters it is not love but justice that is the Christian’s norm of action.

If what has been said to this point is true, the way out lies neither in a sentimental reliance on love as the sole solvent of social tension nor in its repudiation. Love is relevant to every human situation; love is always our ultimate norm. It is political and economic realism, as well as Christian ethics, to believe in the rightness of reconciliation and to use every available channel to put this spirit into action. Justice that is not derived from love of persons becomes vindictive retribution. Yet coercion must be used that order, security, and the conditions of justice in a free society may be maintained. It is not the will of God that either anarchy or tyranny should prevail in the earthly relations of his sons. How best to use coercive force to secure justice without canceling out the claims of love is the Christian’s eternal problem. That it has no perfect solution is no excuse for failing to confront it squarely, and as far as possible, to meet it in every situation with the spirit of obedient love.

Love does not always "work" in the sense of securing the desired results. Yet without it, nothing else is more than a temporary palliative for the checking of evil. Giant structures of power in conflict with one another breed other conflicts, until man’s status upon earth grows more and more precarious. Justice we must have, but justice directed by good will and concern for persons. The only effective road to a good society was described centuries ago in the words, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." If an earnest effort is made in faith and devotion to follow this route, God can be trusted to give us light and direction along the way.

What this means more concretely, in both personal relations and the larger social whole, it will be our task to examine in the remainder of the book.

 

NOTES:

1. Thomas R. Kelly’s Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper & Bros., 1941) has a remarkable essay by this title.

2. Part II, Vol. II, p. 232.

3. Pp. 117-32.

4. Op. cit., pp. 124-32.

5. Ibid., p. 132.

6. See Paul Hutchinson, "Have ‘We a ‘New’ Religion?" in Life Magazine, April 11, 1955, p. 138, for a well-balanced appraisal of the current tendency to a "cult of reassurance."

7. Knudson, op. cit., p. 39.

8. The word ought to be "inalienable," but it is not in this historic document.

9. Knudson says, "From the practical religious point of view the emphasis naturally falls on the agape idea; from the theoretical and ethical standpoint the eros idea is properly stressed." Op. cit., p. 132. Though he says immediately, "But both have a place in the Christian ethic," he seems to me to make too sharp a disjunction between the religious and the ethical.

10. See Ramsey, op. cit., pp. 92-93.

11. The sin of superbia, pride, centers in man’s relation to God rather than his fellow men. Yet in its effects, it still remains true it is in interpersonal relations that its most serious moral consequences are visible. It is significant that Gregory the Great, who drew up this list and ranked their seriousness in this order, made pride the source of the other six with sins of the flesh at the bottom of the list.

12. See John C. Bennett, Christian Ethics and Social Policy (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1946), chs. ii and iv, for an admirable statement of both why this is so and what can be done in spite of it.

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