Chapter 4: The Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of This World

God’s Grace and Man’s Hope
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 4: The Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of This World

One petition in the Lord’s Prayer gathers up our human need and our Christian hope: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This prayer is the Christian’s lever to move the world.

Liberal Christianity had faith that the world can be moved. The Kingdom it believed is coming in history. World-bettering is Kingdom-building. He who shares in that work knows that his life is linked with the purpose of God. Every victory of righteousness moves the whole creation toward its consummation in the everlasting community of love.

Today the conviction is growing among Christians of many different theological persuasions that we can no longer hold to this interpretation of the coming of the Kingdom on earth. The abyss between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world has opened up before our eyes. We are perplexed to know what to make of our tragic world history, and to know how as Christians we are to live in it.

We must examine the roots of this perplexity, and show why its solution lies in an interpretation of the creative and redemptive work of God which is other than that of either liberalism or neo-orthodoxy. Our attention is now directed to a problem where perplexity is perhaps greatest, the relation of the Christian ideal of the good to the realities of the political order. All the social problems have in our time taken on a "political" dimension. Witness how economics now has become again "political economy." The problem of Christian ethics in politics is especially urgent. If we can find the signs of the Kingdom of God in politics, we can doubtless find them anywhere!


The very phrase "power politics" seems to exclude every moral consideration, let alone a Christian ideal of life. The struggle for world law and order has enlisted the mind and devotion of men of good will. They have had few more forceful spokesmen than Mr. E. B. White whose editorials in the New Yorker, published under the title of "The Wild Flag," put the case for world government with unsurpassed clarity and with a seasoning of humor which makes them far more effective than dry solemnity. Examine these sentences from the public letter which Mr. White addressed to the American delegates at the opening of the United Nations:

When you sit down, sit down as an American if it makes you feel comfortable, but when you rise to speak, get up like a man anywhere. . . .

Bear in mind always that foreign policy is domestic policy with its hat on. The purpose of the meeting. is to replace policy with law, and to make common cause.

Think not to represent us by safeguarding our interests. Represent us by perceiving that our interests are other people’s and theirs ours.

Be concerned with principles, not with results. We do not ask for results, merely for a soil-building program. You are not at a chess game, even though it has the appearance of one, you are at a carnival of hope.

Build the great republic.1

Beneath the urbane surface of these words we cannot fail to hear the authentic accents of moral faith and human good sense. Yet, irresistible as they are, they plunge us into every problem of the political order. The delegates are appealed to as individuals, yet we know they must act under compulsions and orders which are determined by all kinds of political stakes and decisions at home. They are urged to recognize the harmony of interests of all nations, yet as the political scientist E. H. Carr has pointed out, it is the collapse of belief in the harmony of interests which constitutes the crisis in economic and political theory today.2 Mr. White pleads that we replace the search for isolated security of one nation with devotion to the common cause of all. But can a nation do that? Is it not the case that nations are in their very nature fated to throw themselves at one another in a grim game of power to which the principles of ethics are no more relevant than to the death battle of prehistoric mastodons? Finally, Mr. White puts his faith in an order of law as the substitute for rule by conflict of powers. But have we not had to learn that law reflects and in large part depends upon the power structure of society? The dictum that "the Sermon on the Mount is not for statesmen," has become a predominant influence upon Christian political theory in our time.3 One contemporary Christian philosopher rejects all naïve ethical idealism in politics with the assertion: "The Christian kingdom is not of this world, it belongs to the realm of the spirit. In this world, it is always Caesar who is bound to be victorious, while Christ will for ever be crucified,"4

No one can doubt that the crisis for the liberal Christian interpretation of politics is very great. Liberalism put hope largely in the possibility of creating the good state in which force would be either unnecessary, or would function only as police power under law. But the actual forces in society are always partially at least anarchic and ruthless. The theological ethics of neo-orthodoxy must be understood as an attempt to achieve responsible Christian action in the political sphere, but to do this in the face of the contradiction between that order and the demands of love.

We must bear in mind what the real question we must answer is. It is not the question whether our social and political life is now what it ought to be; nor even whether it is better than other social orders have been. The problem is not perfection in politics. We may very well believe, though it is debatable, that injustice and violence are worse in our century than in any previous time. But the question is: Are there certain unchangeable facts in the human situation which compel us to recognize that the contradiction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is ineradicably present in life itself? Neo-orthodoxy says there are such facts; liberalism denies it. I shall try to show that there is an answer which differs from both of these.


The whole neo-orthodox case against the liberal doctrine that the orders of this world can be transformed into the Kingdom of love rests ultimately on two propositions about the actual situation of man in nature and in society, which we need carefully to examine. These propositions are held to be universally applicable to all men’s life, but they have special relevance to the political order. One of these is that human history is the arena of competitive power, and that therefore it contradicts in its essence the order of love. The other is that all human relations are caught in impersonal orders which contradict the spirit of Christian love which is wholly personal. We shall examine the problem of power and conflict in Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, for he stresses it most; and the problem of personality and the impersonal in the work of Emil Brunner who makes it his basic concept.

There are moralists who hold that all actual historical power is evil. In the last century Jacob Burckhardt said, "Power is in itself evil."5 Today Professor Hans Morgenthau says that the "ubiquity of the desire for power . . . constitutes the ubiquity of evil in human action."6 Hence, he concludes "to the degree to which the essence and aim of politics is power over man, politics is evil." But politics "is a struggle for power over men." The conclusion is unavoidable, "political ethics is indeed the ethics of doing evil."7 Professor Carr leans toward the same position when he speaks of "that uneasy compromise between power and morality which is the foundation of all political life," thus implying that power is the factor which compromises morality.8

It is instructive that Niebuhr never quite allows himself to fall into this flat equation of power with evil. There are good reasons in the Christian faith why he does not; for God is both goodness and power. He has created this world of creatures with their particular powers, and has created them good.9 Niebuhr therefore says explicity: "Power is not evil of itself."10 But while he thus appears to lay the foundation for a view of ethics which gives a positive place to power, the judgment to which we are forced to come, I think, is that in effect Niebuhr’s position finally amounts to saying that all historical vitalities and power are actually in contradiction to the demand of love.

How it is possible for him to come to this conclusion is seen if we analyze Niebuhr’s doctrine of sin. He believes that in the human situation we are inevitably involved in the sins of pride and self-assertion. How in this case man can be said to be free is one of the paradoxes which Niebuhr holds defies rational understanding.11 But if we accept the paradox, while we may say there is an ideal possibility that we could assert our human will to power in history without sinning and thus bring in the Kingdom of love, this is no actual possibility. Actually our will to power is asserted as a sinful egoism. Now in a world of competing egos conflict is inevitable. And Niebuhr holds that conflict is always evil. He remarks that "Nietzschean morality perversely transposes all values and raises the disease of social life, conflict, to the eminence of the criterion of all values."12 Conflict within the self or between selves is always evil. Thus for Niebuhr all self-assertion of individual or group in history contradicts the demands of the Gospel, and involves us in the sinful warfare of interests. Since there is no escape from self-assertion in human life, there is no escape from conflict, nor from coercion which is covert conflict. And both are evil.

We are here at the most crucial point of all Christian ethics, and of the Christian world view itself. What has happened in Niebuhr’s theology, and in the whole movement of neo-orthodoxy is this: It has taken two truths which it has asserted against liberalism and has drawn a false conclusion from them. One truth is that a philosophy such as Nietzsche’s which glorifies conflict and coercion can and has been used to justify terrible and destructive evil. The other truth is that in all human conflict there is probably an element of sinful misuse of freedom and of self-assertion at the expense of the real good. But the erroneous conclusion is drawn that all conflict and coercion, all historical assertion of power, is actually in itself evil.

This conclusion does not follow. It can be shown to be false. Consequently we can see what it is in neo-orthodoxy which separates the Kingdom of God too completely from the kingdoms of this world; and we can see what it is that is lacking in its appreciation of the goodness of life.

Power is essential to life. To be anything is to possess some power of one’s own and to assert it. But, more important, the conflict of powers, of interests, of life with life can and does function constructively in the growth and good of life. The glorification of conflict within the self, or between life and life may, to be sure, become the justification of appalling evil or it may sink into a sentimental romanticism which has nothing to do with the goal of Christian aspiration. But what we have to see is that there is a perfectly natural and useful friction of life with life, of interest with interest, of will with will. Seriously, now, who would want to live in a world where there was no clash, no friction, no contest of ideas or of spirit?

Consider the matter of coercion, in relation to the growth of personality. Coercion in the home certainly means that there is some conflict between the immediate desire and will of a child and his parents, and the exercises of coercion by a parent perhaps always produces some conflict in the child. Yet the growth of personality is impossible without this element. Dr. Hocking puts the logic clearly: "In the course of nature, human beings arrive at self-government by way of a long regime of parental coercion. The presence of coercion, therefore, cannot be incompatible with the growth of spontaneous lawfulness."13 This is not to deny what Niebuhr and others have shown of the subtle ways in which sin may be expressed in the tyrannies of parents over children. A counselor tells of the girl who reported, "Father always lets us have his way." But the evil is in the tyranny, not in the coercion, In some human relations at least coercion is not only necessary, which Niebuhr of course admits, but also it is an essential element in the growth of the real good of mutuality among free and responsible persons.14

But what of overt conflict? Is that not always evil? Let us take one example of the way in which conflict may serve the good of life which has been sadly neglected. Professor Frank Knight is right in saying that philosophers and theologians have paid far too little attention to play.15 Some play involves competitive games. The game has its competitors each striving to win, its testing in a fair field, and the deeper testing in the bearing of victory and defeat. A great part of the zest and worth of play depends on the element of conflict which it holds. Where there is no will to win on both sides there is no real game.

It may be objected that this reference to play proves the point of the evil in real conflict; for it might be argued that the essence of play is that the conflict is not quite real. The normal demands of life are relaxed. We can afford the luxury of the contest in which no one really gets hurt, and in which the value of enjoyment is secured to all participants in spite of the outcome. But let us consider the possibility that the acceptance of conflict, in the spirit of play -- that is, with the will to see it through -- has a far broader and deeper role in life. The very zest of life itself depends partly on the fact that as individuals and as groups we have to find our way to one another and to make terms with one another through the friction of wills and interests. We need the willingness to accept the friction as a necessary part of the way toward mature living together.

The principle that conflict is essential to the wholesome growth of mutuality in human relations can be directly applied to our under. standing of one aspect of politics which theologians have too often neglected. Mr. T. V. Smith, professor and politician, has caught the spirit of American politics with a human understanding which reveals how it is possible to discover the creative element in political conflict. Professor Smith believes that democracy has discovered one of the foundations of human good in what he calls the "legislative way of life." That way of life, he says frankly, is "built upon conflict"; but the state of mind essential to it is one which holds competition among ideas, ideals, and persons to be itself a standard and fruitful form of co-operation.16 A veteran of Chicago politics once tried to explain the fascination the career held for him: "I kept at it because it was recreation to me. I always like a good fight; the chance, the suspense, interest me. I never gambled nor played cards so it was fun to me."17 Now one may find something less than the pure spirit of love here but there is also disclosed a valuable element in human nature which a Christian ethic ought to respect and enlist, not relegate to a place wholly outside the Kingdom.

T. V. Smith links the ideal of sportsmanship to the spirit of a wholesome political activity.18 He suggests that this sportsmanship involves a certain humility. Where I do not admit that my opponent may have any truth in him at all I no longer really compete with him. I find ways to deny him the right to compete. Democracy as an ideal might be said to be the attempt to accord to every person the possibility of finding his rightful share in the social good through an order in which his interests and claims will have a fair hearing, and through a political process in which whatever power he can legitimately muster will be able to make itself felt. It is a long way from such an ideal of political activity to the actualities in which it is carried on; but it is essential to our human attempt to live together to see that the "game of politics" is not merely a necessary evil but that it has at its best a link with legitimate good.

This point may be reinforced by one further consideration. Conflict has its dangers, its risks, its destructive forms, and its way of corrupting the human spirit. But it is equally true that harmony, at the biological, psychological, and social levels, also has its risks and its evils. We are seeking the real good of human life under the conditions imposed by our world. It seems clear that tension, friction, the moving of mind against mind and will against will, are our protection against stagnation. The exaltation of integration as the psychological ideal appears to overlook this simple truth. The best integrated persons are rarely the most sensitive, useful, or creative even in dealing with their own problems. I quote Dr. Hocking again in his keen observation on the function of anger: "The reflective awareness of anger contains the perception that conflict, instead of being the purely disintegrating force we commonly regard it, has a constructive function; that it is a process which associate life normally goes through on its way to more durable foundations."19 Consider in this connection the observation of a psychiatrist that the only completely happy people are the hopeless cases who have surrendered every tension and are in complete self-satisfaction. The implications of this view of conflict for the problem of the economic order we shall examine later; but we may remark here that even contemporary socialist economic theory has made a place for types of competition among producing units within the co-operative society.20

Though we argue that it is far too simple to say that the conflict of wills among men contradicts their real goad, let us be clear that it is far too simple to say that conflict is necessarily good. I am pleading for no Social Darwinism nor for a Nietzschean view of human society. Neither am I arguing that all conflict ultimately serves the good through God’s Providence. Hegel’s idealism is a mistaken simplification of the problem of evil when he says, "This process or course of finitude, of pain, strife, victory, is a moment or stage in the nature of Spirit."21 There is real evil which destroys spirit, and much of it takes the form of destructive conflict. The conclusion of our analysis is that Christian ethics ought to make most careful discrimination as to types of conflict and of harmony, and set forth the conditions under which both conflict and harmony may serve and those under which they may block the growth of mutuality. War, for example, is one type of conflict, and it seems clear that modern war involves such wholesale destruction that the most one can say is that its outcome may prevent worse evil, not that it serves any positive good. But all conflict is not warfare, nor does it involve violent destruction of the opponent. A recent commentator on labor problems says. "Collective bargaining is civil war." It may be that, but it may also be the place where for the first time the worker and his employer meet with such balance of power that each is forced to listen to the position of the other.22 Some employers have been won over to the collective bargaining method through the discovery that they could learn more about efficient production through this process.23

If the preceding argument be sound we have found the creative goodness of God at a place where theologians have forgotten to look for it. When Niebuhr describes life as "a welter of perils and passions"24 one may accept his description as essentially true. But there is a work of God in the midst of this dark reality which brings forth matured, self-reliant, free persons whose freedom has been nurtured by their participation in that friction of will against will which makes up so much of life. Passion, contention, peril, and adventure belong to the goodness of life as much as to its evil. They are "the terms of mortal life";25 and a just Christian appreciation of them will recognize even in the darker patterns of life the weaving of the creative hand of God.

Now it is clear why we can say that God’s good is revealed in history, not only at the edge of it. Niebuhr’s argument that the revelation in Christ takes place only at the edge of history is based on the doctrine that all conflict of power is evil. History is the field of competing powers. Therefore Christ "refuses to participate in the claims and counter-claims of historical existence."26 That as we have already observed surely is in flat contradiction to the record. Jesus denounced the Pharisees, a social and religious elite, for laying heavy burdens on the poor. He broke with the institution of the sabbath which was deeply entwined with the social, economic, and religious life of the Jewish people. He healed the sick. He gathered a group of disciples and sent them out to teach. His teaching so threatened the political and ecclesiastical powers that they destroyed him. The consequence, whether intended or unintended, of his life was the formation of the Church whose existence is a part of the very fabric of all Western social and political history since its beginning. If all this is not exercising power in history it is hard to see what to make of it.

It is true that the ultimate problem of the relation of the ethic of love to the relativities of the political orders cannot be simply solved. But what we have established so far is that the exercise of power in history, the expression of the interests, vitalities, and wills which belong to us as human beings, and even the participation in the inevitable conflict of these interests and vitalities, are not in contradiction to the real human good which is the earthly content of our life in the love of God. The Kingdom of God has a purchase upon the kingdoms of this world which liberalism conceived too simply but which its critics have only faintly recognized.


As we turn now to the problem of the Kingdom and the political order as put by Emil Brunner in his great work, The Divine Imperative, we note that the same argument we have examined in Niebuhr appears also in Brunner. He describes the demand of love as a pure ideal standing against all coercion and conflict. Hence the state, which wields the sword, imprisons and executes the criminal, must obey a different law from that of love.

By force of compulsion the individual State gains respect from other states, and by force of compulsion it maintains its unity over against the opposing will of individuals and of groups. It is by this that the action of the State is a contradiction of the law of love; it is this which makes it a moral problem. In itself compulsion is contrary to love; it is sinful.27

We must live and act as Christians in this order of the state as also we must live in the economic order, and in the family, but "we should be fully aware that the Christian, in the service of love, is summoned to place himself within an order which is inherently loveless."28

If we ask where this inherent break between the necessary conditions of social life and the command to love our neighbor occurs we find a new argument in Brunner. He holds that the Christian ethic of love is a purely personal ethic and can therefore be realized only in a person-to-person relationship which is never wholly possible in this world. He says the ethos of institutions and systems is always different from the ethos of agape. Justice is the rule in institutions and "justice belongs," says Brunner, "to the world of systems, not to the world of persons. . . . Within the system as such there can be nothing higher, for love knows nought of systems."29

Brunner’s thought here shows the influence of a book which has rightly exercised on contemporary thought, an influence all out of proportion to its length, Martin Buber’s I and Thou30 Buber, the Jewish philosopher and mystic, has given a fresh interpretation to the religious problem. He sees our human world divided into two primary dimensions, the personal dimension of I and Thou, and the impersonal dimension of I and It. Impersonal relations are governed by calculations of use. I recognize whatever I find myself related to merely as an impersonal thing. "It" may be my employee, my student, or anything which is the object of my rational calculation. I try to bring the other into the service of my ego. In the personal relationships all this disappears and two subjects are face to face, not to use each other nor to seek domination, but in the freedom and community of love.

Buber’s profound expression of the yearning for the full reality of personal existence possesses great power because it hits straight at the primary need of our society. The spiritual struggle of Western man can be interpreted as his search for a way of life which will make possible free personal selfhood in the midst of all the forces, dogmatic, ecclesiastical, economic, social, and technical, which depersonalize him. When, on the wall of a labor union headquarters, we read, "Love thy neighbor, but organize him," we see the necessity; yet we instinctively sense the threat that every organization, labor unions no more than any other, makes to the free personal relationship. Every judge faces this when he is confronted with the conflict between the impartial demands of the law and the actual personal needs of those before the law. All of us fret and kick against the steel bands of institutionalism; the teacher against the grading system, the social worker against the artificiality created by the very fact of his being a professional representative of the state commissioned to deal with human needs, the worker something of whose very life is "bought" against the employer, and the sensitive employer who buys that portion of that life against the system, the public official against the role which political necessity assigns to him. A Jewish proverb says, "When a man is appointed an official on earth, he becomes a man of evil above"31 Martin Luther writing on secular authority cautiously observed, "It is not impossible for a prince to be a Christian though it is a rare thing and surrounded with difficulties."32

Institutionalism is only one aspect of the problem. There is the whole influence of scientific calculation on the human mind and spirit. There is the vastness of the economic and political powers which toss individuals about as chips. There is the flood of standardized amusement, reading, radio, all of which produces a kind of dumb mass-mindedness. The very glorification of the strong individual, and the hysterical emotion centered upon "personalities in the news," reflects the feeble hold which we have on our own selfhood.33 How desperately we search for that personal reality which will vicariously, if not directly, help us to feel we possess our own hearts and will. Martin Buber and Emil Brunner, Max Weber and Nicolas Berdyaev have penetrated to this real inner crisis in the modern spirit.

But consider now Brunner’ s view of the consequence of this analysis for Christian ethics. We know wehave to live in institutions. orders, and under laws. How are we to be guided in these areas where agape is shattered by impersonality?

Brunner’s answer is that where we cannot express love directly we must be guided by the ethics of rational ideas, of calculations, of adjustment of means to ends. Justice and equality are rational ideals. They "do not know love"34 "Love strides over all man-made barriers, brushes aside the ‘claims of equity.’ and presses forward to meet the other,"35 "Legalism is the evil."36 "The legalistic type of person finds it impossible to come into real human, personal contact with his fellowman."37 He sums up. "These orders do not obey the logic of faith or of love, but the logic of the human and the rational positing of an end."38 "There certainly is an insoluble dualism between the law of the orders and the commandment of love"39

Now there is a warning signal in such statements which ought to put us on our guard. We are encountering the same error which we discovered in Niebuhr. Something which belongs to the necessary good of human life, in this case the rational guidance of life by critical evaluation of means and ends, is asserted to be in contradiction to the demand of love. What has become of the Christian doctrine that man is created in the image of God? ‘Where is the recognition that the necessities of our human life serve love and do not always destroy it?

Brunner’s answer is that this legalistic element enters into life not through the creation itself but through sin. The universal necessity for rational ethical calculation within the orders is a consequence of original sin. In effect, then, just as he and Niebuhr conclude that conflict contradicts love, Brunner concludes that all law contradicts love. This I believe we must reject as a serious distortion of the Christian view of life and of Christian ethics. It is a half-truth, not a whole-truth.

Certainly the Christian ethic is a personal ethic. Its aim is a society of free and responsible individuals, with the life of each made more full and more free through sharing in the life of all. But we must not overlook the fact that in human life the growth of wholesome personal relations depends in part on the existence of certain impersonal elements. The impersonal factors in laws and institutions and rational ethical principles are not merely concessions to sin. They enter into and support the growth of the personal factors. We miss the wonder of human personality if we look for it solely in the factors of consciousness and mentality and moral freedom. The most wonderful thing is that these factors appear within and are coordinated through the vast world of structures and processes which are not personal. It is the creative work of God which achieves in personality a unique organization of impersonal structures which becomes a new center of power and direction reacting upon the impersonal order. A. N. Whitehead’s metaphysical insight here undergirds the alternative to the personalism of Brunner and Buber. For Whitehead, "though life in its essence is the gain of intensity through freedom, yet it can also submit to canalization and so gain the massiveness of order"40

For illustration of the importance of this order to personality consider the significance of privacy in personal relationships. It is a strange thing, this business of the locked door, the fence, the prayer in secret, the retreats which we make from one another. We are rightly uneasy about it all for there probably always creeps into our isolation a sinful element. Yet there is something more to be said. The retreat of privacy, of physical and psychical freedom from the other, is imperative for the healthy growth of personality even in the most intimate human relationships. Those who know the effects on human personality of the tragic overcrowding which goes with poverty and poor housing continually remind us that this means children grow up "without privacy." They are exposed to all the experiences of adult life before they are ready to interpret them; and the consequences on personality may be damaging beyond repair.

Every person needs the protection of his own growing feeling and insight against the ruthless and inopportune invasion of another. Jacques Barzun rightly objects to the prevalence of the custom of demanding of applicants for admission to schools that they state in full their good intentions and purposes in making the move. "No human being," he says, "should be asked to display worthy motives on request."41 We cannot achieve the deeper levels of personal friendship except by respecting that barrier of privacy without which the slow and delicate growth of understanding will be killed. I venture that this may be the reason why in general men achieve in their friendships a greater success than do women. Men maintain personal loyalty without insisting on intruding into that which the other does not care to reveal. Women in our culture are less secure in their friendship, and they cannot stand the possibility that the other "may have secrets." This necessary distance in personal relations does not prove that we are sinners under the curse of an angry God. It proves that we are human beings under the limitations of finite existence. It is a dangerous sentimentality to exalt a pure and unmediated meeting of subjects in the I-Thou relationship as the only true good.

To the function of privacy must be added the function of impersonal principle in the philosophy of personal relations. We have already pointed out that the world largely consists of subpersonal processes and abstract structures as we encounter it. But the discovery of this impersonal character of the setting of our life does not destroy personality. It offers the enduring order in which personality can exist. The discovery of common structures and principles which stand impartially beyond the particular wishes and passions of individuals offers that stable common ground in which we can begin to achieve social existence. The most important application of this truth to our present problem is the conclusion that the search for rational ethical order is not a contradiction of Christian love. The discovery of ethical principle is the first step in the achievement of the full dignity and meaning of personal existence. That God is both love and law is the doctrine of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. The discovery of the rational order which makes intelligible our being and our moral life is one of the first steps in our discovery that we live and move and have our being in God. Our lives are embraced by a universal intelligible order which makes possible a human social existence in which something beyond arbitrary whim and power is operative.

It is therefore too simple a judgment that the law of the state, enforced by power, always contradicts the ethic of love. Law provides one of the conditions of personal freedom when it imposes an element of impersonal principle upon all the members of the society. It offers the stable order and the articulation of principle by which men can live together in moral relationships.

There is to be sure something in the spirit of love which overflows all abstract principle. But our point is that the spirit needs the undergirding structure of law for its own development. Emil Brunner seems to admit this when he says that God has given us the "orders" of the family, state, etc, for the sake of our education in community. But if they perform this function how are they so alien to that love which is the heart of the Christian ethic? When, for example, we try to define the rights of men in the political order, we are to be sure setting up legal fences between persons. We are not creating love. We are saying what personal freedoms shall not be violated on pain of punishment. But at the same time we are designating certain ways of life, and giving them collective sanction which are entitled to the loyalty of all members of the society regardless of private wishes or convenience. The state which establishes freedom of speech in its constitution and enforces it has added a necessary element to the spiritual as well as to the political basis of the common life.

Let us readily admit that no problem of modern life is more profound than that of saving personality from destruction amidst the titanic powers released in a technological civilization. But the solution of that problem in so far as we can conceive it has a quite different emphasis from that implied by Brunner’s analysis. The key is not to view the institutionalization of life, the extension of legal controls, and the multiplication of collective political structures as something in itself alien to the Christian ideal of love; rather, it is to discover the kind of political conditions under which the growth of love can be furthered.

One application of this conception of the place of personality in the social order is of so great importance for the present crisis in Christian thought that we should take special account of it. This is the problem of the Christian attitude toward the positive law of the state. Both liberal political philosophy and liberal Christianity have put a large measure of trust in the achievement of the good society through establishment of a legal constitutional order which embodies the essential ideals of justice and equality. We are now in a period of serious questioning of how far that faith was justified. Certainly there are grave limitations. Law in itself does not "make people good." The actual law of any state must be recognized as depending upon the complex of powers and interests which establish it and upon which its enforcement depends. Every particular law will represent in part the temporary achievement of a balance or compromise between conflicting interests. It will be something less than perfect justice. Law can never enact mutuality. But what is not to be forgotten is that while law "reflects" the community, law also becomes a creative element in the mind and will of the community. Law is a social psychological fact as well as a political fact. It is a means by which a people may educate and discipline its own spirit for better or for worse.

An American experiment in the function of law in racial relations is now being carried out. Not only are laws which segregate races being attacked, but positive laws which make it a crime to spread racial prejudice are being passed. Through fair employment practices acts some states are seeking to outlaw discrimination in employment based on racial or creedal background. The successful experience of the State of New York with such a law in which hundreds of cases have been adjusted satisfactorily even without recourse to the courts encourages us to believe that the difficulties are not nearly so great as some feared or wanted us to believe.42 It is true that one can easily put too much faith in sheer legislation which may be rendered futile if it is not supported in the community consciousness. But the significance of such a law is not only that it puts the coercive power of the state against the unjust discriminator, but that it puts the moral power of the state against it also, T. V. Smith’s statement that laws "represent the maximum of private conscience which can at any time become social fact." applies to be sure only where law is created not by some arbitrary decree but by a process which can reflect the public mind,43 But where this process exists, the man who finds the law lying across his path is confronted not only with a political power but with a moral judgment. In the FEP laws there is implied the judgment not only that discrimination is inexpedient but that it is wrong. Individuals may or may not agree with this judgment; but its very existence in the form of law is a social fact putting the weight of the collective conscience behind a positive conception of the rights of men.

The liberal faith that law can positively serve the good is not naïve. What is really naïve is to fail to see that law operates dynamically in the consciousness of the community. This has been abundantly proved in the history of the law of race relations in America.

Carey McWilliams points out the use which was made of the laws discriminating against property holding by Japanese in California. These began with one school board which adopted ordinances segregating Oriental students. Agitation for anti-Oriental laws was continued by labor leaders who were welding a political labor movement. McWilliams concludes:

Anti-Oriental prejudice became a part of the mores in large part as a result of incessant propaganda and agitation for the enactment of various legislative proposals. . . . It would also seem that legislative pattern of discrimination once achieved, tended to function as a means by which these same attitudes were kept alive.44

McWilliams quotes from Justice Harlan’s dissent in a famous civil rights case in the Supreme Court, Plessy vs. Ferguson, which puts the point with classic simplicity:

What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races than state enactments which, in fact, proceed upon the grounds that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens?45

We can see now why we cannot accept Brunner’s statement that the state "cannot itself be creative."46 The state is always creative for good or evil, It not only reflects but it helps to produce the mind and spirit of the community. Liberal Christianity was right in finding a place for the direct expression of Christian love in politics. for politics is statecraft. The administrator, legislator, statesman, or ward chairman who works at his task in pursuit of the creation of an order of life in which the full dignity and freedom of men can be realized is expressing Christian love as truly as it can be expressed anywhere. We can admit that to say "love thy neighbor, but organize him" poses difficulties; but we do not need to surrender the conviction that the responsible organization of power for the ends of human justice and freedom is a true expression of Christian love.

In the State of Colorado in 1944 a special session of the legislature was called to consider a bill to outlaw the holding of property by all persons of Japanese origin. It appeared to have a chance of being passed. In the first hours of the debate a legislator named Hill, so recently discharged from the army he was still in uniform, spoke against the bill. He had been warned that he was committing political suicide but he said: "I am just as willing to die a political death as I am to die in battle to preserve American freedom."47 After that, the reporter says, the campaign "sputtered and went out like a wet fuse." The word which makes the difference between good and evil in a political controversy can be spoken. The spirit which seeks the real good lives a precarious life in the world of snarling predatory interests; but it lives.

The service of God in our time is in part a responsible participation in the political order, and in part the creation of an international political order. That is not merely idealism; it is Christian realism. The conditions of human life with all the conflict, the grasping for power, the institutionalism are not in hopeless contradiction to the order which can open the way to the greatest human good. A Christian theology which recognizes this will sustain the effort to create the foundations of that order.


What vision of God’s creative and redemptive work in history emerges from this analysis? Do we mean to identify such human works as the creation of justice through the state with the activity of God? I suggest we do not need to make such an identification and we should not. Human activity we can understand as having the possibility of providing conditions under which the work of grace may be more fully released. We can go further and say that under human limitations we can mediate the grace of God through the spirit and activities of resistance to evil, of mercy and reconciliation in the human community. But we must acknowledge that God’s work itself is always something more than our works; and in its full depth and power and wholeness stands in judgment over our human working.

On this vital doctrine that the grace of God is operative in our human history we stand with the liberal theology. The error of neo-orthodoxy in its various forms can now be summarily stated. As we have seen in both Niebuhr and Brunner. there is a failure to recognize the creative work of God because there is a false doctrine of original sin which leads to a false appraisal of the natural conditions of human life. Both Niebuhr and Brunner affirm the need and the reality of redemption. Here too the interpretation of original sin works its unfortunate consequences; for now redemption is no longer an actual transformation of life; it is primarily sheer forgiveness of sin and the promise of an ultimate reconciliation beyond history. That this is somewhat qualified by both Niebuhr and Brunner, I recognize; but that is the tendency of their position.

Specifically then we have every right to regard the political order as having the potentiality of serving both the creative and the redemptive work of God. The state may provide some of the conditions of mutuality in the common life. The state knows something of mercy; for no civilized penal code is without its gesture toward the possible restoration of the wrongdoer to society. A wise public official after observing politics in an American city for a number of years said that he would prefer having the city run by elected officials with all the dangers which that involves to administration by political experts; for the politicians often have a human kindness and mercy which the experts lack. It was the chief of state at the end of the Civil War who said. "With malice toward none; with charity for all." Should those words have been reserved for the pulpit? Were they out of place in politics?

Two misunderstandings should be avoided. First, in declaring that the grace of reconciliation moves through the political order, however tenuous its hold there, we must avoid the error of identifying the political order with the whole of the human community. MacIver rightly points out that this identification is an idealistic error which leads to totalitarian deification of the state. The community is more than the state.48 The creative and redemptive work of God we may readily admit depends perhaps more basically upon the voluntary associations, the communities of artists, the scientists, and the schools than upon the political order. Thoreau remarks that "all the abuses which are the objects of reform are unconsciously amended in the intercourse of friends."49 A labor union which brings new dignity to the lives of its members and which creates good will among racial groups, a corporation which pioneers in the field of securing a more just system of labor relationships, a school system which brings brotherhood not only into its classroom but into the lives of the students and their families, a group of scientists who give time and effort to seeking the establishment of a rational and effective control over atomic energy, all this can be the human service of the creative and redemptive work of God.

Secondly, the Church has a special relationship to the grace of God. It is founded on the love and mercy of God who has through Jesus Christ created this community as the human bearer of His spirit in history. The Church as a universal community of freedom and fellowship makes possible the reconciliation of man with God and his fellows in a way which no other historical community can accomplish. The Church is not the only channel of God’s grace, though understood in its full meaning it is the most important one.

If we now can go this far in discovering within the actual orders of our life the saving work of God we may seem to be returning to the liberal interpretation of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. If in spite of all evil the grace of God is present with power in history, why can we not believe that the long trend of history is toward the achievement of that perfected life which is the earthly counterpart of the Kingdom of God for whose coming we pray? There is a strong temptation to accept "a long run optimism" in which we conceive of sin and evil as being progressively eliminated.

But this temptation must be resisted. If we reject the Christian pessimism of neo-orthodoxy, we must also reject this formula of liberal optimism. The reasons why this is so, and the interpretation of history to which we are led, will be examined.


1) E. B. White, The Wild Flag (Boston: Houghton Muffin Company, 1946), pp. 144-48.

2) E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis (London: Macmillan & Company, 1942), chap. iv.

3) Attributed to Bismarck.

4) Erich Frank, Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), p. 128.

5) Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom, ed. J. H. Nichols (New York: Pantheon Books, Inc., 1943), p. 115.

6) Hans J. Morgenthau, "The Evil of Politics and the Ethics of Evil," Ethics, Vol. LVI, No. 1, October, 1945, p. 14.

7) Ibid., p. 17.

8) E. H. Carr, op. cit., p. 279.

9) Genesis 1.

10) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, p. 22.

11) Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 262-63.

12) Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), p. 92. Cf. Nature and Destiny of Man II, p. 82.

13) William E. Hocking, Man and the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926), p. 101.

14) See Francis J. McConnell, Christianity and Coercion (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1933), pp. 72, 107-8.

15) Frank Knight, Freedom and Reform (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947), pp. 390 ff.

16) T. V. Smith, The Legislative Way of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), pp. 15-16.

17) Quoted in Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, Black Metropolis (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945), p. 362.

18) T. V. Smith, The Democratic Tradition in America (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1941), p. 48.

19) William E. Hocking, Man and the State, p. 10.

20) Cf. H. W. Laidler, Social-Economic Movements (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1945), pp. 640-48.

21) G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Religion (London: Kegan Paul, 1895). Vol. II, p. 83.

22) See Sumner H. Schlicter, The Challenge of Industrial Organization (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1947) for a judicious analysis.

23) C. S. Golden and H. Ruttenberg, The Dynamics of Industrial Democracy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942).

24) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I., p. 278.

25) Dr. George Buttrick’s phrase; Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1942), p. 118.

26) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II., p. 72.

27) Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 445.

28) Ibid., p. 224.

29) Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), p. 128. Cf. his Revelation and Reason (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946), chap. xxi.

30) Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. R. G. Smith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937).

31) The Talmudic Anthology, ed. Lewis I. Newman (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1945), p. 179.

32) Martin Luther, Secular Authority, To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed? (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman, 1930), Vol. VI, p 265.

33) Cf. Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1933).

34) Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 326.

35) Ibid., p. 327.

36) Ibid., p. 85.

37) Ibid., p. 73.

38) Ibid., p. 223.

39) Ibid., p. 222.

40) A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 164.

41) Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (Boston: Little, Brown & Company,1945), p. 191.

42) Annual Report of the New York State Commission Against Discrimination, New York State Executive Department, 1946.

43) T. V. Smith, op. cit., p. 71.

44) Carey McWilliams in Now, a semi-monthly journal, February and March, 1946.

45) Ibid.

46) Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 457

47) Reported in The Christian Century, Vol. 61, March 1, 1944, p. 260.

48) R. M. MacIver, The Web of Government (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947), p. 194.

49) Quoted in W. E. Hocking, Man and the State, pp. 264-65.