The New Life

Individual and Social


(This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin's Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915)

Jesus, by Rembrandt


The health department of a modern city is charged with a double duty: it has to care for cases of disease, and it has to suggest and enforce laws to keep the city sanitary. The former task—the treatment of sickness—is much more widely recognized as the proper function of the medical profession; the latter—the prevention of the causes of illness—is a newer, but a more far-reaching, undertaking. When Pasteur was carrying on his investigations into the origins of certain diseases, most of the leading physicians and surgeons made light of his work: "How should this chemist, who cannot treat the simplest case of sickness nor perform the most trifling operation, have anything to contribute to medical science?" But Pasteur's discovery of the part played by bacilli not only altered profoundly the work of physicians and surgeons, but opened up the larger task of preventive medicine.

The Gospel of Christ, in its endeavor to make and keep men whole, faces a similarly double labor. It has its ministry of rescue and healing for sinning men and women; it has its plan of spiritual health for society. It comes to every man with its offer of rebirth into newness of life: "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." It comes to society with its offer of a regenesis, a paradise of love on earth. The life of God enters our world by two paths—personally, through individuals whom it recreates, and by whom it remakes society; socially, through a new communal order which reshapes the men and women who live under it. The New Testament speaks of both entrances of the Spirit of God into human life: it pictures "one born from above," and "the holy city coming down from God out of heaven." The two processes supplement each other. Consecrated man and wife make their home Christian; a Christian home renders the conversion of its children unnecessary; they know themselves children of God as soon as they know themselves anything at all. Saved souls save society, and a saved society saves souls.

Religion must always be personal; each must respond for himself to his highest inspirations. A child may confuse the divine voice with that of its parents, through whom the divine message comes; but a day arrives when he learns that God speaks directly to him, perhaps differently from the way in which his parents understand His voice, and he must listen for himself alone. A Job may take at second-hand the conventional views of God current in his day, and through them have some touch with the Divine; but this will seem mere hearsay when the stress of life compels him to fight his way past the opinions of his most devout friends to a personal vision of God. Religious experience is hardly worthy the name until one can say, "O God, Thou art my God." There is no sphere of life in which a man is so conscious of his isolation as in his dealings with his Highest. The most serious decisions of his life—his apprehension of Truth, his obedience to Right, his response to Love—he must settle for himself.

Space is but narrow—east and west—There
is not room for two abreast.

" Each one of us shall give account of himself to God." In our consciousness of sin, in our penitence, in our faith, others may stimulate and inspire us, may point the way saying, "Behold the Lamb of God," may go with us in a common confession of guilt and a common aspiration towards the Most High, but we are hardly conscious of their fellowship; it is the living God with whom we personally have to do.

Points have we all of us within our souls
Where all stand single.

The Gospel comes as a summons to men one by one. Christ knocks at each man's door, offering the most complete personal friendship with him. Were there but a single child of God astray, the Good Shepherd would adventure His life for him, and there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth.

The Evangel has always been good news to sinning people who wished to be different. In Adam Bede Mrs. Poyser says of Mr. Craig, "It was a pity he couldna' be hatched o'er again, and hatched different." The Gospel claims to be the power of God which can make the worst and lowest of men—an Iago or a Caliban—into sons of the Most High in the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.

This has seemed incredible to most outsiders. Celsus in the Second Century, in his attack on Christianity, wrote, "It must be clear to everybody, I should think, that those who are sinners by nature and training, none could change, not even by punishment—to say nothing of doing it by pity." Dickens' Pecksniff "always said of what was very bad that it was very natural." But it has been the glory of the Gospel that it could speak in the past tense of some at least of the sins of its adherents: "such were some of you." Individual regeneration will ever remain a large part of God's work through His Church. Unless we can raise the dead in sin to life in Christ, we have lost the quickening Spirit of God; so long as the world lieth in wickedness, every follower of Jesus must go with Him after men one by one, to seek and to save that which was lost.

But a man's religious experience is vitally affected by social conditions. Moses' protest against the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt sprang from his feeling that it hindered their fellowship with God. "Let My people go," he felt God saying, "that they may serve Me." Mencius, the Chinese sage, wrote: "If the people have not a certain livelihood, they will not have a fixed heart. And if they have not a fixed heart, there is nothing which they will not do in the way of self-abandonment. An intelligent ruler will regulate the livelihood of the people, so as to make sure that, above, they have sufficient wherewith to serve their parents, and, below, sufficient wherewith to support their wives and children; that in good years they shall always be abundantly satisfied, and that in bad years they shall escape the danger of perishing. After this he may urge them, and they will proceed to what is good." Christian workers, today, know well how all but impossible it is to get a man to live as a Christian, until he is given at least the chance to earn a decent living.

But we have to be on our guard lest we overemphasize the force of circumstances either to foster or hamper a man's fellowship with God. The life of Jesus is the irrefutable argument that the Lord's song may be sung in a strange land. It is always possible to be a Christian under the most unfavorable conditions, provided the Christian does not shirk the inevitable cross. But the social order under which men live shapes their characters. Ibsen calls it "the moral water supply," and religion is intensely interested in the reservoirs whence men draw their ideals.

A glance over a few typical forms of social order will illustrate its influence on character:

Perhaps the noblest society of antiquity was the Greek city state. It expected its citizens to be all of them warriors, statesmen, legislators, judges. It set a premium upon the virtues of courage, self-control, justice and public spirit. It delivered its citizens from that "greasy domesticity" which Byron loathed in the typical Englishman of the Georgian epoch, and made them civic minded. But its ideal was within the attainment of but a fraction of the population. The slaves had no incentive to these virtues; and it is estimated that in Athens in the Fourth Century B.C. there were 400,000 slaves and 100,000 citizens. The many did the hard work, debarred from the highest inspirations, in order that the privileged few might have freedom to achieve their lofty ideals. And outside the state, or the Greek world, the rest of mankind were classed as "barbarians," to whom no Greek ever thought of carrying his ideals.

Nominally Christian Europe in the Middle Ages presented in the Feudal System a different type of society. A vast hierarchy in Church and State, with the pope and emperor at the top, ran down through many gradations to the serf at the bottom. It was an improvement on the little Greek state in that it embraced many more in a single order and bound them together with common faith and standards. It prized not the civic virtues, but the militarist qualities of loyalty, obedience, honor, chivalry. Its typical hero is the Chevalier Bayard, the good knight without fear and without reproach. But a career like his is manifestly possible only to a few. The agricultural laborer chained to the soil, and the trader—often the despised Jew confined to the Ghetto—had no part in the life of chivalry. Outside of Christendom the Saracen was to be converted or slain, and he was far oftener slain than converted.

Under the revival of classical ideals at the Renaissance, in the new emphasis upon individual rights born of the Reformation, in the rebellion of the Puritan English and Scotch against the divine right of kings and bishops to rule them against their conscience and will, in the Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic wars, the Feudal System passed, and the commercial order took its place. Its cherished virtues are initiative, industry, push, thrift, independence. As its beau ideal it substitutes for the Chevalier Bayard the successful business man. It sincerely tries to open its privileges to everyone; and under favorable circumstances, in Revolutionary America for instance, its ideals were accessible to practically every white inhabitant. The Comte de Ségur, one of the young French officers who came to take part in our War of Independence, wrote: "An observer fresh from our magnificent cities, and the airs of our young men of fashion—who has compared the luxury of our upper classes with the coarse dress of our peasants and the rags of our innumerable poor,—is surprised on reaching the United States, by the entire absence of the extremes both of opulence and of misery. All Americans whom we met wore clothes of good material. Their free and frank and familiar address, equally removed from uncouth discourtesy and from artificial politeness, betokened men who were proud of their own rights and respected those of others." But under other conditions its ethical incentives are often without appeal to the man who lacks capital, or to the man with so large an assured income that he desires no more. It can do little for the dregs or the froth of society—those so oppressed that they cannot rise to its social responsibilities, and those so lightened that they do not feel them. It looks upon the so-called backward peoples as markets where it can secure raw materials needed for its factories—its rubber, ivory, jute,—or engage cheap labor, and as a profitable dumping-ground for its surplus products. It has done much for the less developed sections of the race by its missionaries, educators and physicians; but all their efforts have been almost offset by the evils of exploiting traders or grasping government agents, and the exported vices of civilization.

Christianity has a social order of its own—the Kingdom of God. It is not an economic system, nor a plan of government, but a religious ideal—society organized under the love of God revealed in Christ. This ideal it holds up in contrast with the existing social order in any age as a protest, a program and a promise.

The Kingdom protests against any features in prevailing conditions that do not disclose Christlike love. It scans the industrial world of today, and finds three fundamental evils in it: competition as a motive, arraying man against man, group against group, nation against nation, in unbrotherly strife; gain-seeking as the stimulus to effort, inducing men to invest capital, or to labor, primarily for the sake of the returns to themselves; and selfish ownership as the reward of success, letting men feel that they can do as they please with their own. Certain callings, upon which the Christian Spirit has exerted a stronger influence, have already been raised above the level of the commercial world. It is not good form professionally for physicians, or ministers, or college professors to compete with each other and seek to draw away patients, parishioners or pupils; to exercise their callings mainly for the sake of financial gains; nor to regard as their own their skill, or inspiration, or learning. But as yet the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the banker, the manufacturer, the promoter, are not supposed to be on this plane. They are urged to compete, even to the extent of putting their rivals out of business, in defiance of an old Jewish maxim, "He that taketh away his neighbor's living slayeth him," and in face of the Lord's Prayer in which we ask not for "my daily cake," but for "our daily bread." They are expected to consider profits, dividends, wages, as the chief end in their callings; and if out of their gains they devote a portion to public uses, that is charity on their part. A few individuals are undoubtedly superior to the ideal set before them, and are as truly dedicated servants of the community as any physician or minister of the gospel, but they are a small minority; and the false ideal ruins characters, and renders the commercial world a battlefield, instead of a household of co-working children of God.

It scans international relations, and finds patriotism still a pagan virtue. Mr. Lecky calls it "in relation to foreigners a spirit of constant and jealous self-assertion." When a tariff is under discussion, high, low or no duties are advocated as beneficial for the industries of one's own country, regardless of the welfare of those of other lands. The scramble for colonies with their advantages to trade, the imperialistic spirit that seizes possessions without respect to the wishes of their inhabitants, the endeavor to secure in other countries special concessions or large business orders at an extraordinary profit, are all sanctified under the name of patriotism. The peace of the world is supposed to be maintained by keeping nations armed to the teeth, so that rival powers will be afraid to fight, and huge armies and navies are labelled insurance against war. A sentence in a letter of Erasmus has a singularly modern sound: "There is a project to have a congress of kings at Cambrai, to enter into mutual engagements to preserve peace with each other and through Europe. But cer tain persons, who get nothing by peace and a great deal by war, throw obstacles in the way." The armament argument for peace has been given its reductio ad absurdum; but it is by no means clear that the world-wide war will free the nations from the burdensome folly of keeping enormous armies and navies. As Christians we must protest without ceasing that international relations, based on mutual fear and maintained by the use of brute force, can never furnish the peace of Christ.

It scans the system of justice in its treatment of the wrong-doer, and declares that the crude attempt to fit the punishment to the crime, and to protect society by deterrent penalties, is not the justice of Him who is "faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Divine justice is redemptive; and society, if it wishes to be Christian, must pay the heavy cost of making all its contacts with the imperfect transforming.

It scans the educational institutions of our land, and sees many students viewing learning only with reference to its immediate commercial availability, spurning all studies as "unpractical" which do not supply knowledge that can be coined into financial returns; and it sees many others without intellectual interest, prizing schools and colleges merely for their social pleasures, lazily choosing courses which require a minimum of labor, and disesteeming the great opportunities of culture and enrichment provided by the sacrificial studies and labors of the past. It insists that a moral revival is needed for an intellectual renaissance. All students must be baptized with a passion for social service, before studies that enrich the mind and enlarge the character will be pursued with eager devotion. The blight of irresponsibility is almost universal upon the students in the higher educational institutions of our country.

So the Christian social order contrasts itself with every phase and aspect of our present life, and exposes the impoverishing absence of the Spirit of God. Its protest is reinforced by widespread social restlessness and the feeling that the existing state of things has gone into moral bankruptcy.

But the Kingdom of God is no mere protest; it is a program of social redemption. Some thinkers flatly deny that Christianity can provide a constructive plan for society. Mr. Lowes Dickinson makes his imaginary Chinese official write of the social teachings of Jesus: "Enunciated centuries ago, by a mild Oriental enthusiast, unlettered, untravelled, inexperienced, they are remarkable not more for their tender and touching appeal to brotherly love, than for their aversion or indifference to all other elements of human excellence. The subject of Augustus and Tiberius lived and died unaware of the history and destinies of imperial Rome; the contemporary of Virgil and of Livy could not read the language in which they wrote. Provincial by birth, mechanic by trade, by temperament a poet and a mystic, he enjoyed in the course of his brief life few opportunities, and he evinced little inclination, to become acquainted with the rudiments of the science whose end is the prosperity of the state. The production and distribution of wealth, the disposition of power, the laws that regulate labor, property, trade, these were matters as remote from his interests, as they were beyond his comprehension. Never was man better equipped to inspire a religious sect; never one worse to found and direct a commonwealth."

Jesus' teaching concerning the Kingdom of God is contained in a handful of parables and picturesque sayings. It attempts no detailed account of a Utopia; it lays down no laws; it offers the world a spirit, which in every age must find a body of its own. But this indefiniteness does not fit it the less, but the better, as the inspiration to social reconstruction. It affords scope for variety and endless progress. It can take up the social ideals of other ages and of other civilizations, and incorporate whatever in them is congruous with the Christian social order. The ideals of Greece and Medieval Europe and of our present commercialism, and the ideals of China, India and Japan, are not to be thrown aside as rubbish, but reshaped and "fulfilled" by Christlike love. It does not stultify human development by establishing a rigid system; but entrusts to thoughtful and conscientious children of God the duty of constantly readjusting social relations, so that they are adequate expressions of their Father's Spirit. In every age Christians are compelled not only to voice their protest against the existing order, but to point out precisely what the Spirit of Christ demands, and try practically to embody it. The fact that our directions are not explicit is proof that God deals with us not as little children but as sons and daughters, not as servants but as friends. We have to think out for ourselves the economic system, the policies of government, the disciplinary methods, the educational ideals, that will incarnate the Spirit of our Father. The all-sufficient answer to the charge of the inadequacy of Jesus as a guide to social welfare is the fact, that only in so far as we are able to express His mind in our social relations, do they satisfy us. The advances made in our generation are conspicuous instances of progress not away from, but up to Him. The crash of our present commercial order in industrial strife, now scarcely heard in the greater confusion of a world at war, gives us the chance to come forward with the principles of Jesus, and ask that they be given a trial in business enterprises that are based on coöperation, the joy of service as the incentive to toil, responsible trusteeship of that which each controls for the benefit of all the rest; in international relations where every nation comes not to be ministered unto but to minister, and loves its neighbors as itself—to ask that we seriously try the social order of love. John Bright, unveiling the statue to Cobden in the Bradford Exchange, said, "We tried to put Holy Writ into an act of Parliament." We want the mind of Christ put into commerce, laws, pleasures and the whole of human life.

And we come forward with confidence, because the Kingdom we advocate is not merely a protest and a program, but also a divine promise. The ideal of the Kingdom of heaven to which our consciences respond is for us a religious inspiration, and has behind it a faithful God who would not deceitfully lure us to follow an illusive phantom. "According to His promise we look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness." The city of our hope has not been designed by us, but has been already thought out in God's mind and comes down out of heaven. In our attack upon existing injustices and follies we raise again the believing watchword of the Crusaders, "Deus vult" In our attempt to rear the order of love, which cynics pronounce unpractical, we fortify ourselves in the assurance that it is God's plan for His world, and that we shall discover a preëstablished harmony between the Kingdom of heaven and the earth which we with Him must conform to it. We encourage ourselves by recalling that, in the hearts of men everywhere and in the very fabric and structure of things, we have countless confederates.

On one of Motley's most glowing pages, we are told how, after the frightful siege and fall of Haarlem, and with Alkmaar closely invested by the Duke of Alva, when the cause of the Netherlands seemed in direst straits, Diedrich Sonoy, the lieutenant governor of North Holland, wrote the Prince of Orange, inquiring whether he had arranged some foreign alliance, and received the reply: "You ask if I have entered into a firm treaty with any great king or potentate; to which I answer, that before I ever took up the cause of the oppressed Christians in these provinces, I had entered into a close alliance with the King of kings; and I am firmly convinced that all who put their trust in Him shall be saved by His almighty hand. The God of armies will raise up armies for us to do battle with our enemies and His own." And the opening of the dykes brought the very sea itself to the assistance of the brave contestants for truth and liberty.

The prayer on our lips, "Thy Kingdom come," we believe to be of God's own inspiring. The social order which we seek is His eternal purpose; and it has sworn confederates in sun and moon and stars of light, and in every human heart. We wait patiently and we work confidently, in the assurance that the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, will not fail nor be discouraged, until He has set His loving justice in the earth, and His will is done among all the children of men, as it was once done by His well-beloved Son.





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