Project Canterbury

Churchmanship and Labour
Sermons on Social Subjects Preached at S. Stephen's Church, Walbrook.

Compiled by the Rev. W. Henry Hunt.

London: Skeffington and Son, 1906.

"The City of God"

"A City which hath foundations, whose maker and builder is God."

Sermon XXI. Laying the Foundations.

By the Rev. Conrad Noel.

OUR modern state, our modern civilization, the cities that we have builded, have no foundations. They are huge, incongruous, shapeless places without a plan, without a philosophy at their back, without responsibility, without foundations. God's City is a city that has foundations, because its maker and builder is God.

The cities of the ancient world had foundations. Athens at its height, at its best, had foundations. They were foundations other than the foundations of the City of God, but they were foundations. Athens was built upon a plan; the state of Athens had a philosophy at its back. Aristotle and Plato had definite theories of the state, of civilisation; those theories are not the theories of the Kingdom of God at all points, but they were theories in the mind, and they did work out in the arena of practical affairs. Athens had foundations; modern London has none, no moral foundations whatsoever. Modern London is a huge, and not entirely beautiful, Chance. Athens was built upon a plan, upon a theory of life, a theory which alleged that no state could be successfully moral, that the good life could not be lived at all unless you had a great foundation of slaves. It was an Aristocracy, an Oligarchy, the rule of the few; and not only the rule of the few, but the good life of the few, the life, the perfect, the rich, the developed life of citizenship, made possible for a few because of the foundation, and that foundation was a horde of slaves. The slaves were treated no better than beasts of burden, and therefore treated very well in comparison with the way England treats manual labourers, because the beast of burden is useful commercially and has its price, its value, and you dare not house it too badly.

Yes, Athens had foundations. Aristotle thought it absolutely impossible that a true civilisation could be built up on anything but slavery.

Now what has happened to ourselves? London, and the modern cities of Europe, are cities with no responsibilities. They do not look upon themselves as a whole, they take no thought for themselves as a whole, so that your manual labourers, those too who cannot find work, and also your mental workers very often, have the most terrible anxieties. They are overworked, they are underpaid, because the modern state does not take account of all its members. The ancients took account of all they thought it was possible to take account of; below those were the slaves, kept fairly well, treated fairly well; of course, there was brutality now and then, but on the whole they were treated well, fed well at any rate, because they were valuable property.

Now this is what has happened to us. The Christian religion came in upon that ancient world and broke it up, broke up that idea of slavery. It had a more comprehensive philosophy of life, a definite philosophy, and, as you know, that philosophy refused to leave out of count a single human being. That is the very basis of the Christian fafth, that all human beings are members of the family of God; all are subjects of the Kingdom of God; all are citizens of the heavenly City. But whereas the Athenian philosophy was more or less thoroughly worked out, and cities were built upon the idea at the back of Greek thinkers' minds, the Christian has failed to actualise his idea, to make it practical, to bring it into the arena of practical affairs, and to build the City of God. The old Greek cities were built upon the Greek philosophy; when are we going to set to work to build our cities upon our Christian philosophy? We have a complete idea, a complete philosophy of life, a complete faith about it all, founded on our belief in God Himself, and His will; we believe that we are brothers and sisters one with another, and we believe that it is God's will that we should live out that fact, and that we must bring about this will of God here on earth, in the political and practical sphere, transforming these dark Babylons of modern life into the City of God. But we don't do it. The Athenian lived more or less up to his philosophy; we don't live up to ours. Granted it is a more difficult one, a more comprehensive one, yet it is a very simple idea; and it is an idea that does not only appeal to the mind, but first of all to the heart, and if one's heart is at all alive, surely it gets caught by that idea, and carried out to high thought and high endeavour.

Why do we not make it practical? Why do we not live out our lives, and see that our cities are built upon the idea of the City of God? In such a city I do not say that everyone should be exactly on an equality in outward affairs, and have equal pay; that is a mere detail, whether practical or not; but it would be a city where everyone would start with equal chances, or where those who are handicapped should be taken care of by the community; we should have an idea of our cities which should comprehend everyone living in them, and which would not leave them to be the sport of competition and chance, so that the weakest go to the wall.

In other words, we should simply do this: Believe our religion, believe it on Mondays, on Tuesdays, on Wednesdays, instead of believing it on Sundays only. We cannot be spiritual unless we really mean the thing during the week in the world of practical affairs. And yet we do so little to make our religion a reality; so little, indeed, that the word "Civilisation," which should be one of the finest words in the language, has come to mean something so muddled and stupid and cruel that you even have a book written in our own day called "Civilisation, its Cause and Cure!" Why, it is from the want of a true civilisation that we suffer to-day, not from over-civilisation, but from under-civilisation! It is because we will not believe in civilisation, that is, in a society founded upon Christ, but hark back to the absurd struggle of what is called Nature, the natural competitive struggle, and say: Because the beasts struggle one with the other and against each other, then society must be founded on that basis.

Well, you cannot have a civilisation like that; civilisation is the contradiction of that order, or disorder, which prevails in what is called "Nature." Society is like a garden, it must be walled in so that you can get your flowers to grow; if you throw down the walls many of the flowers would die for the I want of proper nourishment, and for want of the shelter which the walls afford. You must wall in your City of God, and give it true foundations. That is civilisation. But we have no conception of that in London to-day. Even in the rude! Middle Ages they were nearer the conception of society as a complete whole than we are to-day. And why is it that our religion has as yet failed to build a true society here on earth? Is it not because religion has I come to mean a mere private affair between the soul and its God, and has ceased to a very great extent to mean what it meant in the Gospels and in the first century, and even what it meant in the thirteenth, namely, a relation between man and man, founded in the Will of God? Of course the Christian religion is a deep and comprehensive religion, which includes this relation of a man's soul with God; it makes much of that individual approach of the soul to God, even in the desert far away from contact with any other human creatures. Yet many other religions have that; the Christian religion is distinct from others in taking in the whole realm of a man's life, so that in seeking the good of the community a man's soul grows and is enriched and saved. We have forgotten that. And gradually, as the Church forgot that great fundamental of the Christian religion, she withdrew her hand and her control from great realms of practical life, and monopolies crept in, and from that day to this we have had this huge and cruel disorder in civilisation. The foundations upon which the Church of God was founded have been almost destroyed.

Of course, nowadays I know there is a great deal of good nature about. People are very good-natured; there is a sort of--well, hearty, Christmas-carol, Pickwick-papers sort of feeling about, and I think it is very genuine as far as it goes; but it wants banking up and turning to good account. There is much slip-shod charity, alms-giving, a charity that curseth him that gives and him that takes, because the people who take become utterly demoralised, and I am not sure that the philanthropist does not become equally demoralised, because it is a sort of doing good in between the terms, when the whole of one's normal life is founded upon an injustice. Long before Love comes Justice. Long before Benevolence comes Justice. The word which we have translated "Righteousness," means really "Justice." We are to be "true and just" in all our dealings with men, and, as a matter of fact, all our dealings are founded upon Injustice, and then to ease our minds we go and do a little alms-giving in between times.

Have you ever noticed that the word which is most often used in the Bible after the word Love, is this word Justice, which we have translated Righteousness? Well, I think we are good-natured and sentimentally kind to one another, but I do not think we have much idea about the foundations, about Justice; that is why we have failed as yet to build the City of God.

Now, just for a few moments, I should like you to consider briefly two points: (i) the question of Usury, and (2) the Apostolic rule about it in the early Church.

There is a rule, considered by modern Christians to be a mere brilliant epigram thrown off by S. Paul one day, I mean the rule, "If any man will not work, neither shall he eat." They think that was very sparkling and witty, but they do not think it applies to us. And yet that was the foundation of the Christian practical life, the life of affairs in the early Christian Church. It is commented on over and over again in the early Christian and mediaeval writers. It was a deliberate and well thought-out plan of the Christian life, that if a man would not work, neither should he eat. Now we find that it is, not entirely, but almost entirely, those people who do no work who eat, or rather, over-eat. I do not think it is the London 'busman who gives dinners at the Hotel Cecil, I don't^ think he can afford it--unless it be that driver of a Wimbledon 'bus who has just come into a fortune. The point is, our whole civilisation seems to make it easier for the person who does no work to eat, than for the man who does. We have so arranged things that people are able to live entirely upon their incomes, that is, upon the work of other people, because incomes do not come down like manna from the sky; you know perfectly well that these incomes are derived from the profits of a business or a factory, and are therefore derived from both the manual and mental workers of that business or factory. We make it possible for those who do not work to eat, and to over-eat themselves. And therefore you find that, not all, but most of the disease and misery in the richer classes comes simply because people won't face the foundations of life, of eternal life, which is Justice. They will not try to find out the right thing to do, and so a vast class is enabled to be idle; they are not always idle, I am not saying that, but I do say you allow them the opportunity of being absolutely idle, to eat the fruit of those who earn it by their work. And I do not limit this work to manual labour only, I include mental work, all productive work of mind and hand; this work alone creates wealth, and the wealth goes into the wrong pockets. It means, therefore, that your workers are over-worked and under-fed, while your shirkers are under-worked and over-fed.

He that will not work, neither shall he eat. The early Church really meant that; that was the deliberate rule of the Christian religion in the ages when that religion was strong and faithful.

Now, how do these people manage to get the money on which they over-feed themselves? They manage it, as you know, by unearned incomes, and that was always called in the English language, and in the English dictionaries until quite lately (we have found a more sweet-sounding name for it now)--Usury. No difference was ever made by the Church, or by the English dictionaries till quite lately, between usury and any form of interest. Usury meant Interest, and Interest meant Usury. And these people manage to live without working (I am not abusing them individually, it is not their fault) upon usury. We are enmeshed in the net of this modern so-called civilization, and it is very difficult indeed to get out of it. It is our fault; we allow these people to live without working; sometimes they do work, voluntarily, but we have made it possible for them to live without doing any work at all. We allow them to be monopolists, to get hold of certain absolutely necessary primal things without which other people can neither work nor eat, without which they must starve, or drown. These fundamental things, as you know perfectly well, are land and capital, stored up labour. These necessary things we allow to get into the hands of a small group of people, who are thus able to dictate on what terms these absolutely primal things shall be used by the rest of the community, by the people who do the work. We have not only not built the City of God, but we have founded our cities on the directly opposite rule, and then we wonder there is all this poverty, and go about whimpering and saying how sad it is, when it is directly our own fault, because the foundations are wrong, and we have not seen to it that we have justice first and benevolence a very long way after. Let us be just first, true and just in all our dealings.

I think in the very beginning of our attempts to remedy this state of things, one good plan might be to make it obligatory on all people who live on unearned incomes, by interest or rent, interest in any shape or form, to register themselves as money-lenders or usurers. Don't you think that would perhaps be a good plan? It would make these people see and feel much more clearly what they were doing. I think seriously it would be a good thing if people were made to show how they lived, because then I think they would face the facts. And they are not bad people, and I am sure they would then begin to see that the situation was morally impossible.

I hope to deal with this matter of Interest or Usury much more thoroughly to-morrow, but in conclusion this morning I would like to say this:--

You hear people talking about Nature. They say, you must follow Nature, that it is not practical not to follow human nature, and then they assume that by human nature is meant something absolutely selfish. Well, now, let us be practical. Look at anyone you know, yourself and your neighbour, for example; examine yourself and your neighbour carefully; can you tell me, honestly, that the only motive in your own life and in your neighbour's is selfishness or a wish for gain? If not, it seems rather nonsense, utterly unscientific surely, to identify human nature entirely with the mere selfish love of gain? You say you cannot alter human nature. What is human nature? A most complex affair, surely; all sorts of things, desires, and complexities go to form a man's character, and then you assume that only the rather shallow and evil part of him is his own true nature. Besides, what did Christ come into this world to do? why did He become Incarnate and take flesh? It was to alter human nature; not to twist it out of its right course of development, but to enrich it and fulfil it, to lift it along the course of its true development towards eternal life, to suppress the mere private competitive instincts in human nature, and to bring out the instincts of justice and love, which is fundamentally and truly human nature, and more truly human nature because we are formed in the image of the Divine Nature. Do you think we came from the beasts? Well, whether you do or not, if we have come from them we have done so by repudiating many of their instincts. And why should we model our society on those very instincts from which we have climbed up, and from which we have advanced. Why should we go back to them as our model for building up the Kingdom of God? It is utterly unscientific to do so, as Professor Huxley showed us in his essay on "Evolution."

We can oppose to what is called human nature, its shallow and mere selfish instincts, the scheme of what we call grace, Divine grace, which is, after all, the truer nature of man. Deep down in the heart of man is that Divine grace, that Divine Spirit. Cannot we yield to its promptings so that we shall build up the City of God by opposing the rule of Christ against the rule of our shallower and more selfish desires?

We are always seeking to save our own little souls, but Christ said that whosoever seeks to save his soul (it is sometimes translated, life) shall lose it, but that whosoever for His sake and the Gospel's--that is, the gospel of good fellowship, and the City of God--should risk his own soul, should perhaps lose his soul, the same should gain it unto life eternal.

Are you willing to build the City of God, and, if need be, to lose your own soul?

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