Project Canterbury

The Church and the Hour
Reflection of a Socialist Churchwoman

By Vida D. Scudder, A.M.

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917.

II. The Church's Opportunity

THE Christian Church, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, is awakening to an extraordinary paradox in its position. This is not a new paradox; but never before was it so marked as in our day. It relates to the social quality of Church membership. The disinherited and the humble were the first to profess the faith, and the formulas of that faith are theirs. The prosperous are those who now profess it, and the formulas are strange upon their lips.

At the time of the first Christmas, the poor, the slaves, the oppressed, were craving a Deliverer, throughout that Roman Empire on whose upper circles "disgust and secret longing" had fallen. The sense of sin, growing curiously deep just then, blended -with a confused resentment against injustice at the roots of things; the quickened personal life shared by the proletariat with the rest of the world, hungered for some aid to self-respect. How fully Christianity met these needs--Christianity, with its story of a Carpenter, despised and rejected, executed as an agitator, victor over death, Saviour from sins, who washed men in His blood and made them kings and priests before God! The new hope was born among workingmen. Secretly, swiftly, it spread through the Roman underworld, though an occasional "intellectual" as we might now say, rose to leadership in the movement. It swept through Asia Minor westward to the center of empire, thence out to farthest barbarian bounds. Many educated and prosperous people were before long touched by the rapture which so strangely blotted out worldly distinctions; yet in the main the faith percolated up from below, bearing the clear stamp of a proletarian religion. God had put down the mighty and exalted the humble. He had filled the hungry, while the rich were sent empty away. What though these marvels were achieved on the spiritual rather than the natural plane? All the more satisfying, all the more permanent. Blessed were the poor, the meek, the hungry for justice; the dispossessed and defeated lifted their brows to heaven to catch the light of a new morning, in which military valor, administrative power, intellectual acumen, slipped into shadow, and the radiance fell on the servile virtues which Paganism had scorned.

Of course the situation did not last long. Christianity was too rare a discovery to be left in the hearts of slaves. At first more or less a class-conscious movement, it was saved from being revolutionary also only by its apocalyptic hope, and by the instinct for non-resistance and obedience native to the classes through which it spread. But from the first it held the germs of a universal faith, and it slipped from the control of the proletariat as it had slipped from the control of the Jews. Before long, we find it approved by the authorities; and the Gift of Constantine, ("Ahi Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre!") united an institutional Catholicism firmly with the existing order. Fervent Christian missionaries now aimed at the conversion of princes, who, when converted, imposed the new religion wholesale on their realms, and brought the armies of their adversaries to baptism at the point of the sword.

These subject populations seem to have been genuinely Christianized after a fashion. We confront a mediaeval Europe which in a sense deserves the name of Christendom; however childishly the religion be conceived, it is at least the common heritage. The feudal baron and his least of villeins are fed from the same altar and die with the same invocations on their lips. The faith, Catholic in more than name, encourages a spiritual democracy that goes far to mitigate the harshness of class-barriers, and to plant in race-consciousness, however obscurely, the seed of brotherhood. Through the middle ages, our paradox, however humorous, is innocent and unconscious. Cheerily the followers of the Prince of Peace go forth to war and live by the rule of might. Archbishop Turpin gives his Franks for penance an order to "fight their best"; Roland in one breath invokes St. Michael, and bids farewell to his sword, "the fair and holy,"--prototypes these of endless warrior prelates and most Christian, Catholic, and predatory nobles, on whose lips the Gospel maxims sound strange indeed. But men were simple then. The fighting had to be done, the authority to be maintained, and sunset years in a monastery might always atone for a vehement noon. Meanwhile, there were always the voiceless throngs of faithful, wistful people--villeins, vagrants, poor folk of the towns--to whom the vision of the city of peace, where the humble should reign, brought help and healing; men who cherished with passionate devotion their glorious secret: belief in the workman who had been cradled in a barn, had lived a houseless man, and who should be Judge and Overlord of all the great of the earth. "Our Prince Jesus poverty chose, and His apostles twelve; and aye the langer they lived the less goods they had." Honor poor men, "for in their likeness oft our Lord hath been known.'' So said old Langland patiently.

Do poor folk take like comfort to-day? One doubts it; for Christianity to all appearance, at least in Protestant countries, is certainly no longer in any general sense a proletarian religion. As we said at the outset it has largely passed into the hands of the privileged.

This is not to say in any sweeping absolute fashion, that the Christian religion is obliterated among the lower classes. There is the Salvation Army, there are slum churches thronged at mass, there are many other honorable exceptions. Yet in the main it is difficult to deny that those who support and value the churches to-day are the comfortable middle classes, while those who first received the good tidings and spread it over the civilized world would surprise us very much if they appeared in the sanctuary. Fifty years and more ago, Matthew Arnold pointed out the divorce of the working people from religion as the most sinister sign of the times. He hoped to win them back by blotting out dogma in favor of ethics; but it is not the working class that has accepted his suave attenuations of the Gospel. To picture the congregation in a popular church, transformed into the sort of audience to be seen at a socialist rally or a strikers' meeting, is a startling flight of fancy. The hungry and the meek no longer sing the Magnificat. Respectable and relatively prosperous people fill the churches so far as they are filled; establish missions, guilds, and institutional centers for the class to which they owed their faith in the beginning; and worry seriously over the "lapsed masses."

Nor does one see any immediate prospect of change in the curious situation. The classes at the base of things suffer to-day under sorrowful pressure of industrial anxiety. Their members when gentle, have often too little vitality for church-going, and when spirited experience too sharp indignation at the heart-root to enjoy peaceful religious hope. General interest, among them, is largely transferred from another world to this one; a new religion, the dangerous religion of revolt, spreads like silent flame among the working classes. Eager in propaganda as the religion of Paul was once, it lures, it quickens, it wakes in dull eyes the light that Christianity no longer kindles. We may mourn as we will. We may analyze causes forever in the magazines. In sincere distress over souls that perish, we may multiply our missions; the situation will persist. The people who most loudly glorify submission and renunciation belong to the class least called on to practice these virtues; those who extol a homeless Lord command fair homes where their children gather in peace around them, while the landless and homeless have wandered far from Him, and are seeking strange new guides.

What are we to learn from this situation?

No more extraordinary reversal was ever seen than the change, socially speaking, of the personnel of the Christian Church. There is little use in fighting the situation directly. There is less use in grieving over it. We shall do better to consider its good points, for it has them.

We may notice, for instance, that the well-to-do and respectable need religion quite as much as the proletariat--more, if we are to trust Jesus when He says that they are in peculiar spiritual peril. From this point of view, it is a cheering fact that to thousands of people in the prosperous classes religion is perfectly genuine. Loyalty to the Churches, does really foster in them the life of the soul, however hard working-class agitators find it to believe this. They break through into that "world subsisting within itself," which, as Eucken says, religion creates, and consciously submit their being to its transforming and saving power.

For over a century critics have been announcing that Christianity was at the point of death; but never was it more alive. We hardly need such proofs as a Men and Religion Forward Movement, a World's Student Christian Federation, a Conference on Faith and Order. Countless confraternities and guilds, Anglican orders revived, Roman orders dispersed on the Continent only to plant centers of influence in free Anglo-Saxondom, show the vitality inherent in the more rigid forms of faith; while a public that eagerly absorbs Eucken and draws enormous numbers of religious books from libraries, is surely awake to spiritual things. Emphases have changed. Ethics and sentiment interest more than dogma. That benevolence of which Christ said so little has become our central social virtue, replacing that joy in poverty and that spirit of renunciation for which He pleaded. None the less the cry arises, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and restless are our hearts until they rest in Thee."

So far so good; yet we all want to probe further. Our paradox must hold a summons. For, to speak frank Christian language, if God has thus shaped Christian history, it is because He has thought it well so to do. The situation at any point of time--to believe this is the superb adventure of Christian faith--is that precise situation from which everyone involved may profit the most: it is that through which the Kingdom of God may advance more swiftly. The glory of every temptation, every difficulty, is the opportunity it presents.

What is the opportunity, what the summons, afforded in the dramatic transformation of Christianity from a religion of slaves to a religion of masters? The greatest we could ask. It is the chance to demonstrate, with a unique cogency, that Christianity is no mere natural product, but a supernatural power. We can rout for all time the economic determinist. We can prove, as Eucken says once more, that "reality has a depth beyond the natural man."

Early Christian history holds no such demonstration for the modern caviller. He points out that the new religion, with its emphasis on servile virtues, took facile root among a servile population. In the underworld of society a religion was bound to flourish which lent the grace of dignity and the light of spiritual romance to the qualities of non-resistance, unworldliness, and meekness, which the poor were in any case forced to practice, and exalted into honor the ancient badges of their shame. The early Christians sacrificed little: their religion was a natural product of their economic environment, as it remains to this day a natural consolation for the weak. Would you persuade us to see in it an influx of grace from Above, show it practiced by the strong!

Where do we so find it? Where perceive clear proof of the Christian ideal running counter to the psychology engendered by circumstance? One remembers interesting individuals, down the centuries: a Francis Bernardone, a Gordon, a Shaftesbury. They arrest thought, one admits. But look at life in the large! Christianity has been really operative only with those groups or classes to whom submission, obedience, are matters of-necessity: Russian peasants, if you will, or Langland's poor folk, or women, before the days of the suffragettes. It has been easy enough for the crushed to honor meekness, for the suffering to console themselves by the secret faith that pain redeems the world, for people "terrified by fears, cast down by poverty" to praise poverty of spirit, and look forward to a Vision of Peace beyond the grave.

But let us see the powerful, for a change, abjuring their power; the rich, giving poverty more than lip-homage and patronage; the happy, deliberately choosing to suffer with the age-long hunger of the dispossessed, till they win the blessing of them that mourn. Show us a corporate Christianity which involves social sacrifice on a large scale. If you show that, you can bid us believe in anything, even in baptismal regeneration.

What is this? You point to the hold Christianity has on the prosperous classes? To our large congregations, our great contributions to missions and philanthropy, our solemn stress on "social service," our magnates of finance' passing the contribution plate?--And here it is to be feared that the caviller pauses and shrugs. Amuse yourselves as you like, he says. Try as you will to add to the assets of one order of things, the earthly, the perquisites of another order, the heavenly; reserve your Christian principles for private consumption in the family circle, or treat them as an affair of the heart, sentimentally spiritual, unrelated to the way in which you make or spend your income. Evade as you choose the plain purport of your Master's teaching of brotherhood. The religion you profess may last your time, but it is as surely dying out as the plants in His old story withered from lack of soil. What we outsiders need in order to convince us that you Christians have indeed "broken through into reality" is to see those who can command luxury, choosing poverty so long as their brothers want; those who might rule men, industrially or politically, becoming true servants of the democracy. It is to find Christians voting in public matters steadily against their own class-interests, and in private life literally caring more to share than to own. This spectacle, we grant, would be an effective proof of a divine religion. But men are not likely to see it. No? But what if they did?

Since the days of the martyrs, Christians have had no chance to bear witness so salient, so inviting, to the reality of their faith. The martyr is only the witness, though the connotations of pain that the word carries imply that honest witness-bearing has always involved cost. The test must be real. It was real in the Early Church, and people met it: nobles, of whom there was ever a fair sprinkling among believers, as well as slaves, to whom after all life was sweet. We may not have the martyr-stuff in us to-day. The very word has degenerated, till we speak, Heaven forgive us, of a martyr to rheumatism or to relatives! A martyr to us means a victim. Now comes the chance to redeem the word, to show that he is a hero. Reality endures. The nature of the witness it requires varies from age to age. These being the industrial ages, witness to truth will naturally be related to the industrial life; and it has strangely and quietly come to pass that Christian people are now chiefly drawn from the class which has industrial sacrifice within its power to make.

Obvious economic sacrifice on the part of Christians at large is the only sound means to silence the reiterated sneer of the materialistic radical who threatens our civilization. He is honestly convinced that no solid gain in justice or freedom has ever been carried through with the support of those who had anything to lose by it. Here is the slogan of the revolutionary syndicalist, here the insidious assurance through which he attracts the working people by thousands to his religion of revolt. He insists ad nauseam that every advance in popular freedom has been wrested with difficulty and violence by the oppressed from the oppressors. If you say that it is better to endure injustice than to seek justice by violence, he asks if you regret Runnymede and the Boston tea-party. If you remark sententiously that "nothing is ever achieved by violence," he retorts with some show of reason that little has ever been achieved otherwise. Plead with him to wait patiently till brotherly love shall accomplish its work, unaided by coarser powers, he will point a sinister finger at the workers, for instance, in the textile industries, remark that he is in a hurry, and challenge you to adduce specific instances on your side.

And it must be confessed that he has you in a corner. You search history too often in vain to refute him. Instances of individual self-sacrifice are gloriously common: instances of corporate self-sacrifice are conspicuous by their absence. The most picturesque instance does not come from Christendom at all; it is the abnegation of the Japanese Samurai.

But that such instances have been rare in the past does not prove that they cannot occur in the future. Possibilities change. Democracy sinks in. It is bringing about a state in which the highest private ethics are impelled as never before to reproduce themselves in the collective ethics of the group. If its intuitions are genuine, they must engender, not merely neutrality but disinterested action. It must be proved, not by words but by deeds, that large masses of people are more affected by desire for the common good than by desire to protect their own interests.

Democracy of this type needs a spiritual instrument. Where can we look for such an instrument so naturally as to the Christian Church?

The Church can, to be sure, do little in her corporate capacity. She is a spiritual, not an economic organism, and as such she can serve spiritual functions only. But the inspiration she supplies should guide her children in every province, and should to-day, above all, direct them toward social sacrifice. The chief hope of idealism in the present crisis is in the attitude and action of Christians from the prosperous classes. Will they hold to the solid, imperturbable tenets of their class, stubbornly defending a system alien to the spirit of their Master, even while professing in jejune generalizations to believe in His ideals? Or will they afford the most striking instance in history of a group-consciousness transcending lower forces, and acting directly from Above, counter to its own material advantage?

Should they so act, they would furnish an amazing spectacle indeed: a miracle, if you will. For class interest is a force so subtle, universal, irresistible, that to bid men defy it is like bidding the body defy gravitation, the lungs refuse to breathe.

Is it not thinkable that to the end of just this miracle, the striking transference of Christianity from the underworld to the world of comfort and prosperity, was determined in heavenly councils and brought about through slow historic process? Future Church historians may show with dramatic power how Christianity, at the crisis of its fate, had insensibly changed from the refuge of the proletariat to the home of the privileged in order that a triumphant demonstration of its divine nature might be afforded by the action of its followers, who in time of social revolution were chief agents in destroying all undue privilege by which they and their class could profit.

The virtues called for by Christianity are distinctly supernatural. They run athwart every instinct of unregenerate man; and to root them in the human soil, every advantage had to be taken. Even before the-Christian era much had been done. To give the human animal the freedom of a higher than animal life, is a tremendous feat. At first the process was evident only at rare points and moments, as in maternal devotion, where the ego is promoted a little, only a very little way, out of its own self. When that potent help to the achievement of the high task, the Christian ideal, entered the world, it had first to sow its seed among the lower classes, because those classes could foster that seed best. Such conditions as Christianity found for its inception in Judaea, and encountered during its early progress in the Roman Empire, were a necessity for its survival. Renunciation, pity, meekness, had to commend themselves first to those who knew how to pity because they had suffered, to renounce because they had never possessed, who by force of their outward situation were prepared to find joy in persecution, peace in subjection, immortal hope in their lack of earthly good.

To their amazement they did find these things and found them precious. In the midst of their chains they became free, not by shaking off the chains, but by learning that in bondage is truest freedom. Disciplined through the ages in the mystic Christian joy, that joy became to them so intensely real that the wistful world of wealth and success, looking in their faces, reluctantly acknowledged a sweetness beyond all it had to give, and discovered itself an-hungered for the secret blessings of those beneath its feet. So even the prosperous and the happy learned to set their affections on things Above.

But the story could not end there. The Christian virtues may take long centuries to strike deep roots in lives not forced to them by circumstance; but the time comes when, if they are so rooted, they must blossom in triumphant and supernatural beauty. Otherwise our planet is a moral tragedy among the spheres.

To-day, after nineteen hundred years, we hope for a season of blossom. Because the majority of Christian folk are now born not to want but to reasonable comfort, they can, if they will, demonstrate practically that comfort is matter of indifference to them compared with love. In no fantastic asceticism but in sober modern fashion, let them renounce luxury in consumption, greed in acquisition, permitting their light to shine by allowing their motives to be known. Let them remember that there is that scattereth and yet increaseth. Above all, let them as members of the body politic and industrial quietly throw their adherence on the side of justice to the dispossessed, or, if this phrase does not appeal to them, of generosity to the weak.

Never have Christian people had a more dramatic opportunity. Will they embrace it? When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?

Project Canterbury