Project Canterbury

The Good News

By Bernard Iddings Bell, D.D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, [1921]

Chapter VIII. Our Individual Duty

THERE is a danger in the sort of thing we talked about in the last chapter. I do not refer to any danger to America. [Against the evils of our modern world are arrayed two enemies, opposites in philosophy, in no sense allies. One is materialistic Bolshevism; the other is Christianity. The former would diffuse selfish possession. The latter seeks to substitute sacrificial love for acquisitiveness. But they both are at one in decrying things as they are. For this reason it is easy for the reactionary advocates of things as they are to make many people think that those are Bolshevists who happen merely to be Christians. It is well to remember that the really evil manipulators of our present way of living--the few whose purposes are deliberately sinister,--hate those who insist that our industrial processes must be Christianized just as thoroughly as they hate Bolshevists.] The only thing that will happen to America is that, when we really mean Christianity, very many of us, we are going to turn this old nation right side up, dethrone Mammon, enthrone God, and become once more a Christian people worthy of American ideals.

The danger I refer to is to us. When a man gets interested in social righteousness he is often apt to forget that there can be no social righteousness unless he and other men attain to individual righteousness. Let us not make the mistake of supposing that we can arrive at goodness and rightness of life merely by becoming religious revolutionists.

Not a few there are who do it. I have been companion to many sorts of people in the last ten years, including some passionately radical persons. When I ran a forum in Chicago, some eight years ago, I was quite pally,--and I am yet, for that matter,--with every variety of red, from the pink settlement worker to the crimson-minded I.W.W. Good people they are too, for the most part, well-meaning folk, although not often clear-thinking. I have known some queer examples of this dangerous tendency of which we are speaking. One was a very advanced feminist who nevertheless frequently beat his wife. I was never able to make him see that the two things were mutually contradictory. I know a man who says the Board of Trade is a vicious gambling hole and ought to be shut up. He loses more than he ought to almost every Saturday night playing "rummy" at a penny a point. A lady I know, too, very prominent and estimable, who devotes much money and time to work reclaiming fallen women; but she urged her daughter to marry a man much older than herself, for money, when she loved another man. She saved some prostitutes and then made her own flesh and blood into one. Many other instances might be brought forward. And so I warn you, as I often do myself, that it will not do to insist upon society living on a Christian basis, when one is unwilling to do so one's self. The employer must not damn labor, if he is grabbing all he can slice off for himself. The laborer must not damn the capitalist, if all he works for himself is "the kale". We learn from Our Lord that no man is fit to stone an individual sinner unless he has been sinless himself. No one is fit to stone society at large who does not recognize that the rocks of vituperation he flings are aimed at himself no less than at his fellow men. "Can the blind lead the blind?" asks Jesus of you. You will be of no use to others or to society at large until you have renovated your own soul. "When you are yourself converted," says Jesus to Peter, "then go strengthen your brethren."

Consequently we ought frequently and meticulously to look at ourselves and see whether we are the sort of person Jesus wishes us to be, the sort of person worthy of His great love for us, His coming, I-us sacrifice, His death, His Church, His Sacraments. Are you wasting your precious life, letting the years drop away with nothing done to make yourself a real man, a regular woman? You have very few years to waste. The older you grow, too, the faster they rush by. Do not merely drift along. To the drifter death is a shipwreck.

What does God wish us to do? God does not care a rap what we do in itself or what we do not do in itself. When our lives are judged, He is not going to open a book, balance our good deeds against our evil ones, and send us to Hell or Heaven according to which side the balance is on. God is going to look us over, consider against what we contended, see at what we were aiming, and send us to life or to the everlasting refuse-heap according to the selfishness or unselfishness of us. It is what we are trying to be that matters.

What are we, men and women, or educated apes that walk on their hind legs? What is the difference? An ape is a mere selfish beast. A man is capable of loving others more than himself. That is all the essential difference there is. Apes cannot love. Men can.

Love is the sum and substance of Christian duty. The young man who asked Jesus which was the great commandment, got the answer, "You shall love God, with all your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength. That is the first commandment. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. That is the second commandment. The two go together." You say that is a mere platitude. I admit that often it seems nothing more. But it is more than a platitude to anyone who asks himself what loving really means. Christ answers that too. "Greater love," He says, "has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Love is the impulse to sacrifice one's self for some one else.

I often tell the younger lads whom I instruct for confirmation, "Fellows, suppose a boy comes running in to his mother and throws his arms around her neck and says, 'Mother, I love you intensely. I just love you to death'. His Mother smiles and says, 'That is nice, Henry. Now please run down and carry me up a couple of scuttles of coal'. And Henry says, 'Aw no, Mother. I have to go play marbles.' Fellows, what is Henry " They tell me that Henry is a liar. A young man says he loves a girl, and he kisses her and gets "soft" about it generally, and never thinks of her except as someone who can minister to his pleasure. He does not love. He lusts. That is different. A man says he loves his wife, and is regardless of her except as his household drudge, while he has a good time, innocent enough to be sure, with the boys. He does not love his wife. But if Jimmy feels a great desire to make his mother's work lighter, and if the young man wishes to make his sweetheart's whole life a path of happiness won for her by him, and if the husband looks on his wife as someone to cherish and make happy, and upon his children as little beings to be sacrificed for by him as well as by her,--then it may truly be said that those persons love. You see that was what God did for us. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son."

The thing God desires of you and me is that we shall really love Him and our brothers, which means that we shall put ourselves out, sacrifice, discipline ourselves, deny ourselves, deprive ourselves to help him and to help them. All his coming was to show us that God in human terms is one who sacrifices. He died to make it plain. He stands among us now, to help us sacrifice. He said, "If a man wishes to come after lie, let him take up his cross and follow Me." What does that mean? The Cross He bore He did not have to bear. Nobody made Him do it. He could have gotten out of it if He had wished to. He bore it because He was willing to, for our sakes, to serve us and help us. No man can be said to have taken up his cross until he has borne burdens, endured privations, suffered truly, when he did not have to, when nobody made him do it, for the benefit of God and of the brethren.

God wants you to be honest with yourself, frequently to give yourself such an examination as will enable you to see if your really love Him and your neighbors. Wrestle this thing through. Look at yourself with the eyes of God and see what you are. The Devil will try to prevent your doing it. He always says to people, "Oh, you are not so very bad." Do not believe it until you have examined yourself. There is not a thoroughly honest person who ever will read this book, an absolutely pure person, a genuinely truthful person, a competently unselfish person. He who wrote it is none of these things. He is sinful and selfish, but trying his level best to look himself in the eye and, with God's help, to be ever less an animal and more a man, day by day. "Put not your trust in princes", says the Psalmist, "or in any son of man." That means, among other things, "Put not your trust in yourself." Then the Devil comes along and says, "Oh, you are as good as the other chap." Bless your heart, maybe the Devil is right in that. Maybe you are much better than other people. That, however, like the flowers that bloom in the spring, has nothing to do with the case. Are you the lover that you might become if with Jesus' help you honestly tried to become a human being more than an educated animal Do not compare yourself with other people. Compare yourself with Christ. hear Him. "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect."

If you and I wish to be of any use in this world, we must first clean house in our own hearts; turn on the light of God's example, and see where the dirty places are, those dirty places which nobody else knows about, not even our wife, our husband, our parents, our chums, the dirty places that have been dirty so long that even we ourselves have forgotten they were ever anything else than dirty; clean out our petty selfishnesses, our self-deceits, our complacencies, our cowardices, our indulgences. All the pretty passions for universal brotherhood we may have will get nowhere if we ourselves remain selfish brutes.

How to make that sort of examination I need not here take time to tell you. A little self-examination card may help. If you are in doubt about anything, ask the clergy to help you dig the dirt out. Do not think they enjoy doing it. They do not. Dirt is dirt. But it is their job to help you clean up.

It might be well, however, if in your next examination you would ask yourself some questions which go a little deeper than those one usually finds in self-examining leaflets.

1. In the last year have you ever given money away for any good cause to an extent so great that you had in the least really to suffer in order to do it?

2. Does what you give to other's needs bulk as large as the cost of your summer vacation, your club dues, and your motor upkeep?

3. Are you positively sure that no one who works in producing your income has to labor for less than a decently living wage?

4. Do you live on a scale bigger than you need, just to be thought rich?

5. Do you own your possessions or do they own you?

6. Is what you contribute to society through your business or character worth really and truly every cent you get paid for it?

7. You who say you love God, how often do you get up early on a Sunday morning and go to touch and adore Him in Communion?

8. You who say you love your children, how much time have you devoted in companionship with them in religion, praying with them, going to worship with them, teaching them?

9. Do you demand gratitude from God for your service to Him, and do you serve other people only when they show themselves grateful?

10. Does the sight of a suffering person, a sinful wretch, a beastly slum, a drab street, an unkempt child, an over-tired face, make your heart well up with a desire to do something to help, or do you smugly thank God that you are more favored than others round about you?

11. Do you regard your superior abilities and advantages as passports to privilege or as inexorable commissions to service?

Jesus wishes to help you love, to help you forget yourself in service, to be happy men and women, sharing the happiness which was His even on Calvary's hill. Cleanse your hearts and turn to Him and He will have mercy and abundantly pardon. Confess your sins. Wash you, make you clean. And when you are yourself converted and struggling along the path of sacrifice with Christ, then and then only venture to turn and strengthen your brothers. Then you may dare to cry to men and women, of every nation, to all folk everywhere, "Come company with us humble folk. The world turns. The Cross stands. It is the medicine of the world. It is the salvation of democracies. Self-seeking alone poisons life, personal and national. Come gaze with us on the great Sacrifice, on Jesus who takes away the selfishness out of the world. Come and dare with us to be men, to fight the battles against selfishness in all places low and high."

When you are converted, strengthen your brethren.

Project Canterbury