Christian Contrition and Action: Society and the Keys to Peace
In this article, originally published in Christianity and Crisis on April 19, 1943, F. Ernest Johnson illuminates the twin wartime concerns of brutality and cynicism. Johnson illustrates the importance of maintaining public morality; losing compassion for the enemy will scuttle the peace and instigate the next war, while ignoring social influence in determining personal ethics invariably corrodes society on a more insidious level. To paraphrase John 17: 14-19, we must be in the world, but not of it. To read the original article in PDF format, click here.
In the solemnity of this season, when heart-searching should be at its height, we may well reflect on two perils that beset the path of those who give their moral support to the prosecution of war. One is that they may become less sensitive than they have been hitherto to the brutalities that war engenders. The other is that in their tough realism about the nature of man, they may lose faith in the possibility of organizing the world politically so that such a tragedy may not recur.
The first of these perils manifests itself in the fear that softness and sentimentality will weaken the war effort, and that even in victory the fruits of that victory may be lost through misguided gentleness in the political reordering of the world. The fear is probably well grounded in both respects, but this only enhances the moral danger. The necessity of inflicting suffering on fellow human beings, even in vindication of a principle and in defense of others, is corroding to the conscience unless one is protected from it by a miracle of grace. This is why self-identification with the enemy in a common fund of guilt is so necessary to the Christian who fights. He is unfit to stand and fight if he is not continually driven to his knees in penitent prayer. All unawares, he is caught in the flood of self-righteousness that is blind to the fact that a Nazi is essentially still a man—an insidious self-righteousness that can without a shudder contemplate the conventional cartoon, now a national institution, that makes a Japanese appear to be a baboon. It is better to admit frankly that war inevitably breeds hate than sentimentally to refuse to face that reality. But for a Christian to lose his hatred of hate is to lose his Christianity. “It must be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” It is a good thing for a minister in these days to imagine himself a chaplain to prisoners of war and to consider whether he could lose himself in the cure of souls.
Equally urgent is it that we be not blind to the evil inherent in the suspension of liberties, the regimentation of life, the arbitrary exercise of power, and the grinding discipline that seeks to turn boys into hardened men before their minds and bodies have experienced what youth should bring. All this must be accepted if the war is to be won, but not complacently accepted unless we are to lose the peace.
The second peril is of a different sort. It is theological in essence and is enhanced by the fact that the war caught us at a time when the social hope embodied in liberal Christianity was being effectively assailed. The attack upon it was in part, certainly, well founded, for our Protestant churches had become cradles of an easy optimistic faith in salvation by social mechanics. And the contention of the “realists” got itself impressively documented in the outbreak of the most savage war of modern times. The illusion of modern progress was rudely dispelled. That lesson must never be forgotten.
Yet it is doubtful if the real lesson has been learned. If the great error of liberal Christianity consisted in a spurious concept of man’s nature, the great error of the future is likely to be a preoccupation with the individual man to the exclusion of the possibilities of a Christian culture. The question here is not as to the derivation of the meaning of history though that is a very important question for Christian philosophers. Nor is it one of perfectionist assumptions as to the realization of Utopia within history. Rather it is a question of the significance of society itself, of the power of a cultural discipline as against man’s original nature.
It is a commonplace among students of human culture and human psychology that the savage in man is ever near the surface. Human nature, in any meaningful sense of the term, is more than what an individual possesses by virtue of his native inheritance, whether biologically or theologically conceived. It is a collective achievement. Christianity itself is a communal phenomenon, and the Kingdom of God, whether conceived eschatologically or developmentally, is realized only in spiritual community. Redemption is profoundly individual in its reference, but it is communal in substance. “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” By the same token, grace is as truly social as it is individual in its operation.
Hence the possibility of making a better world, and a progressively more peaceful world, is not excluded by the most realistic view of the nature of individual man. The idea of a Christian society is indeed quixotic if it means that a redeemed man ceases to be potentially a great sinner, but if it is rooted in the efficacy of community as a molder of human nature, which changes the pattern both of man’s sins and of his virtues, all that we know of human life supports it as a valid hope. We may grant that “Thy Kingdom come on earth” embodies a bit of New Testament eschatology, in that the “earth” was to be miraculously transformed, but “ye are laborers together with God” has a temporal reference which cannot be expunged without emasculating the gospel. And part of that labor is a prodigious effort to eradicate war.
F. E. J.
Photo Credit: Chatham House’s wartime Committee for Reconstruction meeting in the Institute’s Common Room. Taken in 1943, via Wikimedia Commons.