“The Christian’s Cause,” by John C. Bennett
A university student said recently: “The trouble with Christians is that they have no cause.” That comment has haunted me ever since. One superficial meaning of it might be that since Christians are the majority group and Christian students and professors among the more comfortable members of the majority group, they can take life with more complacency than others. Christians in this respect might seem to an observer to be very different from those Jews who give themselves with passionate devotion to Zionism as the one hope for their race in the time of its agony.
There is, however, a much deeper reason for suggesting that Christians do not have a cause. It is the fact that Christians cannot identify the Kingdom of God, or their cause, in an absolute way with any human program. To the single-minded devotee of a particular human cause, especially of a political cause, the Christian may often seem too critical, too detached, perhaps a little unstable.
In so far as he is a Christian he will not be able to see in any political program the final solution of the human problem. He will reject the idea that God’s purpose can be fully identified with any human institution or program. He will see how morally insecure any such institution or program is, how morally mixed its representatives are, beginning with himself. Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War showed extraordinary insight when he said: “In the present Civil War it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” That did not undermine his resolution to win the war.
One of the most tantalizing things about the Christian in this connection is that he has a sense of solidarity with his opponents and enemies. At this point there is now a noticeable difference between the Church and the world. Where men are thinking under distinctively Christian influence they have a different attitude toward the people of enemy nations than is true of the secular world. At this moment in America I see two groups that are controlled chiefly by secular assumptions. One is made up of the people who never did hate Fascism, who always had a degree of sympathy for Fascism as opposed to Communism. They often take a lenient view of enemy nations because they were somewhat blind to the horror of Fascism. The other group is made up of those who have long been profoundly indignant against Fascism in its various forms, but now they are unable to discern the many shades of guilt among the people of Germany and Japan. They do not see the difference between moral corruption and behavior that comes from having lived for years behind walls of censorship, with a background of natural patriotism. An extreme example of this undiscriminating attitude is a remark made casually by a competent reporter, who had been in Germany for some time, to the effect that Niemoller is just another kind of Nazi.
In contrast to both of those groups there has developed within the orbit of the Church a group of people who are anti-Fascist, but who refuse to generalize about the Germans and the Japanese. They have expected to find fellow Christians among them, with whom they can become reconciled. They believe that there is a real common guilt shared in varying degrees by all nations that had power between the wars. They regard the welfare of the people against whom they have fought as involving an inescapable obligation for them as Christians now. Is it correct that the Christian has no cause in view of this difficulty in taking sides absolutely with any who are partisans of a political program?
I believe that we can gain essential insight for answering this question if we examine the meaning of the Kingdom of God, which is usually regarded as the Christian’s cause. What did Jesus mean when he said: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God”?
If we go to the New Testament scholars for an answer, the first effect is confusion. We discover that scholars of equal standing come to conclusions that at first seem mutually exclusive. There is one point on which most of them seem agreed. It is the conviction that the Kingdom of God cannot be thought of as a new political order that is to come as a result of the extension of existing processes in history. This conviction among students of the New Testament fits the judgment that recent events have forced upon our generation. There is a great gulf between what is possible for us to believe about the future, and what seemed natural for very wise men to think in 1912. Walter Rauschenbusch was no uncritical utopian. He saw that evil is stubborn in human history and he promised no easy or final victory over it. But he was able to say in 1912, “the largest and hardest part of the work of Christianizing the social order has been done.” Now we know that the gains that seemed so secure in the years just before the first World War were very precarious, that some of them have been lost, and that threats to civilization that were then beyond imagination harass us. It is still possible to make definite advances. We need not be fatalists or pessimists about the future. There are grounds for hope that humanity, driven by necessity and drawn by dreams of a better world, will find solutions for its most urgent problems. But the more sober view of the future, that is now natural to us, is consistent with the interpretation of the Kingdom of God that sees in it far more than a future stage in the progress of civilization.
I said that the first effect of consulting the New Testament scholars about the Kingdom of God would be confusion, but this confusion may be the beginning of wisdom, if it helps us to realize how many sided the Kingdom was for Jesus. There were for him, and there should be for us, three aspects of the Kingdom. To understand them is to understand what the Christian’s cause is.
The first meaning of the Kingdom of God is the rule of God in the world—now and always. It is a reality in so far as men acknowledge God as king and seek to do his will. There is also a sense in which the Kingdom of God is present in the vindication of God’s righteousness, through those events which we interpret as divine judgment upon man’s disobedience. The core of this idea of the Kingdom is seen in the petition, “Thy Kingdom Come” which is, as T.W. Manson says, the equivalent of the words that follow, “Thy will be done.”
If we think of the Kingdom of God in this way, we need not ask if it is present or future, possible or impossible in history. It is real now and it can be extended far beyond its present limits. We seek the Kingdom just in so far as we try to understand and obey God’s will for us, for our nation, for our generation.
In practical terms, this idea of the Kingdom means that while no human program or institution is the Kingdom of God we must serve the Kingdom through human programs and institutions. It is not difficult to say what the broad objectives of the Kingdom are for us. They are moral necessities without which no decent order among men is possible. As illustrations only, I suggest the following objectives of the Kingdom now: the restoration of cooperation among the great nations in order to prevent a third World War; the development of world organization to control the use of atomic power without creating a tyranny in the process; the discovery of a way of preventing mass unemployment that would bring misery to its victims and threaten the institutions of freedom; the raising of minority races to a position of equal citizenship and equal opportunity, and to free them from the humiliations that accompany segregation. Unless we make real advances toward these goals a paralyzing cynicism or despair will descend upon the souls of millions. No one of those objectives is a mere ideal or a utopian dream. They are all necessities if we are not to drift to disaster and most of us know it. The atomic bomb has had the effect of reducing almost to zero the margins of safety when we trifle with these objectives.
The Kingdom means these objectives to us, but the realization of all of them would not be the establishment of the Kingdom in its fullness. If the objectives are easily stated the methods by which we should secure them create great difficulties. Here we can go wrong. There is no conclusive Christian guidance that can determine for us through what legislation, institutions or parties we should work. Sometimes the Church gives a kind of collective guidance, when it says as the chief organs of American Protestantism said in effect about the San Francisco Charter: “this is the best available step forward, and to reject would be a calamitous step backward.” But even that kind of guidance was rejected by some very conscientious Christians. Each one of us must look for his own task; he must use his judgment to select the best instruments with which to work. Definite Christian guidance is found chiefly in two directions: in the clarifying of the objectives and in the religious discipline that cleanses the mind of the kind of bias that distorts judgment. How serious the bias by the economic interest of the group to which one belongs may become, is seen in the results of a recent Gallup Poll on President Truman’s proposal for $25 weekly unemployment payment on a national basis. The answers in the main fitted what each group might expect to gain for itself from that measure. (Manual workers, 61% for and 25% against—with others not sure; farmers, 28% for and 55% against; business and professional group, 34% for and 57% against; white collar group, 42% for and 45% against.) The kind of Christian discipline to which I refer should correct those factors in a judgment of that kind which are purely the result of narrow interest.
As we choose methods we can go wrong. We can regard our Christian objectives with certainty, but the methods by which they are achieved must always be made subject to correction. Methods, objectives and the Kingdom—these are three levels of certainty. It is one of our unending Christian responsibilities to keep the less certain level under the criticism of the more certain.
The second meaning of the Kingdom is, that with the coming of Jesus himself into the world, a new order in history was already begun. Professor Harold Dodd has come to interpret the Kingdom entirely in terms of this second meaning. It is possible to recognize its validity without assuming that it excludes all other interpretations. Jesus meant something of this sort when he said: “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, then is the Kingdom of God come upon you,״ or when he said: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for behold the Kingdom of God is within you (or among you).”
The Catholic forms of Christianity stress this interpretation of the Kingdom for they see it embodied in the institution of the Church. To make this identification of the Church and the Kingdom is to prepare the way for great distortions. The Church at best is an earthen vessel that carries a great treasure and it is a decisive error to confuse the vessel and the treasure. But there is much truth in this type of interpretation if we avoid, as Professor Dodd does, the identification of the Kingdom and the institution of Church.
What can be said is that since the life and death and resurrection of Christ, new energies and influences have been present within the orbit of the Church. It is possible to get a fresh view of what is involved if we compare Christianity with Communism at this point. Communists and their sympathizers believe that the decisive event in human history was the Russian revolution. As a result of the revolution there are new powers and new possibilities available to all humanity that did not exist before. Now Christians have a view which is in form quite similar because they too point to a decisive event in history—the victory of Christ over evil and death that is represented by the resurrection. Catholic Christians locate the center of the new energies in the institution of the Church much as Communists find the center of new energies in the Soviet Union. (The Kremlin and the Vatican are in form quite similar and that is one reason that they are so hostile to each other.)
Protestants will always be vaguer and more reserved in locating the movements which embody the power of God that works through Christ, but they too can serve the Kingdom through the Church. The Church can mediate strength and healing from God through its worship and through its pastoral ministry to countless persons now, in the world as it is. The Church can become a source of a new spirit within civilization. To participate in the work of the Church at either point is to seek the Kingdom of God.
The third meaning of the Kingdom of God is that it refers to the ultimate consummation of God’s purpose for mankind. It is this aspect of the Kingdom that is stressed by those scholars who are chiefly impressed by the sayings of Jesus about a future Kingdom that is to come at the end of history. This aspect of the expectation of the Kingdom is surrounded by much that is difficult for us. For one thing it is an expectation, the fulfillment of which has been indefinitely postponed, though in the early years of the Church it seemed very near.
This third meaning of the Kingdom is important for us in two ways. It carries for us the ideal standard by which the work for the Kingdom in the first two senses, in the Church and in the world, is to be judged. It keeps before us the inexhaustible, transcendent purpose that prevents us from imagining that any human order is the Kingdom in its fullness.
Even more significant at this moment is the fact that we have here the expression of faith in God as the final victor within his creation. Today we live haunted by fear that our civilization may be destroyed; not merely civilization as a network of institutions, but also large populations. What we fear for ourselves is a reality for millions who still exist amidst the ruins of their cities or who wander without homes and without the prospect of any secure social structure in which they may live. Faith in God means faith that even within the worst that can happen there are intimations of his mercy. Faith in God means that even beyond the worst that can happen in this world there is a new order of life in which God’s glory is manifested and his love embodied. An individual who faces death in the light of Christian faith has this hope. A people that sees all the temporal things that gave meaning and stability to their lives disappear, can have this hope. This can be a hope for us that will prevent panic. It must never cancel the kind of fear that drives us to find a solution of our problems, but it means that whatever happens we can still go on with faith stronger than fear. What is sure is that God rules and that his rule will not be overthrown by our sins and failures.
One of the temptations of the Christian is to emphasize one of these aspects of the Kingdom at the expense of the others. But they must be held together. They are, taken together, the Christian’s cause.
John Coleman Bennett was a co-founder of Christianity and Crisis with Reinhold Niebuhr and later served as the president of Union Theological Seminary from 1963 to 1970. His books include Christian Ethics and Social Policy, Christians and the State, and Foreign Policy in Christian Perspective.