Friday, December 14, 2007

100th Anniversary of a Foundational Text for the Christian Left

Dear readers,

Please excuse the length of this posting. I am excited to share with you some excerpts from one of my favorite classic texts of the movement that furnishes my nickname on this blog (i.e. the "Christian Left")--while we are still in the year 2007. One hundred years ago, a powerful and prophetic book was published: Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), which I believe is now in the public domain and should be available for free on-line.

Rauschenbusch was one of the leading figures of the "Social Gospel" movement of early-twentieth-century Christianity, arguing that Christians should not retreat into personal, private faith but should get involved in social action. His text serves as a clarion call for a Christianity of the progressive Left, and it is amazing (and, in some ways, depressing) how prophetic his writing remains today. Despite his lack of a sensitivity to some later, crucial developments such as environmentalism and feminism, his work nevertheless resonates powerfully with my own views on why Christians should be get involved in leftist politics.

To give you a flavor of his writings, I'd like to give you some of my favorite quotations. I've tried to pare down the number (honest!) but there are still quite a few of them. Feel free to browse at your leisure, and perhaps this will give you a little window into my own way of thinking about faith and politics, with the help of a classic writer of an earlier age that was strikingly like our own.

After several chapters about the Gospels and the communal egalitarianism of the early Christian church, Rauschenbusch addresses modern society in Chapter 5, "The Present Crisis":
- “Approximate equality is the only enduring foundation of political democracy. The sense of equality is the only basis for Christian morality. Healthful human relations seem to run only on horizontal lines. Consequently true love always seeks to create a level.” (p. 247)
- “The social equality existing in our country in the past has been one of the chief charms of life here and of far more practical importance to our democracy than the universal ballot. After a long period of study abroad in my youth I realized on my return to America that life here was far poorer in music, art, and many forms of enjoyment than life on the continent of Europe; but that life tasted better here, nevertheless, because men met one another more simply, frankly, and wholesomely. In Europe a man is always considering just how much deference he must show to those in ranks above him, and in turn noting jealously if those below him are strewing the right quantity of incense due to his own social position. That fundamental democracy of social intercourse, which is one of the richest endowments of our American life, is slipping from us. Actual inequality endangers the sense of equality.” (pp. 248-249)
- “We hear passionate protests against the use of the hateful word ‘class’ in America. There are no classes in our country, we are told. But the hateful part is not the word, but the thing. If class distinctions are growing up here, he serves his country ill who would hush up the fact or blind the people to it by fine phrases.” (p. 250)
- “Any shifting of the economic equilibrium from one class to another is sure to be followed by a shifting of the political equilibrium. If a class arrives at economic wealth, it will gain political influence and some form of representation.” (p. 253)
- “The power of capitalism over the machinery of our government, and its corroding influence on the morality of our public servants, has been revealed within recent years to such an extent that it is almost superfluous to speak of it.” (p. 254)
- “Our moral character is wrought out by choosing the right when we are offered the wrong. It is neither possible nor desirable to create a condition in which the human soul will not have to struggle with temptation. But there are conditions in which evil is so dominant and its attraction so deadly and irresistible, that no wise man will want to expose himself or his children to such odds. ... We cannot conceal from ourselves that in some directions the temptations of modern life are so virulent that characters and reputations are collapsing all about us with sickening frequency. The prevalence of fraud and the subtler kinds of dishonesty for which we have invented the new term ‘graft,’ is a sinister fact of the gravest import. It is not merely the weak who fall, but the strong. Clean, kindly, religious men stoop to methods so tricky, hard, and rapacious, that we stand aghast whenever the curtain is drawn aside and we are shown the inside facts. Every business man who has any finer moral discernment will realize that he himself is constantly driven by the pressure of business necessity into actions of which he is ashamed.” (p. 264)
- “Competitive commerce exalts selfishness to the dignity of a moral principle. It pits men against one another in a gladiatorial game in which there is no mercy and in which ninety per cent of the combatants finally strew the arena.” (p. 265)

And, just a few quotations from Chapter 6, "The Stake of the Church in the Social Movement," in which Rauschenbusch discusses (among other things) the opposition between Christianity and commerce:
- “The law of Christ, wherever it finds expression, reverses the law of trade. It bids us demand little for ourselves and give much service.” (p. 311)
- “Common work for social welfare is the best common ground for the various religious bodies and the best training school for practical Christian unity.” (p. 340)
- “As we have seen, the industrial and commercial life to-day is dominated by principles antagonistic to the fundamental principles of Christianity, and it is so difficult to live a Christian life in the midst of it that few men even try.” (pp. 340-341)
- “If society continues to distintegrate and decay, the Church will be carried down with it. If the Church can rally such moral forces that injustice will be overcome and fresh red blood will course in a sounder social organism, it will itself rise to higher liberty and life.” (p. 341)
- “The Church must either condemn the world and seek to change it, or tolerate the world and conform to it.” (p. 342)

Finally, in Chapter 7, "What to Do," Rauschenbusch makes it clear that he does not seek to have the Church control the social movement, and follows up with some powerful words about the greatest evils of modern society--militarism/war and materialism/greed:
- “The social movement could have no more powerful ally than religious enthusiasm; it could have no more dangerous ally than ecclesiasticism. If the Church truly desires to save the social life of the people, it must be content with inspiring the social movement with religious faith and daring, and it must not attempt to control and monopolize it for its own organization.” (p. 348)
- “Social religion, too [like personal religion], demands repentance and faith: repentance for our social sins; faith in the possibility of a new social order. As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin.” (p. 349)
- “No man can help the people until he is himself free from the spell which the present order has cast over our moral judgment. We have repeatedly pointed out that every social institution weaves a protecting integument of glossy idealization about itself like a colony of tent-caterpillars in an apple tree. For instance, wherever militarism rules, war is idealized by monuments and paintings, poetry and song. The stench of the hospitals and the maggots of the battle-field are passed in silence, and the imagination of the people is filled with waving plumes and the shout of charging columns. ... If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake of its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat--then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.” (pp. 349-350)
- “In the same way we shall have to see through the fictions of capitalism. We are assured that the poor are poor through their own fault; that rent and profits are the just dues of foresight and ability; that the immigrants are the cause of corruption in our city politics; that we cannot compete with foreign countries unless our working class will descend to the wages paid abroad. These are all very plausible assertions, but they are lies dressed up in truth. There is a great deal of conscious lying. Industrialism as a whole sends out deceptive prospectuses just like single corporations within it. But in the main these misleading theories are the complacent self-deception of those who profit by present conditions and are loath to believe that their life is working harm.” (pp. 350-351)
- “The spiritual force of Christianity should be turned against the materialism and mammonism of our industrial and social order.” (p. 369)