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CHRISTIANITY AND THE SOCIAL CRISIS
PROFESSOR OF CHURCH HISTORY IN ROCHESTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
LONDON: MACMILLAN & CO., Ltd.
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By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
THE WOMEN WHO HAVE LOVED ME
MY SISTERS FRIDA AND EMMA
MY DEAR WIFE PAULINE
MY LITTLE DAUGHTERS WINIFRED AND ELIZABETH
IS LOVINGLY INSCRIBED
THY KINGDOM COME!
THY WILL BE DONE ON EARTH!
Hope. Inspiration. Trust.
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I. The Historical Roots of Christianity: The Hebrew Prophets
II. The Social Aims of Jesus
III. The Social Impetus Of Primitive Christianity
IV. Why Has Christianity Never Undertaken the Work of Social Reconstruction?
V. The Present Crisis
VI. The Stake of the Church in the Social Movement
VII. What To Do
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More From Walter Rauschenbusch
DETAILED TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Historical Roots of Christianity: The Hebrew Prophets
Historical importance of the prophets. Their religion ethical and therefore social. Their morality public and not private. Their sympathy with the oppressed. The effect of their social interest on their religious development. Later religious individualism a triumph of faith, but not pure gain. The prophetic hope of social perfection. The “pessimism” of the prophets. Summary
The Social Aims of Jesus
The new social interpretation of the gospel. Jesus not a social reformer, but a religious initiator. Significance of his relations to John the Baptist. The kingdom of God his aim, its previous meaning, his changes in the ideal, the persistence of its social essence. The ethics of the new society. Christ’s indifference to ritual and his insistence on social morality. His teachings on wealth. His social affinities. His revolutionary consciousness
The Social Impetus of Primitive Christianity
The probability of a gap between Jesus and his followers. The limitations of our information. The hope of the coming of the Lord. The revolutionary character of the millennial hope. The political consciousness of Christians. The society-making force of primitive Christianity. The so-called communism at Jerusalem. The primitive churches as fraternal communities. The leaven of Christian democracy. The outcome of the discussion
Why has Christianity never Undertaken the Work of Social Reconstruction?
The problem stated. Impossibility of any social propaganda in the first centuries. Postponement to the Lord’s coming. Hostility to the Empire and its civilization. The limitations of primitive Christianity and their perpetuation. The other-worldliness of Christianity. The ascetic tendency. Monasticism. Sacramentalism. The dogmatic interest. The churchliness of Christianity. Subservience to the State. The disappearance of church democracy. The lack of scientific comprehension of social development. Results of the discussion. The passing of these causes in modern life. Conclusion
The Present Crisis
A prelude. The industrial revolution. The land and the people. Work and wages. The morale of the workers. The physical decline of the people. The wedge of inequality. The crumbling of political democracy. The tainting of the moral atmosphere. The undermining of the family. The fall or the rise of Christian civilization
The Stake Of The Church In The Social Movement
The purpose of this chapter. The Church and its real estate. The Church and its income. The volunteer workers of the Church. The supply and spirit of the ministry. The Church and poverty. The Church and its human material. The hostile ethics of commercialism. Christian civilization and foreign missions. The Church and the working class. The forward call to the Church
What to Do
“No thoroughfare.” Social repentance and faith. Social evangelization. The pulpit and the social question. The Christian conception of life and property. The creation of customs and institutions. Stewardship and ownership. Solidarity and communism. The upward movement of the working class. Summary of the argument. The new apostolate
Western civilization is passing through a social revolution unparalleled in history for scope and power. Its coming was inevitable. The religious, political, and intellectual revolutions of the past five centuries, which together created the modern world, necessarily had to culminate in an economic and social revolution such as is now upon us.
By universal consent, this social crisis is the overshadowing problem of our generation. The industrial and commercial life of the advanced nations are in the throes of it. In politics all issues and methods are undergoing upheaval and re-alignment as the social movement advances. In the world of thought all the young and serious minds are absorbed in the solution of the social problems. Even literature and art point like compass-needles to this magnetic pole of all our thought.
The social revolution has been slow in reaching our country. We have been exempt, not because we had solved the problems, but because we had not yet confronted them. We have now arrived, and all the characteristic conditions of American life will henceforth combine to make the social struggle here more intense than anywhere else. The vastness and the free sweep of our concentrated wealth on the one side, the independence, intelligence, moral vigor, and political power of the common people on the other side, promise a long-drawn grapple of contesting forces which may well make the heart of every American patriot sink within him.
It is realized by friend and foe that religion can play, and must play, a momentous part in this irrepressible conflict.
The Church, the organized expression of the religious life of the past, is one of the most potent institutions and forces in Western civilization. Its favor and moral influence are wooed by all parties. It cannot help throwing its immense weight on one side or the other. If it tries not to act, it thereby acts; and in any case its choice will be decisive for its own future.
Apart from the organized Church, the religious spirit is a factor of incalculable power in the making of history. In the idealistic spirits that lead and in the masses that follow, the religious spirit always intensifies thought, enlarges hope, unfetters daring, evokes the willingness to sacrifice, and gives coherence in the fight. Under the warm breath of religious faith, all social institutions become plastic. The religious spirit removes mountains and tramples on impossibilities. Unless the economic and intellectual factors are strongly reenforced by religious enthusiasm, the whole social movement may prove abortive, and the New Era may die before it comes to birth.
It follows that the relation between Christianity and the social crisis is one of the most pressing questions for all intelligent men who realize the power of religion, and most of all for the religious leaders of the people who give direction to the forces of religion.
The question has, in fact, been discussed frequently and earnestly, but it is plain to any thoughtful observer that the common mind of the Christian Church in America has not begun to arrive at any solid convictions or any permanent basis of action. The conscience of Christendom is halting and groping, perplexed by contradicting voices, still poorly informed on essential questions, justly reluctant to part with the treasured maxims of the past, and yet conscious of the imperious call of the future.
This book is to serve as a contribution to this discussion. Its first chapters are historical, for nothing is more needed than a true comprehension of past history if we are to forecast the future correctly and act wisely in the present. I have tried to set forth the religious development of the prophets of Israel, the life and teachings of Jesus, and the dominant tendencies of primitive Christianity, in order to ascertain what was the original and fundamental purpose of the great Christian movement in history. Every discussion of the question which appeals to history has to cover this ground, but usually only detached fragments of the material are handled at all, and often without insight adequate to give their true meaning even to these fragments. I am in hopes that these chapters will contribute some facts and points of view that have not yet become common property.
The outcome of these first historical chapters is that the essential purpose of Christianity was to transform human society into the kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconstituting them in accordance with the will of God. The fourth chapter raises the question why the Christian Church has never undertaken to carry out this fundamental purpose of its existence. I have never met with any previous attempt to give a satisfactory historical explanation of this failure, and I regard this chapter as one of the most important in the book.
The fifth chapter sets forth the conditions which constitute the present social crisis and which imperatively demand of Christianity that contribution of moral and religious power which it was destined to furnish.
The sixth chapter points out that the Church, as such, has a stake in the social movement. The Church owns property, needs income, employs men, works on human material, and banks on its moral prestige. Its present efficiency and future standing are bound up for weal or woe with the social welfare of the people and with the outcome of the present struggle.
The last chapter suggests what contributions Christianity can make and in what main directions the religious spirit should exert its force.
In covering so vast a field of history and in touching on such a multitude of questions, error and incompleteness are certain, and the writer can claim only that he has tried to do honest work. Moreover, it is impossible to handle questions so vital to the economic, the social, and the moral standing of great and antagonistic classes of men, without jarring precious interests and convictions, and without giving men the choice between the bitterness of social repentance and the bitterness of moral resentment. I can frankly affirm that I have written with malice toward none and with charity for all. Even where I judge men to have done wrong, I find it easy to sympathize with them in the temptations which made the wrong almost inevitable, and in the points of view in which they intrench themselves to save their self-respect. I have tried—so far as erring human judgment permits—to lift the issues out of the plane of personal selfishness and hate, and to put them where the white light of the just and pitying spirit of Jesus can play upon them. If I have failed in that effort, it is my sin. If others in reading fail to respond in the same spirit, it is their sin. In a few years all our restless and angry hearts will be quiet in death, but those who come after us will live in the world which our sins have blighted or which our love of right has redeemed. Let us do our thinking on these great questions, not with our eyes fixed on our bank account, but with a wise outlook on the fields of the future and with the consciousness that the spirit of the Eternal is seeking to distil from our lives some essence of righteousness before they pass away.
I have written this book to discharge a debt. For eleven years I was pastor among the working people on the West Side of New York City. I shared their life as well as I then knew, and used up the early strength of my life in their service. In recent years my work has been turned into other channels, but I have never ceased to feel that I owe help to the plain people who were my friends. If this book in some far-off way helps to ease the pressure that bears them down and increases the forces that bear them up, I shall meet the Master of my life with better confidence.
CHRISTIANITY AND THE SOCIAL CRISIS
It seems a long start to approach the most modern problems by talking of men who lived before Lycurgus and Solon gave laws to Sparta and Athens. What light can we get on the troubles of the great capitalistic republic of the West from men who tended sheep in Judea or meddled in the petty politics of the Semitic tribes?
History is never antiquated, because humanity is always fundamentally the same. It is always hungry for bread, sweaty with labor, struggling to wrest from nature and hostile men enough to feed its children. The welfare of the mass is always at odds with the selfish force of the strong. The exodus of the Roman plebeians and the Pennsylvania coal strike, the agrarian agitation of the Gracchi and the rising of the Russian peasants,—it is all the same tragic human life. And in all history it would be hard to find any chapter so profoundly instructive, and dignified by such sublime passion and ability, as that in which the prophets took the leading part.
Moreover, the life and thought of the Old Testament prophets are more to us than classical illustrations and sidelights. They are an integral part of the thought-life of Christianity. From the beginning the Christian Church appropriated the Bible of Israel as its own book and thereby made the history of Israel part of the history of Christendom. That history lives in the heart of the Christian nations with a very real spiritual force. The average American knows more about David than about King Arthur, and more about the exodus from Egypt than about the emigration of the Puritans. Throughout the Christian centuries the historical material embodied in the Old Testament has been regarded as not merely instructive, but as authoritative. The social ideas drawn from it have been powerful factors in all attempts of Christianity to influence social and political life. In so far as men have attempted to use the Old Testament as a code of model laws and institutions and have applied these to modern conditions, regardless of the historical connections, these attempts have left a trail of blunder and disaster. In so far as they have caught the spirit that burned in the hearts of the prophets and breathed in gentle humanity through the Mosaic Law, the influence of the Old Testament has been one of the great permanent forces making for democracy and social justice. However our views of the Bible may change, every religious man will continue to recognize that to the elect minds of the Jewish people God gave so vivid a consciousness of the divine will that, in its main tendencies at least, their life and thought carries a permanent authority for all who wish to know the higher right of God. Their writings are like channel-buoys anchored by God, and we shall do well to heed them now that the roar of an angry surf is in our ears.
We shall confine this brief study of the Old Testament to the prophets, because they are the beating heart of the Old Testament. Modern study has shown that they were the real makers of the unique religious life of Israel. If all that proceeded from them, directly or indirectly, were eliminated from the Old Testament, there would be little left to appeal to the moral and religious judgment of the modern world. Moreover, a comprehension of the essential purpose and spirit of the prophets is necessary for a comprehension of the purpose and spirit of Jesus and of genuine Christianity. In Jesus and the primitive Church the prophetic spirit rose from the dead. To the ceremonial aspects of Jewish religion Jesus was either indifferent or hostile; the thought of the prophets was the spiritual food that he assimilated in his own process of growth. With them he linked his points of view, the convictions which he regarded as axiomatic. Their spirit was to him what the soil and climate of a country are to its flora. The real meaning of his life and the real direction of his purposes can be understood only in that historical connection.
Thus a study of the prophets is not only an interesting part in the history of social movements but it is indispensable for any full comprehension of the social influence exerted by historical Christianity, and for any true comprehension of the mind of Jesus Christ.
For the purposes of this book it is not necessary to follow the work of the prophets in their historical sequence. We shall simply try to lay bare those large and permanent characteristics which are common to that remarkable series of men and which bear on the question in hand.
Religion ethical and therefore social
The fundamental conviction of the prophets, which distinguished them from the ordinary religious life of their day, was the conviction that God demands righteousness and demands nothing but righteousness.
Primitive religions consisted mainly in the worship of the powers of nature. Each tribe worshipped its local tribal god, who dwelt in some gloomy ravine or on some mountaintop and sent rain and fertility to his people when he was pleased, or drought and pestilence on crops and herds when he was offended. Like every other despot, the god must be kept in good humor by valuable gifts and prayers, offered in the right places, in the right manner, and by the duly qualified persons. If the sacrifices were neglected, the god was sure to be angry and then had to be propitiated by redoubled offerings, incantations, and dances. There was always some connection between religion and morality. It was always understood that the tribal god had instituted the tribal customs and was displeased with any violation of them. But the essential thing in religion was not morality, but the ceremonial method of placating the god, securing his gifts, and ascertaining his wishes. He might even be pleased best by immoral actions, by the immolation of human victims, by the sacrifice of woman’s chastity, or by the burning of the first-born.
In the primitive life of the Israelitish tribes the religion of the common folk was probably much of this kind. Jehovah was the tribal god of Israel. Fortunately he was stronger and more terrible than the gods of the neighboring tribes, so that he was able to drive them out and give their land to his own people, but he was not fundamentally different from them and they were believed to be quite as real as Jehovah. There were certain forms of moral evil which he hated and certain social duties which he loved and blessed, but the surest way of remaining in his favor was to sacrifice duly and plentifully. If a man had offended against his fellow or his tribe, Jehovah would forgive when the rich smell of burnt meat filled his nostrils.
Against this current conception of religion the prophets insisted on a right life as the true worship of God. Morality to them was not merely a prerequisite of effective ceremonial worship. They brushed sacrificial ritual aside altogether as trifling compared with righteousness, nay, as a harmful substitute and a hindrance for ethical religion. “I desire goodness and not sacrifice,” said Hosea, and Jesus was fond of quoting the words. The Book of Isaiah begins with a description of the disasters which had overtaken the nation, and then in impassioned words the prophet spurns the means taken to appease Jehovah’s anger. He said the herds of beasts trampling his temple-court, the burning fat, the reek of blood, the clouds of incense, were a weariness and an abomination to the God whom they were meant to please. Their festivals and solemn meetings, their prayers and prostrations, were iniquity from which he averted his face. What he wanted was a right life and the righting of social wrongs: “Your hands are full of blood. Wash you! Make you clean! Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes! Cease to do evil! Learn to do right! Seek justice! Relieve the oppressed! Secure justice for the orphaned and plead for the widow.”
Perhaps the simplest and most beautiful expression of that reformatory conception of true religion is contained in the words of Micah: “Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Amos and Jeremiah even tried to cut away the foundation of antiquity on which the sacrificial system rested, by denying that God had commanded sacrifices at all when he constituted the nation after the exodus from Egypt. Obedience was all that he had required.
This insistence on religious morality as the only thing God cares about is of fundamental importance for the question before us. The social problems are moral problems on a large scale. Religion is a tremendous generator of self-sacrificing action. Under its impulse men have burned up the animals they had laboriously raised; they have sacrificed their first-born whom they loved and prized; they have tapped their own veins and died with a shout of triumph. But this unparalleled force has been largely diverted to ceremonial actions which wasted property and labor, and were either useless to social health or injurious to it. In so far as men believed that the traditional ceremonial was what God wanted of them, they would be indifferent to the reformation of social ethics. If the hydraulic force of religion could be turned toward conduct, there is nothing which it could not accomplish.
This is still a living question. Under the influence of non-Christian customs and conceptions Christianity early developed its own ceremonial system. It is, of course, far more refined. Our places of worship have no stench of blood and entrails; our priests are not expert butchers. But the immense majority of people in Christendom have holy places, where they recite a sacred ritual and go through sacred motions. They receive holy food and submit to washings that cleanse from sin. They have a priesthood with magic powers which offers a bloodless sacrifice. This Christian ritual grew up, not as the appropriate and æsthetic expression of spiritual emotions, but as the indispensable means of pleasing and appeasing God, and of securing his favors, temporal and eternal, for those who put their heart into these processes. This Christian ceremonial system does not differ essentially from that against which the prophets protested; with a few verbal changes their invectives would still apply. But the point that here concerns us is that a very large part of the fervor of willing devotion which religion always generates in human hearts has spent itself on these religious acts. The force that would have been competent to “seek justice and relieve the oppressed” has been consumed in weaving the tinsel fringes for the garment of religion.
The prophets were the heralds of the fundamental truth that religion and ethics are inseparable, and that ethical conduct is the supreme and sufficient religious act. If that principle had been fully adopted in our religious life, it would have turned the full force of the religious impulse into the creation of right moral conduct and would have made the unchecked growth and accumulation of injustice impossible. This assertion can be verified by history. The Calvinistic Reformation stripped off a large part of the traditional ceremonial of the Church and it turned religious energy into political and intellectual channels. As a consequence the Calvinistic peoples at once leaped forward in the direction of democracy and education, and received such an increment of social efficiency that in spite of terrible handicaps they outstripped the stronger nations which failed to make this fuller connection between religion and social morality.
Public and not private morality
It is important to note, further, that the morality which the prophets had in mind in their strenuous insistence on righteousness was not merely the private morality of the home, but the public morality on which national life is founded. They said less about the pure heart for the individual than of just institutions for the nation. We are accustomed to connect piety with the thought of private virtues; the pious man is the quiet, temperate, sober, kindly man. The evils against which we contend in the churches are intemperance, unchastity, the sins of the tongue. The twin-evil against which the prophets launched the condemnation of Jehovah was injustice and oppression.
The religious ideal of Israel was the theocracy. But the theocracy meant the complete penetration of the national life by religious morality. It meant politics in the name of God. That line by which we have tacitly separated the domain of public affairs and the domain of Christian life was unknown to them.
The prophets were not religious individualists. During the classical times of prophetism they always dealt with Israel and Judah as organic totalities. They conceived of their people as a gigantic personality which sinned as one and ought to repent as one. When they speak of their nation as a virgin, as a city, as a vine, they are attempting by these figures of speech to express this organic and corporate social life. In this respect they anticipated a modern conception which now underlies our scientific comprehension of social development and on which modern historical studies are based. We shall see that it was only when the national life of Israel was crushed by foreign invaders that the prophets began to address themselves to the individual life and lost the large horizon of public life.
The prophets were public men and their interest was in public affairs. Some of them were statesmen of the highest type. All of them interpreted past history, shaped present history, and foretold future history on the basis of the conviction that God rules with righteousness in the affairs of nations, and that only what is just, and not what is expedient and profitable, shall endure. Samuel was the creator of two dynasties. Nathan and Gad were the political advisers of David. Nathan determined the succession of Solomon. The seed of revolutionary aspirations against the dynasty of David was dropped into the heart of Jeroboam by the prophet Ahijah of Shiloh. Some of the prophets would get short shrift in a European State as religious demagogues. The overthrow of the dynasty of Omri in the Northern Kingdom was the result of a conspiracy between the prophetic party under Elisha and General Jehu, and resulted in a massacre so fearful that it staggered even the Oriental political conscience. On the other hand the insight of Isaiah into the international situation of his day saved his people for a long time from being embroiled in the destructive upheavals that buried other peoples, and gave it thirty years of peace amid almost universal war. The sufferings of Jeremiah came upon him chiefly because he took the unpopular side in national politics. If he and others had confined themselves to “religion,” they could have said what they liked.
Our modern religious horizon and our conception of the character of a religious leader and teacher are so different that it is not easy to understand men who saw the province of religion chiefly in the broad reaches of civic affairs and international relations. Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic views of an organic national life and of national sin and salvation. We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals and this difference in the fundamental point of view distorts the utterances of the prophets as soon as we handle them. For instance, one of our most beautiful revival texts is the invitation: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” The words are part of the first chapter of Isaiah, to which reference has been made. The prophet throughout the chapter deals with the national condition of the kingdom of Judah and its capital. He describes its devastation; he ridicules the attempts to appease the national God by redoubled sacrifices; he urges instead the abolition of social oppression and injustice as the only way of regaining God’s favor for the nation. If they would vindicate the cause of the helpless and oppressed, then he would freely pardon; then their scarlet and crimson guilt would be washed away. The familiar text is followed by the very material promise of economic prosperity, and the threat of continued war: “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword.” Of course the text is nobly true when it is made to express God’s willingness to pardon the repentant individual, but that was not the thought in the mind of the writer. He offered a new start to his nation on condition that it righted social wrongs. We offer free pardon to individuals and rarely mention social wrongs.
We have seen that the prophets demanded right moral conduct as the sole test and fruit of religion, and that the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation. This they preached, and they backed their preaching by active participation in public action and discussion.
The champions of the poor
We advance another step in our study when we emphasize that the sympathy of the prophets, even of the most aristocratic among them, was entirely on the side of the poorer classes. Professor Kautzsch says: “Since Amos it was the alpha and omega of prophetic preaching to insist on right and justice, to warn against the oppression of the poor and helpless.” The edge of their invectives was turned against the land-hunger of the landed aristocracy who “joined house to house and laid field to field,” till a country of sturdy peasants was turned into a series of great estates; against the capitalistic ruthlessness that “sold the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes,” thrusting the poor free-man into slavery to collect a trifling debt; against the venality of the judges who took bribes and had a double standard of law for the rich and the poor. This dominant trait of their moral feeling reacted on their theology, so that it became one of the fundamental attributes of their God that he was the husband of the widow, the father of the orphan, and the protector of the stranger. The widows and the fatherless were those who had no concrete power to back their claims, no “influence,” no “financial interest,” no “pull” with the police judges and aldermen of that time. The “stranger” was the immigrant who had no part in the blood-kinship of the clan, and hence no share in the land and no voice in the common affairs of the village. His modern brother is the proletarian immigrant of our cities, who also has no share in the modern means of production and no political power to protect his interests. When the prophets conceived Jehovah as the special vindicator of these voiceless classes, it was another way of saying that it is the chief duty in religious morality to stand for the rights of the helpless.
A man’s sympathy is a more decisive fact in his activity than his judgment. One man to-day may disapprove of a given action of a railway or of a coal-combine, but his instinctive sympathy is always with “property” and “the vested interests.” Another man may lament and condemn a foolish strike or headlong violence, but he will dwell on the extenuating circumstances and hold to the fundamental justice of “the cause of labor.” This division of sympathy is now coming to be the real line of cleavage in our public affairs. There is no question on which side the sympathy of the prophets was enlisted. Their protest against injustice and oppression, to the neglect of all other social evils, is almost monotonous. To the more judicial and scientific temper of our day their invective would seem overdrawn and their sympathy would seem partisanship. In Jeremiah and in the prophetic psalms the poor as a class are made identical with the meek and godly, and “rich” and “wicked” are almost synonymous terms.
How did the championship of the oppressed come to be so essential a part of prophetic morality? It would be hard to find a parallel to it anywhere. What other nation has a library of classics in which the spokesmen of the common people have the dominant voice? If any one cares to assert that divine inspiration alone will account for the fact, I should have no quarrel with the assertion. If the people ever come to their own in days to come, it may be that this trait of the Old Testament will come to be a stronger proof of its inspiration than the arguments that have hitherto done duty in theology.
But there were good historical causes for the attitude of the prophets in contemporary social movements.
When the nomad tribes of Israel settled in Canaan and gradually became an agricultural people, they set out on their development toward civilization with ancient customs and rooted ideas that long protected primitive democracy and equality. Some tribes and clans claimed an aristocratic superiority of descent over others. Within the tribe there were elders and men of power to whom deference was due as a matter of course, but there was no hereditary social boundary line, no graded aristocracy or caste, no distinction between blue blood and red. The idea of a mésalliance, which plays so great a part in the social life of European nations and in the plots of their romantic literature, is wholly wanting in the Old Testament. When the Bible became the property of the common man in the age of the Reformation, the total absence of a feudal nobility in the divinely instituted social life of Israel struck the people as an astonishing fact. It contributed greatly to emancipate them from their feudal reverence and added force to the democratic movements of that revolutionary age. The impression of primitive democracy made by the Bible is expressed in the old saying on which John Ball preached to the English peasants in Wat Tyler’s rebellion:—
“When Adam dalf and Eve span,
Where was thanne a gentilman?”
The great Alexandrian Jew Philo expressed the same impression about the Law: “If there is any one in the world who is a praiser of equality, that man is Moses.” It was the decay of the primitive democracy, and the growth of luxury, tyranny, extortion, of court life and a feudal nobility, which Samuel wisely feared when the people demanded a king.
The ownership of the land is the fundamental economic fact in all communities. Unequal distribution of the land and an hereditary aristocracy have always been inseparable facts. Approximately equal distribution of the land is the necessary basis for political and social democracy. Like all primitive peoples, Israel set out with a large measure of communism in land. It was used in severalty, but owned by the clan. At the conquest it was distributed to the tribes and there were ancient customs to prevent its alienation from the tribe. The principle was recognized that every family should have a freehold in land.
In this absence of social caste and this fair distribution of the means of production, the early times of Israel were much like the early times in our own country. America too set out with an absence of hereditary aristocracy and with a fair distribution of the land among the farming population. Both the Jewish and the American people were thereby equipped with a kind of ingrained, constitutional taste for democracy which dies hard. In time Israel drifted away from this primitive fairness and simplicity, just as we are drifting away from it. A new civilization arose, based on commerce and mobile wealth. Capital controlled the food supply. Great landed estates displaced the peasantry. The poor man, without the natural footing on the land, was often pushed over the precipice of want by any special emergency of war, famine, or sickness, and was sold into slavery for debt. The cities grew in size and importance. Rich men built stone houses and summer villas, and feasted daily on meat and wine, which the poor man tasted perchance thrice a year at the great feasts. Wealthy women robed their persons with the wealth wrung from the poor. As everywhere, this condition, when once created, tended to perpetuate itself and to guard against any reversal. The rich controlled the administration of the law. Priests and magistrates shared in the thirst for the most attractive of all narcotics—wealth. The rich in their well-fed optimism were lifted out of the natural human sympathy with the poor.
This rapid increase in wealth, with the usual unequal distribution of it, set in during the forty years preceding Amos. The old democratic instinct of the people angrily resented this upstart tyranny. It is a popular fallacy that long-continued oppression and misery cause revolutionary impatience. On the contrary, it is while the bit is new in the mustang’s mouth that it rears and plunges. When a well-fed and independent people, with fresh memories of better days, are forced under the yoke, they are sure to protest. To the fellahin of Egypt poverty and exploitation seem as inevitable as the fall of night and the coming of death. In the United States the reaction against injustice is setting in swiftly and unanimously, though our working people are still in a condition that would seem paradise to the poor of other nations. So it was in Israel, and in that deeply religious age the protest was made in the name of God and by his spokesmen, the prophets. Amos, the first of the great social prophets, was a herdsman of Tekoa. He uttered the message of God, but he also expressed the feelings of the agrarian class to which he belonged. Abraham Lincoln in the contest against the slave-holding power, Henry George and Father McGlynn in their protest against the alienation of the land, revived the earlier democracy of the Declaration of Independence and taught once more that all men are created free and equal, and are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Similarly the championship of the poor by the prophets was not due to the inflow of novel social ideals, but to the survival of nobler conceptions to which they clung in the face of the distorted social conditions created by the new commercialism. They were the voice of an untainted popular conscience, made bold by religious faith.
We have an excellent illustration of this in the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab knew the tenacity with which the Israelite clung to his freehold, and the sanctity which attached to the ancestral inheritance, and hence, when Naboth refused to sell, the king could only fume helplessly at the failure of his pretty plans for a private park. His wife was from Tyre, where royal power was older and accustomed to move rough-shod over the fancied rights of the common herd. She sneered at his feeble grip and gave him a lesson in handling the judiciary. But the judicial murder of Naboth brought Elijah out to face the king, a grim incarnation of justice and of the divine rights of the people. Ahab had collided with the primitive land-system of Israel and the prophetic sense of justice, and it cost his dynasty the throne and Jezebel her life.
Another cause for the keen interest of the prophets in social justice deserves mention. The belief in a future life and future reward and punishment was almost absent in Hebrew religion. To live to an honored old age, to see his children and children’s children, to enjoy the fruit of his labor in peace under his own vine and fig-tree—that was all the heaven to which the pious Israelite looked forward. If social oppression robbed him of that, it robbed him of all. It even cheated him of his faith in the justice of God. On the supposition of a future life we can adjourn the manifest inequities of this life to the hereafter and trust that good and evil will yet be balanced justly when time and eternity are put together. In early Hebrew theology there were no such adjourned assizes for the individual. God must prove his justice here or never. If the wicked waxed fat and the pious were robbed with impunity, the moral order of the universe was under indictment. In Christianity, faith in the future life has to some extent subdued the demand for social justice, as we shall see later. The absence of this belief in Hebrew religion served to make the desire for earthly prosperity more direct and impatient, and belief in the divine justice lent religious sanction to the demand for economic justice.
The full strength of the humane social conceptions prevailing in Israel can be gauged only if we draw the Law into our discussion. We do not turn away from the prophets when we turn to the Law. According to the old interpretation, the entire Law contained in the Pentateuch was given by Jehovah to Moses and thus from the birth of the nation formed the foundation on which its whole life rested. In that case the prophets drew their ideals from the Law and their preaching was but a summons to the people to obey it. According to the modern critical interpretation only a small part of the Law was of very ancient origin. The Book of Deuteronomy was the outgrowth of prophetic ideas and agitation in the seventh century before Christ. The other portions of the Law did not originate till the Exile or after it, when the life of Judah had been long and deeply saturated with the teaching of the prophets. Thus on the one hypothesis the Law created the prophets; on the other hypothesis the prophets created the Law. In either case the relation is very close and causal. For any thorough discussion of the social ideals embodied in the Law it would be necessary to decide between these two hypotheses. For our purpose it is sufficient to point out that the Law and the prophets are a deposit of the same strong current of historical life, related to each other as cause and effect.
The Law, of course, recognized such fundamental customs and institutions of primitive Oriental civilization as slavery, polygamy, and blood-revenge. In so far as it gives formal sanction to these institutions, it drops below the conceptions of human rights to which we have now attained. But its general drift and purpose, its regard for the rights of the poor, and its tenderness even for their finer feelings of self-respect are so noble and humane that one cannot study the social features of the Hebrew Law without a thrill of sympathy and admiration. By swift moral intuition, by the instinct of human fellow-feeling under the impulse of religious faith, regulations were conceived there which anticipated and outran the rudimentary protective legislation of our day. We shall glance at a few points only.
The land belonged to Jehovah, the national god. That is only another way of saying that it belonged to the community. It was not individual property, but clan and family property. There were various provisions to protect the right of the family to its ancestral holding and to prevent any permanent alienation. If land was sold under stress of need, it could be purchased back under favorable terms. In an agricultural community and before the introduction of machinery in farming the land is by far the most important means of production. It is one of the highest problems of statesmanship how to plant and root the people evenly and wisely in the land. If the land is owned by the men who till it, there is social health and strength. If it is owned by wealthy proprietors and tilled by landless agricultural laborers, a curse is on the people. All the provisions of the Hebrew Law were meant to counteract the separation of the people from the land. It sought to prevent the growth of great estates and a landed aristocracy on the one side, and the growth of a landless proletariat on the other side.
Every seven years the fields were to lie fallow (probably in rotation) and their untilled harvests were to belong to all alike, like the berries that grow along our country roadside or in our forests. Of course the poor were benefited most by such liberty to picnic. When the grain, the grapes, and the olives were harvested, the poor had the right to glean, and the owner was forbidden to be too careful in harvesting the corners or to go over the vines and trees a second time. A hungry man passing through the fields was always free to eat of grain or fruit. These provisions doubtless were based on ancient customs, which in turn were remnants of primitive communism in land, a lingering recognition that the entire community has rights in the land which limit those of the individual owner. This right of the hungry man to help himself was not like the coin flung to a beggar in pity. It was the claim to joint-ownership. It was his right. There is a fundamental moral distinction between the two things.
The laborer was to be paid at sundown. That recognizes the importance of prompt payment of wages, for which modern labor legislation has had to contend. The principle for which the Eight-hour Movement and the Early-closing Movement now agitate was embodied in the Sabbath law. The Decalogue emphatically throws the protection of that law over those whose labor-force was most in danger of being exploited, the slaves, the immigrant stranger, and the beasts of burden. It was quite within the bounds of human nature for the frugal farmer to send them to work, while he sent himself to rest; hence they are especially enumerated. The earliest form of the Sabbath law is the most purely humane in its wording: “that thine ox and thine ass, and the son of thy handmaid, and the sojourner may be refreshed.” In a non-capitalistic community loans would usually be asked only to relieve need and therefore no advantage was to be taken of a neighbor’s necessities by making his distress profitable. Interest was forbidden, so that debt could not breed more hopeless debt. This also counteracted the tendency to inequality in mobile capital. If an Israelite through debt or misfortune became slave to another, he was not a pariah, but was still to be treated as a member of the family, with a right to share in the family feasts. His servitude was not to become perpetual and when its term was over, he was to be loaded with gifts that he might have a start in shifting for himself. A fugitive slave was to be protected. Israel had no “Fugitive Slave Law.” There is no record of any slave riots or of any burning slave question in its history.
Thus the Law, like the preaching of the prophets, manifests a striking sympathy for the poorer classes and an unflagging respect for their equal humanity. The manhood of the poor was more sacred to it than the property of the rich. In this fundamental attitude the Hebrew Law differs widely from the Roman Law, which was formulated in a despotic State and amidst a flagrant monopoly of wealth, and is responsible for much of the excessive reverence for private property rights in our Western civilization.
Some of the laws were purely ideal conceptions. The Year of Jubilee provided for a universal shake-up and a new start all around every fifty years; it was to restore the slave to liberty and the peasant to his land, and lift to the saddle again those families that had been thrown by a stumble in some gopher-hole of misfortune. We know that this beautiful scheme remained a Utopia which even post-exilic zeal for the Law managed to disregard. Other laws were set aside by the ruthlessness of the strong. Only those were likely to be really effective which were firmly based on ancient custom. But in any case these were the ideals of social life that lived in the nobler hearts of Israel, and these ideals either created the prophetic convictions, or they were the product of the prophetic preaching.
We rightly hold that social ideals of such moral value could grow only out of a religious life of high value. But the reverse is also historically true: that the high religious life of Israel could develop only within a nation that cherished and maintained such social ideals.
We have seen that the religion of the prophets was not the quiet devoutness of private religion. They lived in the open air of national life. Every heart-beat of their nation was registered in the pulse-throb of the prophets. They made the history of their nation, but in turn the history of their nation made them. They looked open-eyed at the events about them and then turned to the inner voice of God to interpret what they saw. They went to school with a living God who was then at work in his world, and not with a God who had acted long ago and put it down in a book. They learned religion by the laboratory method of studying contemporary life. Consequently their conception of God and of God’s purposes was enlarged and clarified as their political horizon grew wider and clearer.
The first rise of widespread prophetism of which we have any record in Israel was historically connected with the raids and invasions of the Philistines (about 1020 b.c.). Against their united and disciplined forces the scattered tribes were helpless. The national calamity created a religious revival. We catch glimpses of bands of prophets moving about in rhythmical processions, with music and song, spreading a contagious religious ecstasy. In Samuel the popular emotion found a practical, statesmanlike expression. The result was the election of the first king, the most important step toward organized national unity. As in the case of the American colonies and of the German States, the pressure of a great war was the only force sufficient to crystallize the loose ingredients of Israel into a nation. But the same national crisis which created the kingship also inaugurated the higher career of the prophetic order. There had been prophets in Israel before; they were a religious phenomenon common to all the Semitic peoples. But they had been mainly soothsayers, using their clairvoyant powers for any one who needed them and paid them for their service. Their ecstatic raptures and their predictions had not been based on any fundamental moral convictions. The patriotic enthusiasm of the uprising against Philistine domination began to lift the prophets clear of the function and the magical implements of soothsaying, and cut them loose from ceremonial ritual in general. These functions now fell to the priests. This was “probably the very greatest relief which prophecy experienced in the course of its evolution.” Henceforth they were free to take that independent or hostile attitude to ritual religion to which we have referred, and their predictions henceforth were national in scope and based on fundamental moral laws and convictions. Thus patriotism was the emancipating power which set the feet of the prophetic order on that new and higher path which was destined to lift them far above the soothsayers of other nations with whom they started on a common level. That religious passion which had turned against a foreign invader was equally ready to turn against the domestic oppressors of the people.
The new series of prophets which began with Amos about 755 b.c. was summoned to action by a vaster danger than that of the Philistine invaders. The empire of Assyria was rising on the Eastern horizon like a cyclone-cloud. It moved down on the cluster of little kingdoms in Syria and Palestine with irresistible force. Assyria was the first of those great powers which were destined to grind up the tribal nationalities of the ancient Orient and out of the detritus to form new conglomerate formations on a grander scale. What Assyria began, Chaldea and the Greeks continued and the Romans completed. We can see now that the process was inevitable and necessary for the development of a wider and higher civilization, but for those who got between the millstones, it was terror and agony. Napoleon playing at nine-pins with the kingdoms of Europe, or the white race dividing the earth during the nineteenth century, are mild modern parallels.
Now, to all the nations their gods were fundamentally the national gods. Every tribe had its god and every god had his tribe. Each people relied on the national god to preserve the nation. If the nation suffered some temporary defeat and disaster, the people were either angry with their god because he was inefficient and idle, or they cringed before him because he was angry. But when a nation was annihilated, it meant the collapse of the national faith and religion. Such a nation would hear the scoff of its neighbors: “Where is now thy god?”
This catastrophe of despair and disillusionment which brought other national religions to the ground amid the wreck of the nations that held them, threatened Israel too. The prophets saved the faith of the people. They even taught the people to rise on the ruins of their national past to a higher faith. The religion of the prophets was not based on local shrines or sacrifices, but on moral law. They asserted that Jehovah is fundamentally a god of righteousness, and a god of Israel only in so far as Israel was a nation of righteousness. The popular feeling was that if the people stood by Jehovah, he was in duty bound to stand by them against all comers. They expected their god to act on the maxim: “My country, right or wrong.” The prophets denied it. They repudiated the idea of favoritism in the divine government. God moves on the plane of universal and impartial ethical law. Assyria belongs to him as well as Israel. He would live and be just even if Israel was broken. Israel was not a pet child that would escape the rod. Its prerogative was the revelation of God’s will and not any immunity from the penalties of the moral law. The relation of the nation to Jehovah was not a natural right and privilege, but rested on moral conditions.
Thus the same historical catastrophe which wrecked the faith of others lifted the prophets to a higher faith. Their religion became international in its horizon and more profoundly ethical. Had their piety previously been narrow in its outlook and ritual in its character, it would now have suffered shipwreck. The Assyrian riddle would have been insoluble. Because they were men of large interest, new occasions under the inspiration of God were able to teach them new duties and new truths. They added new terms to the synthesis of truth. Their new faith at first seemed to the people a blasphemous denial of religion. When the events which they had foretold were actually fulfilled, the prophetic books became the support and stay on which popular religion slowly climbed to new life.
We are often told that ministers who concern themselves in political and social questions are likely to lose their spiritual power and faith. Professor George Adam Smith, in discussing the development of prophetic religion, says on the contrary: “Confine religion to the personal, it grows rancid, morbid. Wed it to patriotism, it lives in the open air, and its blood is pure.” I do not think so sweeping a generalization about purely private religion is just. But those who hold that the flower of religion can be raised only in flowerpots will have to make their reckoning with the prophets of Israel. The very book on which they feed their private devotion and that entire religion out of which Christianity grew, took shape through a divine inspiration which found its fittest and highest organs in a series of political and social preachers. It is safe to say that the “ethical monotheism” which has been Israel’s invaluable contribution to the religious life of humanity, would never have developed and survived if the prophets had from the outset limited their religion in the way in which we are nowadays advised to limit it.
The later religious individualism
That virility and humaneness of the prophets and that capacity for growth which stir our enthusiasm were largely due to the breadth and inclusiveness of their religious sympathy and faith. All the world was God’s field; all the affairs of the nation were the affairs of religion. Every great event in history taught them a lesson in theology.
This type of religion was destroyed when the national life itself was destroyed by the foreign conquerors. The nation had been the subject of prophecy, and now the nation as such was blotted out. How could the prophets any longer appeal for national righteousness, when it was not at the option of the people to be righteous? Political agitation among a people under jealous foreign despotism would mean revolutionary agitation and would never be tolerated. Thus all the religious passion and reflection which had formerly flowed into social and political channels was dammed up and turned back. Prayer and private devoutness in pious individuals and in groups of pious men was the only field left to the religious impulse. The religious history and the ceremonial worship of Israel were the only bond of national unity that survived.
Jeremiah began the turn toward individual piety. The nation was breaking up about him. His prophetic activity had failed; the people refused to believe that his words were the word of Jehovah. But he heard the insistent inner voice of God, and the consciousness of this personal communion with Jehovah was his stay and comfort. Through his very failure and sufferings a tender personal relation developed between the soul of the prophet and his God. Other choice spirits were in the same situation. The influence of Jeremiah’s writings reproduced in others that personal piety which was the outcome of his peculiar experience. For religious experience has a remarkable capacity for perpetuating and reproducing its type; witness the Confessions of Saint Augustine and the mysticism of Saint Bernard. Jehovah had been the God of the nation, and the God of the individual in so far as he was part of the nation. Now the nation was gone, and the righteous and lowly in their suffering and isolation stretched the lonely hand of faith to him and found him near with a personal touch of love and comfort. Thus the death-pangs of the national life were the birth-pangs of the personal religious life.
This was a wonderful triumph of religion, an evidence of the indestructibility of the religious impulse. It was fraught with far-reaching importance for the future of religion and of humanity in general. The subtlest springs of human personality were liberated when the individual realized that he personally was dear to God and could work out his salvation not as a member of his nation, but as a man by virtue of his humanity.