The Gospel And Society

From “Essays on the Social Gospel”
by Adolf von Harnack, 1851-1930

The same Gospel which preaches a holy indifference to earthly things embraces yet another principle: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

This spirit of love likewise is to be a guiding rule of the character built up by the Gospel. Accordingly, Christianity originally took the form of a free brotherhood, a form essential to its very nature, for, after trust in God, the very essence of religion is brotherly love. In addition, then, to the quietistic and radical principles, we have a third, the social, active principle. I give it this name of a social, active principle because the Gospel nowhere teaches that our relations to the brethren should be characterised by a holy indifference. Such indifference expresses rather what the individual soul should feel towards the world with all its weal and woe. Whenever it is a question of one’s neighbour, the Gospel will not hear of this indifference, but, on the contrary, preaches always love and mercy. Further, the Gospel regards as absolutely inseparable the temporal and spiritual needs of the brethren. It draws no fine distinctions between body and soul; sickness is always sickness, and want is want.

Thus, “I was hungry and you gave me meat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

Again, when it is a question of giving signs to prove that the promises of God have now been fulfilled, it is said, “The blind see, the lame walk and to the poor, the Gospel is preached.”

In the “Gospel of the Hebrews” we read in the story of the rich young man: “Behold many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad with dung, dying with hunger and your house is full of much goods, and there goes out from there nothing at all to them.”

Thus in the simplest and most emphatic terms possible, Christians are urged to help the needy and the miserable with all the strength of love. But it is to the rich that the most earnest exhortation is addressed. While it is assumed that wealth tends to make its possessors hard-hearted and worldly, they are warned that their perilous possessions impose upon them the highest responsibility.

A new spectacle was presented to the world. Religion hitherto had either clung to what was earthly, adapting itself readily to things as it found them, or else built in the clouds and set itself up in opposition to everything. But now it had a new duty to scorn earthly want and misery, and earthly prosperity alike, and yet to relieve distress of every kind, to raise its head to heaven in the courage of its faith, and yet with heart and hand and voice to labour for the brethren upon earth. The task thus set them has never been wholly abandoned by Christians, who consequently, have held fast the conviction that no economic system can oppose to the mission of Christianity a really insuperable obstacle, while, on the other hand, no economic system can ever release it from its duties.

The Church has from the first availed itself of three means of helping the brethren and relieving misery and want and the same three methods are still at its command.

The first of these consists of rousing the individual conscience, in such a way as to awaken strong, regenerate, self-sacrificing personalities. This is the all-important thing; but the means to such an end vary; as the Lord’s method of teaching shows. It may either begin within and work outwards or it may penetrate from without to the inmost being. But the vital point is that there should be a Christ-like personality and that in every action the power of love from one person to another should operate and make itself felt. The kingdom of God must be built upon the foundation, not of institutions, but of individuals in whom God dwells and who are glad to live for their fellow humans.

The second method consists in converting every congregation of individuals into a community full of active charity and bound together by brotherly love; for without such a bond all effort is sporadic. This fellowship was strongest in the early days of the Church and the consciousness that Christianity cannot exist upon the earth in any other form never altogether passed away, although it became enfeebled.

Then there is still the third line of action. Religion is not independent in its growth even if it takes refuge in solitude, it must enter into some relation with the arrangements of the world as it finds them and it cannot regard with indifference the nature of these ordinances. It was, indeed, at a time when extortion and violence were common and slavery and tyrannical oppression prevailed, that the Apostles instructed the faithful to “take no anxious thought.” But at the same time, they at once began to exert their influence against so much of the existing order of things as was in fact disorder and sin. Christians were urged so to walk that their example should both make others ashamed and incite them to imitation. Only a few decades later, representatives of Christianity were presenting petitions to the emperors and the governors of provinces and addressing written appeals to society, demanding the abolition of gross and flagrant abuses and outrages. But, as far as I can see, the limit of their interference was clearly defined. It did not occur to them to propose economic improvements or to attack fixed institutions. such as slavery. What they demanded was the suppression of such sin and shame as could not but be recognised as sins and scandals even by a Greek or Roman conscience. They were convinced that the divine image in man cannot be destroyed by oppression and suffering of any kind (never was there an age of less sentimentality with regard to want and misery than the early days of Christianity) but that it is effaced by uncleanness and sensuality and that, therefore, conditions which plainly tended in that direction, for example, a tolerated and privileged unchastity, secret murder, exposing of children, and wholesale prostitution, are altogether intolerable.


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