Disinterest in personal redemption and in private morality go hand in hand
The Gospel of Jesus Christ in its entirety, including the full spectrum of Christian morality, is the only hope for the world. But this is not what some clergymen are preaching. In many church circles morality is being ignored or fragmented, and social service is replacing the Gospel. Some churchmen are presenting as alternatives things between which there really is no choice. They distinguish between public and private morality, emphasizing the former while considering private morality unimportant and even superfluous. Others go further and demand no choice where a moral choice is imperative. The Master of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, had such persons in mind when he condemned the attitude of men who not only note that immorality is prevalent but also say that it is right.
The false alternatives of public and private morality are evident in a statement issued by Dr. John C. Bennett and other distinguished church leaders during the last Presidential election campaign. It is true that the primary purpose of the document was political. But now that its political implications have been swept away, the statement leaves us heir to some strange ethical conclusions. Dr. Bennett and his colleagues complained that during the campaign emphasis was placed on “a few episodes involving personal morality,” and that this emphasis was obscuring “the fateful moral issues related to public life” (the italics are mine). It is clear from the campaign issues that by “episodes involving personal morality” the churchmen meant the Billy Sol Estes and Bobby Baker cases and the moral tragedy of homosexuality in the life of an important official. And by “the fateful moral issues related to public life” they meant civil rights, poverty, and nuclear war.
According to the statement, private morality in this context is a “distortion of morality”; but public morality is “fateful” and has great “implications.” Thus, public and private morality are considered to be separate; indeed, the implication seems to be that the two are at war. What the statement seems to say is: The public moral attitudes of private persons toward race, poverty, and war are important; but the private morality of public figures is not important—or at least none of our business.
The alternatives presented in this way are utterly false. The truth is that the fateful issues of the day will never be resolved by men of careless personal morality. Morality offers no choices marked “private” and “public.” It is not a question of either/or; it is vitally a question of both/and.
The confusion is compounded by the Reverend Howard Moody, whose article, “Toward a New Definition of Obscenity,” gains significance from its publication in Christianity and Crisis, a journal edited by Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett. Mr. Moody says: “For Christians the truly obscene ought not to be slick-paper nudity, nor the vulgarities of dirty old or young literati, nor even ‘wierdo’ films showing transvestite orgies or male genitalia. What is obscene is that material, whether sexual or not, that has as its basic motivation and purpose the … dehumanizing of persons. The dirtiest word in the English language is … the word ‘NIGGER’ from the sneering lips of a Bull Connor.… A picture is notc dirty that shows a man and woman in … intercourse.… The dirty or obscene is the one that shows the police dogs being unleashed on the Negro demonstrators in Birmingham” (Christianity and Crisis, January 25, 1965, p. 286). From these premises Mr. Moody goes on to attack those who attempt to bring obscenity under control.
Quite apart from the questionable semantics that allows Moody to define the brutalities of racial prejudice as obscenity, it is clear that for him obscenity as such is unimportant and that to fight it somehow detracts from the effort to right the terrible injustices suffered by American Negroes. Perhaps it was this fragmented sense of morality that led to the presentation in his church of a dance program in which, according to the New York Times, a nude man and woman moved across the platform.
We should like to applaud Mr. Moody’s passion for social justice. But how can we, when he leads us into false alternatives that are wholly unacceptable? A social revolution that does not accept the full spectrum of Christian morality will only lead from one confusion to another. It offers no sure path to the promised land but takes us instead in the opposite direction.
Protest is a powerful weapon of change. But it is a negative weapon. The Church’s main task is to create new life, not just to protest the old. Exponents of the “new morality” doubly ignore this when they attempt to combine legitimate social protests with a contradictory tolerance of pre-marital sex and of pornography on stage and screen and in literature.
In 1941 the British statesman Lord Salisbury said: “More than death, wounds and destruction I dread the moral desert that lies ahead.… This war is going to destroy the moral sense of nations. Values that it has taken generations to establish will be smashed. I do not mean the political and economic changes that are bound to come. They may be good for us all. I cannot say. But the smashing of absolute standards of morality that you and I believe in, the denial of truths of the spirit, the elevation of man’s mind and body in place of God—these are things out of which nothing but darkness and decay can come, and these are the things that I see before us” (quoted in Britain and the Beast, by Peter Howard).
It may be helpful to speculate on what lies behind the tendency of some in the Church to depreciate standards of personal morality. May it not mean that the Church is infected by the skepticism of our age? May not the difficulties of attaining personal moral standards breed doubt about the efficacy of grace? This is particularly true in relation to sex. If I will not live purely, I am led to rationalize impurity and to use my brain to kill my conscience. Finally, as a frustrated idealist, I turn from the proposition that I can live by grace to a program of social service that does not need grace. Instead of bringing the full power of the Gospel of Christ to bear upon the problems of society, I indulge in some more “up-to-date” expression of self-effort.
Thus, the real danger in the separation of private and public morality is that we may lose sight of a vital purpose of the Church. For the Church must create a new type of society emerging from a new type of man. This does not mean that the problems of race, color, poverty, and war must not be tackled vigorously and head on. It does mean, however, that such effort must never become a substitute for bringing men to that rebirth which puzzled Nicodemus and every pragmatist who followed him. This world needs what St. Paul spoke of, “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” This new creation inevitably includes the fulfillment of personal morality. If we do not comprehend this, there is a very real possibility that the Church will become nothing more than a glorified social service agency.
Without some character-creating power at work in men, society may well become prey to a pervading legalism backed by physical force. For example, racial integration depends for its true success on men’s freely choosing to associate with one another. Without the creation of new motivation in individuals, it will be left to the state to originate and enforce each social development.
This is evident in President Johnson’s Great Society program. The Civil Rights Law of 1964 had been in effect less than a year when Congress had to enact new legislation to enforce the right of Negroes to vote. No one can complain if the state, in the absence of an unselfish spirit of responsibility and a virile sense of social justice on the part of its citizens, adopts laws that reflect Christian principles. To do so is its right and duty. But this does not alter the fact that the state is thus compelled to intrude into what should be areas of free and private choice. It is never a healthy thing when the state has to enforce what should be a Christian action springing from personal attitudes of brotherhood and responsibility. At bottom, integration is a matter, not of color, but of character, and character is a concern of the Church. Yet intervention by the state becomes almost inevitable if the Church fails in its unique work of creating under God the distinctive type of man who is called a Christian.
We have a threefold choice in this matter: a chaotic conflict between black and white, a pervading legalism enforced by the state, or the creation of a new type of man whose inner qualities cause him to do what he should. We are reminded of William Penn’s statement: “Men must choose to be governed by God or they condemn themselves to be ruled by tyrants.”
These are the areas in which the Church incurs the risk of running not only into theological and ethical inconsistencies but also into ideological ones. A basic tenet of Marxism is that human nature is incorrigible but by force can be made to conform to a new environment. Such a philosophy inevitably accompanies atheism, because apart from God human nature is indeed incorrigible, as Scripture so plainly teaches. And atheism makes materialism inevitable.
It would be tragically ironic if the Church, because of an unrecognized atheistic skepticism about God’s power to bring about full personal morality by transforming human nature and creating a new man, were to fall into the same ideological error as Communism and attempt to transform man by altering his environment.
If anyone is tempted to think the Communist way is best, let him ponder the decades of Communist experimentation in Russia. After nearly half a century of cataclysmic changing of the environment, the Soviet authorities are having to shoot robbers and rapists; their plans are frustrated by corruption, and they do not know how to control their youth. Admittedly, the West has much the same problems; but this does not make less significant the fact that Khrushchev, before his decline from power, was reported to be wondering how to produce a new type of man that could make his revolution succeed. And it is at least arguable that Communism may be reaching the end of a cycle and may be ripe for the Christian truth of personal redemption rejected at the beginning of the Marxist revolution.
If this is so, the Church may have its one chance to work for the conversion of Peking and Moscow. It would be tragic indeed if all we had to offer were the outmoded materialism that the Communist leaders may now be discarding as wrong and inadequate.
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