O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up on a high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold, your God! — Isaiah 40. 9.
The Christian Social Conscience
The noblest aspects of contemporary life come into view when we begin to inspect the activities of the social conscience. The dream of society as an organism is possessing the minds of larger and larger numbers of men. Sometimes, to be sure, there is a touch of moral evasiveness about it. There are men not a few who are willing to escape the necessity of repenting of their own sins by fastening all their attention on the sins of society. But while this is true, it is also true that a rich and glorious passion for human betterment and for a hopeful and happy life for all men moves in the activity of the social conscience to-day. We must frankly admit, however, that the social idealist is feeling the strain and the stress of terrible difficulties. The last three years have worn threadbare many of his watchwords, and his somewhat innocent and unsophisticated confidence in the possibility of securing great social returns has met with shattering disillusionment. Some men who were prophets of a better day have sunk into misanthropy and gloom. They have ceased to believe that society is capable of becoming organic. In the presence of their terrible gloom has the Christian religion a heartening word to say? The reply is that this disillusionment with a social hope not based upon reconstructed personality is just what the Christian who understands the nature of man and the nature of religion would expect. From the beginning he has known that only as a brotherhood of personalities built into capacity for brotherhood by the Saviour of the world could men attain to anything like an ideal society. When a man who has only a social gospel becomes a cynic, at once the man who bases his social gospel upon the transforming work of Christ feels that he has an opportunity once more to secure a hearing. The contemporary cynicism is an attitude which has ignored the Christian diagnosis of the disease which afflicts humanity, and has refused to use the Christian remedy. The failure of other prescriptions never disconcerts the Christian.
Lynn Harold Hough, “THE RENAISSANCE OF RELIGION”, A LITTLE BOOK OF SERMONS BY LYNN HAROLD HOUGH
Hough wrote this in 1922. The “last three years” is a reference to the tragedies of World War One. Here he makes a critique of the social gospel, and I find it to be a very refreshing one. He is by no means saying that the dreams for a better society were a complete distraction from the business of the church, let alone that it were an actually nefarious exercise. I’m hearing these critiques all the time these days from Christians. Hough wants us to find social gospel that is the Christian one.
Hough is talking about burnout. Activists who, faced with little change to society, who actually turn to “misanthropy and gloom.” I’ve met such burned-out people, probably been one myself as my interest in social justice led to diminishing returns on investment. I do remember getting fed up with my co-laborers and wanting to retreat to write about ways to turn the bad activists into good activists. Hough says we should expect this kind of disillusionment! He says that it is right to look for a brotherhood of personalities. But it should be one based on the Saviour’s transforming work. The setting aside of fear and pride that comes with the gospel enables for working together in brotherhood, which may be close to this secular ideal as becoming pieces of one organism. Hough says that there is a persistence to the social gospel from a Christian perspective: there a refusal to lose hope from wrong remedies, and we are always hopeful for another opportunity to secure a hearing.
PRAYER: Dear Lord, Forgive our cynicism against those who genuinely hope “for human betterment and for a hopeful and happy life for all men”. We thank you that there are so many for whom the hymn’s prayer of “break my heart for what breaks Yours” is an achieved reality. Bind up these broken hearts, especially those who are disillusioned by the terrible difficulties around us. Let us not forget that You and the gospel are in fact the answers to the worldly woes. Let those who know you be leaders in efforts to improve society, yea, in compassionate addressing of the problems that the social gospel is worried about. Call to repentance those who are willing think there’s a dichotomy between necessity of repenting of individual sins and fastening attention on the sins of society. Let us find the language of showing how individual sins can lead to social problems. Give us the persistence in our social action that comes from the gospel. AMEN.