Chalcedon Position Paper No. 28, January 1982
The word society comes from socius, an associate. A society is a family group in some sense, a community of people who feel some kinship. Historically, the binding tie in a society is a common faith, and obedience to the law of that faith. All who deny that faith and law have been in the past called outlaws.
The locale of a society has historically been a city, not the city as a civil structure but the city as a faith center. In the ancient world, in the “middle ages,” in the Puritan village, and elsewhere, the center of the city has been the temple, cathedral, or church.
The city as the faith center for an area has thus also been the wealth center. A people’s life, wealth, and faith are closely linked. As our Lord says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). If a people’s treasure is their faith and in society of faith, then their hearts and their material wealth will be there also, in the same locale.
For ages, that center of faith, society, and wealth was also walled, to protect the concentration of treasures in the forms of faith, lives, society, and material wealth. The walled city was thus a symbol of a common faith and life, and also of security. (When the Huguenots lost their walled cities, it was the beginning of the end for them.) At the same time, the walled city became a target for every enemy, and every thief. The strength and wealth of the city attracted the attention of the lawless.
Faith, wealth, family, land, and the city have often been associated as means of strength and security. Thus, Proverbs 10:15 reads, “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty.” As R. N. Whybray, in The Book of Proverbs, noted, “wealth protects a man from misfortune just as a strongly fortified capital protects a king from his enemies.” On the other hand, Proverbs 18:10–11 tells us that there are two different ways to obtain security in life: to trust in God, or to trust in wealth. The separation of wealth from faith is the destruction of man and finally of wealth. The same is true of the walled city: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Apart from the Lord and faith in Him, the city can be a death trap, and so can the countryside, too.
A city gives men proximity one to another, but without the moral bond of a common faith, the city and its government become aliens and then oppressors of the people. In the ancient city, citizens were all who partook of the lustrations or whatever other rite of atonement they adhered to. In other words, atonement made the city and the citizen. Hence, to attempt to change faiths (and atonements) was an act of revolution. The new faith had to be either incorporated with the current one, or destroyed. Hence the persecution of the early church. Its lord was not Caesar but Jesus Christ, and its atonement was not from the civil religion but the cross.
Modern man has worked self-consciously to throw off the shackles of the past, most notably to discard Biblical faith and all its restraints. The modern city is to be the work of man. No less than the builders of the Tower of Babel who sought to build a social order without God, have the builders of the modern city, and the modern state, sought a nontheistic order. The modern state and the modern city united to assert a neutrality and an autonomy from God. Neutrality commended itself as a restraint upon the clamor of various churches to be established. Under the merits of anti-establishmentarianism, a separation from Christianity was effected. This supposed neutrality with respect to the claims of all religions served to mask an allegiance to another religion, humanism, which is the new established religion of states, courts, and state schools of the modern age.
At the same time, the claim to autonomy was advanced. The city and the state are supposedly independent of God; they constitute a free zone where God’s power and law do not extend, and where man as man is his own god and law. The autonomous city sees itself as the free city, free to plan and chart its course in terms of purely humanistic considerations. The modern city was determined to be the City of Man, not the City of God.
A fundamental assumption of this new faith has been at worst the moral neutrality of man, or at best the goodness of man. All the centuries of slow and painstaking work to civilize the barbarian peoples by means of faith, and to order their lives by means of God’s law, were viewed as a great aberration. Man will be most good when most natural, it was declared. As against the redeemed, twice-born man, the once-born man was championed. As against supernatural man, natural man was seen as the hope of the world.
Men like Horace Mann were enthusiastic about the prospects of mankind. The natural man, reeducated out of the superstitions of the past, would produce a crime-free, poverty-free world in which man would be his own lord. Disagreements were prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as to the best means to this golden age of man. Some believed revolution and massive destruction were needed; others advocated democracy and mass education as the way to the great City of Man, the “Great Community” of John Dewey and others.
But a problem arose, however unacknowledged. Whether in the United States or the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, or elsewhere, man remained not what the ideologists and theoreticians said he was, but what God says man is, a sinner.
The new City of Man was to be a product of humanistic education, the new technology, and autonomous wealth. Humanistic education has produced a new barbarian, and mass illiteracy. The liberal Jonathan Kozol, in Prisoners of Silence (1980), cites federal data which reveals that 54 to 64 million Americans are not truly literate, and of these 23 million are illiterate. Natural man, moreover, was not only now increasingly illiterate but also immoral and lawless. The city was becoming a dangerous place, and more and more parents feared their own children. In perhaps the safest of America’s very largest cities, over 60,000 homes were robbed in 1981. The city was now breeding its own destruction.
Wealth without faith was proving to be wealth without principles, immoral and arrogant, even as the poor had also become, as well as a derelict middle class. Technology has indeed been creating marvels, but the people who dwell among them, and use them, are increasingly like marauding barbarians in an ancient city. Neither technology nor the bobby pin have served to make man one whit a better man in any moral sense.
The new humanistic man is a parasite. Whether farmer, manufacturer, worker, or unemployed, he wants subsidies. The modern city is a subsidy center. The earlier mercantilism worked to create the humanistic, producing, urban center by means of protectionism and tariffs. A new kind of wall surrounds the city. The ancient city was walled against thieves and enemies. The modern city is walled against competition and the free market.
The United States, in its earliest years, faced a choice here. It could become the great supplier to the world of food, minerals, and other resources. It chose, however, to follow the very European pattern it had in part fought against, protectionism aimed at subsidizing industry and the city. Given the virtues of industry and commerce, protectionism all the same perverts them and renders them a source of continuing problems.
Thomas Jefferson protested against these policies until he became president, whereupon he and his followers became Federalists and protectionists. The protectionism became a major contributing cause of the conflict between the North and the South, and of war in 1860.
Protectionism and subsidies do not stop. It was a natural development of this premise that led, step by step, to welfarism, to Medicare, to cradle-to-grave subsidies for all. How dare one class complain about subsidies to another class when all are increasingly becoming beneficiaries?
Thus, we have the grand climax of the modern age. Having destroyed the city as a faith center, it has converted the city into a welfare center. It is routine now for our major cities to have a welfare population of a million or more. These are simply the recipients of actual welfare checks. Others receive subsidies, and some are heavily penalized to provide subsidies to others. The subsidy program now extends into all the world in terms of foreign aid to nations. It includes subsidies to foreign industries by restraints upon U.S. producers (i.e., in oil, cattle, etc.) which handicap them. The faith city has been supplanted by the welfare city, a lawless and selfish place.
The result is a debauchery of men and money. Protectionism must be paid for, and it is paid for by deficit financing, mortgaging the future to pay for the present. Inflation and debt are basic to the modern city. (If only the debt-free buildings and homes were to remain in our big cities, and all others suddenly disappeared, our cities would suddenly become small towns.)
Men, too, are debauched. Helmut Thielicke, in Nihilism (1961), wrote on the fact that atheistic states always become totalitarian. The premise of atheism is that “without God, everything is lawful,” and men then act on this, and no man can trust another. The state becomes a police state, because the people can only be held in check by stronger and stronger controls, and by terror. (Also, the state begins to play god.) Law then becomes what the state says it is, and the result is the breakdown of law, because it has no roots in the nature of being. The city then begins to resemble a nightmare.
Past history gives us many examples of the sacking of cities by invaders. One of the worst instances was the sack of Rome by the armies of Spain. These sacks were prompted by war and by enmity. Now we have a different kind of sacking, one by the people of the city, the poor, minority groups, youths, and college and university students. The second half of the twentieth century has seen more cities sacked than centuries before.
The modern city is indeed a wealth center, but it is not a society, and it is being sacked by its own children. When Rome was first sacked by the barbarians, many people, when the hordes passed, went back to life as usual. The rich villas of southern Gaul continued to be the locale of gay parties, music, poetry, and fox hunts by the wealthy, literate, and cultured old Romans, but, little by little, their lights went out, only to be relit out of the ruins and among the barbarians by Christianity.
What had happened was that the City of Rome, the wealth center, had become the poverty center. This was physically true in that welfare mobs ruled the city, to the point that emperors found it much more expedient to live elsewhere. For Roman emperors, Rome had become an unsafe place, a place of assassinations, riots, and unruly mobs.
Well before that, however, Rome had become, morally and religiously, a poverty center. The old Roman faith and virtue had given way to degeneracy and perversion. In time, as Rome’s intangible wealth began to disappear, so too its tangible wealth followed and waned. The wealth of a city begins and ends with its faith. If the city is not a faith center, it will cease to be a society and will become a conflict and poverty center.
One key form of wealth which has left the modern city is justice and vengeance, godly vengeance. One of the key facts of Scripture is God’s declaration, “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense” (Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1; 99:8; Isa. 34:8; Jer. 50:15; Ezek. 25:14; Nah. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:8; etc.). We are commanded not to avenge ourselves, for “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
The Greek text of the New Testament is as clear as to the meaning of vengeance as the church is confused. The word is ekdikesis, very literally, (that which proceeds) out of justice. When God says that vengeance belongs to Him, He is very plainly declaring that only His law is justice, and that no other law can be used to attain justice. When He forbids us to avenge ourselves, God is saying that we can have no law nor justice other than His own, and through His appointed means. This is the plain meaning of the statement in Scripture.
Clearly, justice is gone out of the city, the state, the church, and man. Humanistic doctrines of justice and the enforcement of justice prevail because the city is not a faith center, nor a justice center as Biblical faith requires it to be, but a man-center.
For a city to be a faith center means that it must be a justice center. Justice is a key form of wealth. (One Hebrew word for wealth is a good thing.) The modern city is thus an impoverished place and a poverty center in every sense of the word. Not until the pulpits of the Word of God again become central to a city, and the Bible its word of justice and vengeance or that which proceeds out of justice, will the city again be a center of true wealth.
That restoration is under way, slowly but surely. The humanistic city still has its worst days ahead probably. However, out of its decay, the City of God will emerge. We are beginning to see the stirrings of a strong faith, among minority and majority groups alike. We are seeing the rise of Christian schools and agencies, manifesting a renewed literacy, and a greater Christian compassion than we have seen for years. We are witnessing on all sides the growth of Christian Reconstruction, and the applications of God’s law-word to every area of life and thought.
We live in an exciting era. True, it is a time of conflict and of stress, a bloody and murderous age. An old “order,” humanism, is in decay, and its strongholds are crumbling and collapsing. It is a time for building in the certainty of our Lord’s triumph. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).