Civil Rights and the Brotherhood of Man

The intensive and massive struggle of the American Negro to achieve full and actual equality with the white citizens engages the interest of the entire civilized world. No doubt many outside the United States wonder that such a struggle should occur in the land that has been particularly hailed as the land where freedom and equality are honored in the abstract and in practice. Perhaps all observers ought to recognize the testimony to the freedom enjoyed by the citizens of this nation that is present in the very fact of such a struggle, taking place openly and freely.

No American citizen can remain aloof from this profound struggle now going on. It is somehow affecting the lives of all, whatever be one’s personal wishes in the matter. No Christian citizen should remain untouched and unconcerned. Some ten percent of his fellow citizens are seeking the free and equal exercise of rights that they may justly claim under the constitution of the land. At the same time there ought to be awareness of the great complexity of this movement with its intensive interlocking of social, economic, moral and spiritual factors.

Among the many facets of this complex phenomenon that draws the active concern of the Christian, there is one that deserves some special and careful consideration. In seeking to set forth some of the baSic ideas motivating the struggle for civil rights, at least one prominent leader of the movement makes frequent mention of the concept “brotherhood of man.” This concept is appealed to by this prominent civil rights leader in support of the struggle for full social and economic equality among the citizens of the land.

Let it be fully understood from the outset that any man as an American citizen has the fullest right to use whatever language he feels he should in support of any cause he may espouse. However, freedom of speech isn’t all that is involved here. The appeal to the “brotherhood of man” is made in this case in the speaker’s special capacity as a minister of the Christian gospel. In making this appeal the spokesman referred to plainly means to say that this conception expresses something essential and central in the Christian gospel.

It is at this point that I must register my demurrer. And, let it be clearly understood. this demurrer has nothing whatsoever to do with the color line. But to import into the struggle for certain civil and social goals a concept that by its very nature has its center of reference above the purely civil or social level is to abuse that grand concept.

Let me be just a bit more specific. It is granted that the expression “brotherhood of man” can be used in a more general sense to refer to that interrelationship that obtains among all men by virtue of the fact that God is maker of them all. In this sense all men may be called brothers (see Proverbs 22:2; Acts 17:26–29). However, when one insists he is speaking as a minister of the Christian gospel, and he takes this seriously, then we are no longer on the social and civil level of human life, the level of man’s common creaturehood before God. Then we move to that higher plane of brotherhood on which we reckon with certain definite moral and spiritual factors. Yes, then the “brotherhood of man” refers to that segment of humanity that has experienced spiritual renewal in Christ Jesus and is dedicated to the service of God and one’s neighbor with that spiritual motivation and equipment that God by his Holy Spirit has conferred on them in Jesus Christ, the divinely appointed Savior and Lord of men.

At this point someone may say. “Why quibble? After all, what difference does it make?” In reply I must insist that it makes a vast difference how and for what purpose one uses the meaningful expression “brotherhood of man.” The difference lies first of all in the character of those who make up this brotherhood. Peter in his First Epistle, chapter I, verses 22 and 23. casts some clear light on this point. “Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth,” he says, “unto unfeigned love of the brethren, love one another from the heart fervently: having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the Word of God, which liveth and abideth.” The expression “brotherhood of man” is not another name for society. It is not a choice name for men of all classes and types. men of moral and immoral and amoral character. It is a precious name describing that body of men who make up the household of faith, who by God’s grace are members of Christ’s body. his church; and they are black and white and yellow and red, rich and poor, bond and free (see Gal. 3:26–28). Every member of this blessed fellowship must be “purified…in…obedience to the truth,” and with his soul thus purified he must exercise “unfeigned love of the brethren.” It is these qualities of the spirit that make men part of the “brotherhood of man,” that place men among those who are “spiritual” and not just “natural,” to borrow Paul’s language in I Corinthians 1.

What happens when the beautiful Christian conception of the “brotherhood of man” is appealed to in support of the pursuit of goals that are purely social and civil in character? In the same quarter of the civil rights movement where the “brotherhood of man” is appealed to. the doctrines of non-violence and civil disobedience are also taught. These doctrines have been practiced by some with commendable restraint. If all in the civil rights movement were of the true “brotherhood of man,” there would be no cause for concern, even on the score of civil disobedience. Those whose souls have been purged in obedience to the truth and who have been reborn through the Word of God. can be trusted with the proper and disciplined exercise of civil disobedience. After all, Acts 4:19 is still in the Bible. But, though we may assume that there are many sincere Christians among those striving for civil rights today. we may safely conclude that many in the movement are not sincere Christians. What happens to non-violence and civil disobedience when taught to and practiced by many who haven’t the moral and spiritual equipment that membership in the true brotherhood involves? Non-violence can quickly turn to violence and civil disobedience to insurrection. Shocking as it may sound to some, it must be said that the orgy of rage, hate, killing and destruction that burst forth in Watts, Los Angeles, and similar performances elsewhere must be expected from a “brotherhood of man” that does not meet the spiritual specifications laid down in God’s Word. Such frightening outbursts of the carnal propenSities of the natural man should plainly tell all concerned that the special sanction of the grand Christian conception of the “brotherhood of man” cannot be invoked in the manner in which it has been done by some in the civil rights movement.

A second point at which serious problems arise in the appeal to the “brotherhood of man” in support of the civil rights movement has to do with attitudes toward the movement on the part of Christians. If the Christian conception of the “brotherhood of man” is to be applied to the civil rights movement, then a Christian may have no other attitude toward the movement except that of whole-hearted endorsement and fervent, loving involvement. We have seen that a Christian must exercise “unfeigned love of the brethren.” Christians must “love one another from the heart fervently.” A Christian is guilty before God of neglect in Christian love and service if he fails to give himself in the furtherance and support of a cause that is correctly defined in terms of the Christian “brotherhood of man.” He must do good to all men, but especially to those of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). If the appeal to the “brotherhood of man” in the civil rights movement is valid, then the special and loving concern that is required of Christians for the household of faith must be directed toward this movement as currently pressed in the United States of America.

It is most doubtful that this is required of Christians. It is most doubtful because the expression “brotherhood of man” is not properly applied in this case. We bear in mind that the appeal is made in terms of the Christian gospel, not in terms of the general brotherhood of men as God’s creatures. And it is not in point to raise the question here of the loving concern that a Christian should have for those who do not know the gospel. Such loving concern the Christian must have and exercise, of course. But this is beside the point here. We are not discussing the concern of Christians for the salvation of the lost. We are rather discussing a civil and socio-economic movement that is claimed to be an activity in and of the “brotherhood of man” as Christianly conceived. The claim says, then, that this movement is the “brotherhood of man” in action, is the household of faith at work, and as such properly calls for that prime and special devotion that Jesus requires as he bids us to “seek…first his kingdom.” This claim we must dispute, no matter how high and positive an evaluation we may place on the civil rights movement. And therefore this claim cannot elicit from Christians that special loving devotion toward the “brotherhood” that is specifically distinguished from the attitude toward men in general in the apostolic mandate, “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood” (I Peter 2:17).

Are we doing justice to the second great commandment. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” as taught also by Christ himself? In reply let it be said that nothing in the above discussion should be taken to indicate that the Christian should not or cannot love his fellowman, be he believer or unbeliever. And in that love for his fellowman the Christian can and should seek those ends that enhance the well-being of his neighbor. The parable of the Good Samaritan clearly indicates that doing good to one’s neighbor does not depend on the measure of that neighbor’s orthodoxy. But at the same time it should be apparent that the second great commandment is being in no way violated when we interpret Scripture to teach that the neighbor who is a brother in Christ is the object of a special love and devotion.

A third facet of the appeal to the “brotherhood of man” in the civil rights movement must be touched on. If as the Christian “brotherhood” been in the habit of making social, civil and economic goals the matters of overriding concern? Has it been the practice of the household of faith to agitate for social, civil and economic equality? To ask the questions is to answer them. The special concern of the brotherhood of believers has ever been to keep the faith in a hostile world and to walk in that faith in new obedience. And in exercising this prime concern they have been willing to suffer social, civil and economic injustice (see Matt. 5:1–12; I Peter 4:12–19). It is inconceivable that the Christian brotherhood should resort to tactics of disruption like casting themselves in front of moving vehicles, sponsoring sit-ins and lie-ins and pray-ins, engaging in demonstrations that incite to increased social tension and even violence. It seems perfectly obvious that an appeal to the precious Christian conception of the “brotherhood of man” in defense of activities such as these is false on the face of it.

In conclusion let it be observed that here again we have a vivid illustration of the hollowness and basic irrelevance of a liberal version of an essential Christian conception. Like most liberal notions, this one also fails to do justice to the hard facts of sinful human life. Furthermore, it should be noted that in this instance also the application of such a liberal tenet to the concrete human situation constitutes a dual betrayal. The appeal made to the “brotherhood of man” in order to gain sanction for the civil rights movement betrays a grand Christian conception on the one hand. And on the other hand it betrays a great cause. The civil rights cause, basically just in many of the goals it seeks, is not well served by this appeal, for the grand Christian reality appealed to does not fit the case.

Repeatedly in the struggle for civil rights in the United States appeals are made to the idea of “the brotherhood of man.” In this article the Rev. Edward Heerema, pastor of the Bradenton, FL, Christian Reformed Church, shows that such use betrays both a grand Christian conception and a great cause. Neither the Christian gospel nor the cause of civil rights is well served by such a perversion.