Again: The Christian Social Congress 1891
The first section of this Congress dealt with the social problem from its Christian, religious aspect. Five papers were read and subsequently theses were adopted which disclosed the leading principles for a Christian action in the social area, rooted in the recognized Christian ethics of the whole Christian era. They were, therefore. bound to guide well a real Christian social movement in the future. In fact, these principles have ever since guided the Christian social movement in its entirety and have never been seriously challenged up till today.
We have to restrict ourselves to giving merely a few indications of the subjects which were discussed in this section of the Congress, according to the conclusions which were adopted. A report of the Congress is not available. Copies may only be found in private or public libraries in The Netherlands. This writer is not fortunate enough to own a copy.
The fundamental Scriptural principles with regard to the social problem were included in a report compiled by Prof. Dr. H. Bavinck.
His first conclusion is most fundamental. He stated that the Holy Scriptures teach that to organize human society according to our own discretion is not allowable since God himself has set the laws for society in Creation and his word.
This thesis is indeed fundamental for every social activity. How could we act as Christians in society if there were no such principle as is expressed in this thesis?
It goes on:
Deviation from these laws, ordained by God for his creatures, has caused, generally speaking, all social evils. As a result of this deviation, the varieties existing among creatures according to their Creation, have lost their unity, have changed into contrasts, and creatures themselves have come into enmity against God and one another. Regeneration does not blot out the variations existing according to the will of God, but renews all relations to their original form by placing all things in a reconciled relationship to God.
In these theses is revealed the theological idea that God did not create something new when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Cross and resurrection constitute an act of God to execute the scheme he had with the world originally and which was disturbed by Satan.
God did not leave even the least shade of a doubt that Satan had lost the battle and that Jesus Christ is Victor. He has overcome the world and that is why his disciples have gone to preach this Gospel—1900 years ago and today.
Is this Gospel for the soul alone and not for the body? It looks like most of the churches and ministers have that opinion. As a result church members do not know where to stand. God has restored all things to himself. both in heaven and on earth: both spiritual and material things. The idea that the world is left to Satan and that the evil is in the body and in other material things, and that therefore, there is no sense in selling up a Christian social movement, which seeks to introduce, as far as it is able to, the will of God in social life, is not ours.
God has placed his hand on the world. It is his world. which he reconciled to himself by the death and resurrection of Christ. though for a lime sin is exercising a mighty influence in it.
If that is true, we are unfaithful if we leave the world, social life, industrial relations, to those who close the Bible when social questions come up.
God has a meaning with his world. He has revealed that meaning in his Word. Are we prepared not only to listen to but to act upon it when we hear it? How can we join a union which closes the Bible as soon as the questions come lip which are fundamental for the course of world’s history and for the course in society?
The Christian Social Congress of 1891 thus placed a foundation under the young: Christian social movement. What the “men of Patrimonium” had sensed and what they had started as an act of faith. was here confirmed and strengthened.
Other Christian Testimonies
Many years had to go by before other Christian gatherings tackled the social problems as was done here. They came to similar conclusions. In 1918 the World Council of Churches had its conference in the same city (Amsterdam). 57 years after the Congress of 1801 it stated:
The responsible society, of which we have spoken, remains our aim, for which the churches in all the countries have to work to the honor of the one God and Father of all. At the same time, they look forward to the Day of God and to a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
The Lutheran World Federation assembled in Hannover (Germany) in July 1952—61 years after the Congress of 1891—stated in their documents on “The Living Word in a Responsible Church”:
Lose God, and you lose all. That applies to human society no less than to individual man. Man destroys society when he turns away from God: a godless man does not know how to live in fellowship with others. When man rejects God’s commandment as the rule or his conduct in society, he loses himself to his own individual ego or the collective egoism of a group. Whenever this occurs there arises the problem of justice in the social order: it is the beginning of social movements. Here the very fact that the social question is raised. is an indication that the relation of society to God has been disrupted. The social problem is a symptom of the deep-seated disease of mankind.
Why do we quote these statements and compare them, the one with the other?
In order to give evidence of the fact that the Word of God has not changed, churches of different denominations, of different countries, with different backgrounds, in different generations, placed before similar social problems, in dealing witIt these questions before the same Word of God arrive at much the same conclusion: The Christian has a vocation on the earth, and by turning to accomplish it, will find that the Word of God gives reliable guidance.
However, after having kept silence for so many decades, and after having neglected to take a clear and positive stand in the actual turmoil of society, they rail even now to find a way to influence the big powers in social life,
It is not enough to speak fine words.
A responsible society can be built only when the main parties in that society—employers and employees—do no longer “serve only their selfish desires as individuals or groups,” (Lutheran World Federation) because then “they are disruptive and destructive,” as contemporary history clearly proves.
How do those churches intend to work for a responsible society if they don’t start to inspire both employers and employees to find one another in a mutual effort to bring about a new, a Christian spirit in industry and labor?
The Congress of 1891 did not restrict itself to pointing to what was wrong but gave very concrete directions for the then still small movement.
First of all: “the great general principle for the solving of the social problem is, according to the Scriptures, the principle of righteousness, that is, to indicate the place God ordained each human being has a right to have before God and all creatures.
2. Man should not only be enabled to prepare for his eternal destiny, but also to fulfill his earthly calling.
3. In connection with this dual calling, the institution of the Sabbath beside the workday should in the political sphere be maintained.
4. Starting from the Cross of Christ, which preaches us the reconciliation with God, all other relations should be settled and restored in their original shape, especially in the social field.
What does that mean practically? The adopted theses declared:
(a) Poverty and misery, especially impoverishment should be prevented.
(b) Accumulation of capital and landed estate be opposed.
(c) A care-free li fe for every man according to his social position and a humane subsistence is to be desired.
(d) The magistracy, as servants of God called upon to uphold justice also in society, has to derive this justice from and base it upon the eternal laws for the various realms of life, revealed in the Word of God.
Property and Labor
Besides these principles of a general character, a few more lectures were given a ll special subjects, such as “Property and Labor,” “The Family and Labor,” and others.
A few Statements on these subjects ought to be quoted here.
(1) Material goods have an inferior place among the various gifts which God placed at the disposal of men.
(2) Material good is and remains related to the Creator and divine maintainer in such a way that the temporary holder is responsible for his administration of his wealth,
(3) The Holy Scriptures know of and accept the right of property in the form of private property.
(4) Material good has been placed at the disposal of men as a means to aid and educate him to reach his eternal destiny.
(5) Labor is of benefit for the worker, as a means to exercise dominion over nature and as a means of grace against sin.
(6) With a view to maintaining the the benefit of labor, excessive labor, as well as labor which is detrimental to morality or health should be guarded against.
(7) The Holy Scriptures require that everyone who gives a mall work to do should not look upon the worker as instrument, but should sec him as a human creature and should respect him as such.
(8) The Holy Scriptures reject the idea that labor is merely a marketable commodity.
(9) Diligent labor still ought to be, according to Holy Scriptures, a means for the creation of capital.
(10) Labor belongs to the life of man according to his Creation, in the Fall, and under Grace.
(11) Saved by Christ, called to freedom by the Gospel, to labor is a means to serve God in one’s work for the execution of the Council of Salvation on earth.
Perusing the above point it seems incredible that Christian men and even Churches could ever declare or by their attitude make believe that labor questions are “neutral” questions from a Christian point of view and that union-activity without an open Bible could have any other than disastrous results for society and for the working man, and…for the Church, as it clearly manifested today.
It is but natural that the question arises now whether the principles involved in the above theses have done their work in the Christian labor movement. In other words, one may ask, and rightly show us now that these principles have worked in this movement; make us understand that they are not mere words, but a real power.
Let us assume for the moment that the Word of God really gives guidance on labor questions, and that the theses referred to above are a correct interpretation of what God demands of us in the field of labor, can you prove that the principles involved not only live in the Christian labor movement but, what is more, have done their beneficial work in society?
Such questions arise in the minds of those who either do not believe in these principles, or are looking for more arguments beyond the simple argument that the Christian has a battle to wage on earth and that he has to join in that battle.
They have been asked a thousand times and more. The workers in the Christian labor movement anywhere in the world have been called upon to answer those questions every time they sought to convince their fellow workers to join the movement. The answers have been given in simple words, often in a single example, and never without results or in vain.
We will try to give a few answers to our readers in this installment and in the following ones.
These answers do not pretend to have a scientific character. The number of scholarly publications on Christian ethics is plenteous, although we regret that labor questions have often been disregarded. Hence the backwardness of Christian thought regarding labor problems. Only in recent publications have social problems received the attention they deserve.
The subjects we intend to deal with subsequently have direct relation with the activity of the labor movement, but are rooted in the principles set forth in the Congress of 1891.
The main objective of Christian Social Action ever shall be to bring about:
A social and economic order which, more so than at present, comes up to the standard of the Will of God as revealed in his Word.
That social and economic order surely will never adequately become a reality. The gifts of God are always being spoiled by human sin. However, such cannot and should not retain us from working to reach that end. “Because we expect the Kingdom of God we have to erect signs of that Kingdom in this world” (Rev. G. Gerbrandy) .
In dealing with a few questions which form part of the struggle for a new social and economic order, (or a responsible society, we hope and pray that signs of that Kingdom may become visible.
The Worker and His Position in Society
The period between the Social Congress of 1891 and the establishment of it central body for the Christian labor movement (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond in Nederland) in 1909 (a period of 18 years) was marked by the struggle for independent Christian organizations.
Many Christian leaders opposed the establishment of such organizations.
Others had more radical ideas and therefore opposed Christian labor unions.
So the young and shall labor unions had a very hard struggle to make headway. Slowly but steadily, however, the Christian workers carved their way through the thick brush of misunderstanding, ill will and opposition. The revolutionary riots of 1902 and 1903 in connection with the railway strikes, and the stand taken by the Christian organized workers toward them opened the eyes of many a Christian man to the soundness of the principles of the Christian labor unions.
Moreover, a small number of men of learning stood at the cradle of the Christian labor movement, who never forgot to defend its cause. Among them the Rev. A. S. Talma should be mentioned specially. Minister of the Gospel in the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, he attended the Congress of 1891 and became editor of the weekly “Patrimonium,” the organ of the workers’ association of that name. He was the beloved leader of many Christian social conferences and the speaker in meetings of “Patrimonium,” of the Christian employers’ association “Boas,” and of the Christian labor unions. Until his death in 1916 his leadership in social matters was unanimously accepted and his work as Secretary of State for Social Matters in the government from 1909 up till 1913 was undoubtedly the crown piece on the work of this Christian minister of the Gospel, this beloved friend of the people, this Christian statesman.
(Continued in next issue)