Arthur Desmond's Christ as a social reformer
ZEALANDIA, June 1, 1890
“And why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say.”
Nineteen centuries ago, a Galilean peasant, born of Jewish parents and brought up to the trade of carpentering, thought out and preached the purest system of social-metaphysical ethics that it is possible for the mind of man (as yet) to conceive.
The effect of His teachings, life, and death, has indelibly impressed His personality on the imagination of the world unto this day. Yet how few there are who fully comprehend the complete import of His words, and the true lesson conveyed by His example. At thirty years of age, poor and unknown, bailing from the despised district of a despised nation, He stepped out from the ranks of the common people and began to advocate, in the teeth of despotic power and ecclesiastical authority, the imperishable truth that men are born with equal rights—teaching association in fraternal bonds of equality as the first step towards the regeneration of mankind; that this would make possible “the kingdom of God on earth,” which seers and prophets had so often foretold. As long as His followers were few and powerless, rulers ignored Him as a harmless fanatic; but a change came over the spirit of their dream when multitudes assembled to hear His voice, and under the spell of His eloquence eagerly proposed to put His theories into immediate practice. Then the ruling classes began to suspect danger to themselves and their unjust privileges. First, they warned Him to desist from rousing the people to the verge of revolt, and when He persisted, they threatened him with all the penalties of the law. Still He unflinchingly continued to spread His doctrine of equal rights and equal duties, which they officially condemned as inimical to the welfare of the State, and subversive of all law and order. Crowds congregated to “gladly hear Him,” and discontent with the existing order filled their thoughts. Neither the hierarchy nor the hired political philosophers could refute his arguments, and besides, to attempt to do so would render themselves unpopular.
Fear possessed the hearts of the powerful and the strong—the heads of the Church, the owners of land, the owners of slaves, and the owners of capital. They secretly conspired together, caused the law to be put in motion, and so “removed” the champion of the poor in due legal form. A provincial magistrate signed His death-warrant and in the valley of skulls this most eloquent and pure-minded exponent of human rights and equal justice swung on a Government gallows, with a Government spear in His side.
When alive He taught, both in word and deed, the divine law of human brotherhood—that everyone (including Himself) were the sons of the Great Author of All. Therefore, all men are blood-brothers, members of one vast family, and to do an injury to one was an injury to all. “Inasmuch as ye do wrong to one of the least of these, ye do it unto Me.” Riches made from the sweat of slaves (now-a-days made from the sweat of hirelings), were to Him abominable, and He never tired of denouncing the owners of such wealth. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom.” The parable of Dives and Lazarus is an everlasting reproach to the opulent of the world, who banquet in abundance and luxury while their brothers shiver and starve by the outer gate. His social teachings delighted and astonished the people, because it promised liberty to all; they had not been accustomed to hear such good news. To them He held out hopes of social emancipation and political fair-play, showing that “the good times coming” were possibly within reach. “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.” He was the consoler and the friend of the widow and the fatherless, the disinherited and the outcasts of society. He was the scorner of scribes, pharisees, hypocrites, and lawyers. He was the enemy of tyrants, the condemner of long-robed ecclesiastics, and the bitter accuser of ecclesiasticism. “Woe unto you, O pretenders, for you tax even the very necessaries of life, and pass over justice and the love of God.”
He preached the essence of all that is noble, true, self-sacrificing, and to this very day all reformers the wide world over look upon Him as the incarnation of their highest ideal. His teachings, whether they are conscious of it or not, are their inspiration, and His life their example. A democrat of the democrats, He was the defender of all those who in the world’s unequal battle were weary or wounded or sore.
No better proof can be found of the deep practical meaning which His followers—mostly working men—placed upon His doctrines, than that they established, immediately after His death, a community in which all property was held in common—private ownership being altogether prohibited. This primitive band of Christian socialists existed for four years, but owing to lack of scientific internal organisation, it fell to pieces. It is a curious fact, though, that among the numerous secret societies which honeycomb Europe and Asia to-day, there are remarkable traces of the handiwork of those early regenerators. The latest developments of human wisdom conclusively prove that it is perfectly possible to organise even empires upon the fraternal principle laid down by Christ. The organisation of labour and the organisation of war are complete object lessons, which only require to be carried out to their logical conclusion. Even the history of the past contains many brave examples where isolated communities within a larger one have been more than partially successful. The principal lesson taught by contemporary thought and historical example is that thorough scientific organisation is as much a necessity as high moral intelligence among the human units comprising the fraternity. That condition did not exist in Judea under the Roman Empire, and with all our boasted progress and enlightenment, it does not exist to-day. But the possibilities of the future are many, and mayhap the developments of science will render the continuance of our present social system of organised selfishness an impossibility. Society as now constituted, in which so many are condemned to lead a life of hopeless servitude—in which fabulous wealth and foetid poverty jostle each other side by side—cannot be permanent. Especially is this true at present, when the most intelligent of our race are questioning its necessity, as well as its moral basis. The time must come when mankind will have to re-enact its laws in consonance with the spirit of the Golden Rule, which in itself is but a codification of the immutable laws of Nature. The gathered experience of ages will surely be equal to the task of erecting on a firm foundation that kingdom of kindness and fraternity which Christ advocated, and for which He bled.
If it be said in denial of this view that He never organised a community Himself in which all things were held in common, it must be remembered that altogether He was only about two years before the public. The whole of that time was occupied in breaking up the ground and sowing the seed. He could not have had time to think out the details of such a world-problem, even if He had been satisfied that the human materials around Him were suitable, and the time opportune. But what He might have attempted had He not been cruelly murdered is quite another matter. He certainly established no church, nor did He found any society; but on highway and by-way He went about doing good, and teaching that the highest good of all could only be achieved by every individual loving his neighbour as himself, and doing unto others as He would desire to be done by—that to do good to others is life, that to do wrong to others is death. He spoke out fearlessly what He thought, and in the face of persecution and death He turned not aside. He has set the world an example of what a determined spirit can do. He was no dreamer—he was terribly in earnest. He meant every word that He said. He was simplicity and completeness itself. Yet to-day neither the organised churches nor the rulers of the nation’s make the slightest effort to embody His laws in the laws of the land. The teacher is deified, His teachings ignored. Why is this?
That He preached the very essence of democracy there is not the shadow of a doubt, if we are to believe anything relative to Him that is recorded in the four Gospels, and it was because He did so that He was executed. His aim was both religious liberty and social equality; so, in accordance with their traditions, the clergy were His accusers and the soldiers His executioners. Should He once again re-appear on earth, and in the guise of a common artisan head a great popular movement inspired by religious enthusiasm, there is no doubt whatever that bitter persecution would be His lot, if He did not before long dangle in the noose of a hempen cord provided by the State.
He left no written records behind Him, but the memory of His personality served to keep His immediate followers together, and they, as opportunity offered, spread the “good news” further and further afield. The idea of social emancipation spread like wildfire from city to city and continued to ferment the public mind. This was only to be expected in a vast empire ruled by iron-force, in which the masses of the people were either slaves or recently freed. All previous popular movements had been mercilessly stamped out by the summary “removal” of the leaders; but now the aristocracy had to contend both with seething political discontent and religious enthusiasm combined in one channel. They were therefore much astonished to dis-cover that the death of the leader in this case did not mean the death of His idea. Then they tried organised coercion for the purpose of preventing the movement from spreading any further, but the immolation of victims by the thousand only served to further inoculate the “lower classes” with those dangerous religio-social ideas of “equality before God and man.”
The armoury of the strongest Government the world has ever known was used against them, and they were hounded down with unparalleled ferocity. The aristocracy considered it a most meritorious action to destroy this pernicious sect. ln self-defence the Christians formed secret societies, with signs, grips, and passwords, holding their meetings in dark and obscure places, with sentinels posted all round. This served for a time to partially protect them, but soon again paid Government informers—imperial bloodhounds in human form—joined their societies and betrayed them. Untold numbers were slaughtered in cold blood. Some were crucified head downwards, some were stoned to death, and some were thrown as food to wild beasts, and some were smeared with combustibles, and used as torches to illuminate at even the garden fêtes of the great. But in all this there is one point which must be clearly understood. They did not suffer these terrible persecutions simply because they professed certain religious convictions. No, but because these religious convictions had also a practical, political side, and if imbibed extensively by the masses, a social revolution was sure to ensue. Thrones would rock and aristocracies crumble in a determined effort to establish the reign of Justice on earth, wherein right should be might, throned and sceptred, when
Man to man the world o’er
Shall brothers be—
About one hundred and thirty years after the execution of Jesus the Gospel according to Matthew made its appearance, the others following soon after. These writings were partly compiled from pre-existing records, and partly from tradition: but why they alone were accepted as canonical and the previous ones ignored, is an interesting problem. The investigations of the last century have thrown much light upon this important fact, and show conclusively that theologians, in the material interests of their temporal allies, suppressed as much as they dared of Christ’s social teachings. They have left us but a fragment of a once complete whole, and it is only from careful piecing together of these fragments that any idea of the original is to be obtained. An anatomist, from viewing a single bone, can construct a perfect model of the animal of which it formed a part thousands of years ago. On a similar principle, when the right man arises, Christ will again be truly interpreted to the public, and the common people will hear him gladly as of yore.
The elected leaders of the primitive Church were on the whole sincere and conscientious men, but as time sped by the Church organisation grew in wealth and influence, these ecclesiastical chiefs transformed themselves into semi-temporal rulers—proud prelates, in purple and fine linen, glittering in gems and gold. (Such they have continued unto the present time, more especially in England and in Russia. My lord bishops, my most holy hierarchs, what right have you as believers in Christ to live in overflowing luxury, whilst thy sisters and thy brothers half starve on an unjust wage?)
The professional clergy gradually but surely betrayed the trust imposed in them, and from being tribunes of the people, elected by popular suffrage, they became either pensioners or allies of a bloody and iron-hearted aristocracy. The kings of the earth, the mail-clad robbers, and the petty tyrants had axes to grind; and how well they ground them—behold, is it not written on the pages of the past, in the blood and tears of crushed and broken millions? To this day Humanity is daily, hourly being crucified that the thirty pieces of silver may clink in the pockets of sanctified betrayers. The moral state of the world is a terrible panorama—crime, fraud, greed, oppression, extortion, sensualism, and murder, all committed for the sake of gain by individuals and communities professing to be Christians. Theology, gold-greed, and personal aggrandisement did its very worst for the teachings of Jesus; yet, after all, there is a something about Him which they could not wholly obscure. Through the miasmatic mist of creed-dogma that Man of Sorrows may yet be seen by all those who have eyes to see, whose mental vision has not been darkened by early training or by pecuniary interest. There He is—hanging on a State gibbet, a thorny chaplet lacerating His brow, His heart’s blood dripping, dripping, soaked by the greedy sand—the champion of the poor, the upholder of freedom, the victim of the rich.
When the inhuman Constantine—Caligula of the Bosphorus—proclaimed Christianity the religion of the State, it soon lost its living principle and slumbered, hypnotized. This politic act of Constantine transformed the nascent Church into an appendage of the Government, under the control of an aristocracy of wealth and power. The landed patricians, fearing an uprising of the landless plebeians, found it convenient to subscribe—nominally at least—to the creed of those plebeians. By a judicious use of their wealth they soon obtained an ascendancy, and under their control the religion that was founded to free men was cleverly transformed into bolts, bars, axes, gibbets, racks, and dungeons to more completely hold them in subjection. The doctrines of the founder were presented to the listeners in such a manner as to be to them but mystic rites—a shadowy formula of empty words, meaningless and vague. Christianity became the fashionable religion of the magnates of the land, who have ever since used it as an excellent method of attenuating the minds of their serf-millions. From being the vindicator of civil and religious liberty, the Church became the persecutor of thought, and the buttress of despotic power. From being the hope of the poor, it became a double-edged sword in the grasp of the strong. It is unnecessary here to re-traverse its blood-smeared, liberty-strangled pathway down the long, dark centuries. Suffice it to say that it has proved (and is proving) recreant to the world-wide principles of its great Founder.
Jesus taught “resist not evil,” yet the civilised world bristles with bayonet-points glittering in the sun, and millions of “dearly-beloved brethren,” at the beck and call of “Christian” potentates, are ready at a moment’s warning to solemnly commence the glorious business of butchering each other wholesale, amid the roar of cannon and the roll of drums. Ask an average church-goer what he thinks of the injunction, “resist not evil,” and he is sure to tell you it is wholly impracticable—sheer nonsense, in fact; theory, mere theory. And thus, it is that self-satisfied Christians keep on inventing and manufacturing the most improved machinery for committing murder. Every battle-ship, every regiment drilled for war, contains within it a State-paid expounder of the “good news.” Prelates raise their hands to heaven, and in the name of the Prince of Peace call down the divine blessing on battle-standards. Hail, lovely Christianity, thou beauteous daughter of the skies—meek-eyed inventor of Brennan torpedoes and Maxim guns—you of the dynamite fire-shell and explosive bullet—hail; trainer of butcher-battalions, teacher of dreamy mental opiates, preacher of soothing platitudes—hail! all hail!
The opulent and the powerful are the real chiefs of the modern Church, both in this and other lands, and they tune the pulpit to suit their own vested interests. Titled
nobles and untitled parvenus receive vast revenues yearly from the lands and the labour of the people. With this wealth they bribe the moneyless and the landless—they rule the State, they rule the Church, they dictate our laws, while calmly extorting immense incomes from the sweat-drops of human hirelings. Such wealth is accursed before God and man, and Nemesis is doggedly following the trail of its possessors. Wealth honestly obtained—i.e., by applying labour to the raw material—has never been assailed. But the wealth that has been (and is being) justly denounced by the reformers of all lands is that
which is acquired by monopolising the gifts of the Creator, and by distilling into gold the sweat-drops of the poor. It is undeniable that excessive riches in the possession of one man is the correlative of excessive poverty as the portion of others.
Listen, O ye mountains! give ear unto me, O ye valleys!
From the man-teeming banks of the Hoang-ho to the forest-clad shores of wild
From where the Clutha rolls its waters to the sea to where o’er arid steppes treads the convict to the mines—
The dumb millions gasp in convulsive sobs and groan in perpetual anguish.
Wearing the chains of the captive or forging manacles for each other,
While serenely in broadcloth and gorgeous vestments goeth the false prophets of the world, No word of reproach on their lips—no warnings to the great ones of the earth.
How long, O Lord, how long?
Association in equality—this was the kernel of original Christianity; but to-day its paid exponents teach anything and everything but that. Christ’s sympathies were always with the toiling masses from which He sprung, but in our time, when the Church is compelled by circumstances to assist semi-starving labourers in their life-and-death struggle for fair play, she does as little as possible with an ill grace. Instead of leading the battle-van of suffering humanity, she is goaded on—she is unwillingly driven. The people are therefore losing confidence in ecclesiastical institutions. They feel in their heart that the teachings of Christ have been surreptitiously removed, and a gold-gilded wooden idol set up in their place. The masses have in consequence been compelled (in the persons of other leaders) to think for themselves. They therefore plainly perceive that if wealthy “Christians,” both clerical and lay, would only get off their (the people’s) backs, all would go well again. The first move to get off their backs is to get off their land. Their land, because it is the natural inheritance of all men. The land is an endowment set apart, by God for the use of all the children of men, and for a few to arbitrarily constitute themselves the exclusive owners of that endowment, is rank blasphemy on one side and cruel injustice on the other. “Get off their backs,” says Count Tolstoy. “Get off their lands,” thunders Henry George. It is because these cries are the correct modern interpretation of Christianity that once more, as in the days of long ago, a ray of hope begins to illumine the dark and dreary lives of countless burden bearers. Christianity, when stripped of the sere-clothes wrapped around it by mythologists and commentators, is pre-eminently a matter of conduct. To live correctly—to do thy duty towards thy fellows—to regard all men as brothers—to be unselfish, kind, brave, and true—this was the sum and substance of the Christianity of Christ. It is saddening to look around to-day and contemplate the ignoble depths of degradation in which this noble doctrine has been sunk. Dogma and denominationalism—bigotry and creed—belief and ceremony—these are its artificial sounding-boards, its hollow, pretentious simulacra. The body is preserved, but the soul is gone—the fire of life has departed, while the sheeted, ghastly mummy stares us in the face.
Not one word do we hear against the merciless political machinery that grinds humanity into powder, that renders the moral condition of millions a terrible reproach and a sickening spectacle. O, ye high priests and rulers of the world, upon thy garments is the blood of brothers.
The Christian Church, as it exists in the world to-day, virtually declares by its methods that the injunctions of Jesus in the matter of conduct is an unattainable chimera. Under our present industrial system this is perfectly true; but why, in the name of all that is great, is there no sincere effort made to reform it? This is a living question, which requires to be answered in deeds as well as in beautiful sentences. The essence of commercialism is self-interest; the essence of Christianity is self-effacement to promote the happiness of all. They are as oil and water to each other. They can never be amalgamated—one or the other must conquer. Nothing so surely destroys the true Christian spirit as the absorbing pursuit of personal gain. This is clear, that any attempt to reconcile them must always end in failure. Compromise is impossible— “Ye cannot serve two masters.”
Environment is the iron wall that distorts human lives into unnatural shapes. Every man commences to travel along the highway of time with a high ideal, and it is only when failure stares him in the face that he stops to calculate. He sees before and around him a vast crowd, all hurrying on, half-blind—rushing, crushing, and trampling on each other like a drove of half-wild cattle. He sees that in their eagerness they do not perceive the yawning chasm where one by one they silently tumble over. In agony and despair, he makes one or two wild plunges in order to get away from that fatal track. To stand still or turn back is to be trampled under foot. He finds that his strength is not equal to the effort of escape, as he is surrounded on all sides by the maddened mob; so he is compelled to re-join the drove and rush and crush and trample with the rest, in the end to disappear in the abyss.
The Christianisation of environment, then, is the great work that ought to be undertaken as a sacred duty by the various religious sects. Men can never become true Christians who live as members of a heathen society. Let them put aside their well-worn subtleties, their theological hair-splitting, and unite in one grand effort for the regeneration of man in this world. By acting thus, they will earn the gratitude of both the millions that now are, as well as the teeming myriads yet to be. At the very least they should lend a helping hand to those who mean to try. This is a momentous transition period, fraught with vast possibilities and great dangers. We are almost unconsciously in the throes of the mightiest revolution the world has ever seen. Will the Church take its proper place in the people’s van, or will it be left like a milestone in the rear?
What the world wants to-day is a Man—a leader—a heroic Champion of the Right—a ruthless demolisher of age-worn shame—a modern Peter-the-Hermit, whose clarion call shall ring round the world, inspiring millions to enlist beneath the standard of a new crusade, and go forth to battle unto death for the rights of man.
His voice shall sway the nations,
And Truth his sword shall be,
To shear the mail of mighty ones,
To set the captives free.
But he may come in lowly praise,
With neither trump nor drum;
Then let us work and hope for him—
The King that is to come.
Zealandia, June 1, 1890