By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
Reprinted from Freedom & Union, February, 1950, pp. 11-13
The 20th Century began as the century of confidence. Nothing–so it was believed–could halt its progress, or disturb its peace, or diminish its assurance. Ignorance was retreating, tyranny and barbarity belonged to yesterday, brutality was all but banished, poverty was declining, evil of every sort was on the wane, and mankind was going “onward and upward forever.”
But today, at the half-way mark, the 20th Century has become the century of uncertainty. Not that there have been no advances. In some respects advance has been spectacular. The mind of man commands more knowledge–and through knowledge, power–than ever before since the dawn of history. But this knowledge has not accomplished what was expected of it. It has made men cleverer, but it has not made them wiser. And it has not made them good.
Instead of ignorance retreating, as was predicted, we have seen it imposed by force upon entire populations; instead of tyranny and brutality being things of the past, they have disfigured this century more terribly than any other in the Christian era; instead of poverty declining, some of the richest nations on earth have become dependent upon the bounty of the one remaining nation that is still prosperous; and instead of evil being on the wane, we are engaged in a desperate struggle to push it back even to where it was when the century began.
No longer can we doubt it! The new knowledge, and the immense power that goes with it, can be used for ends just as brutish, just as degenerate, just as infamous, as anything that is attributed to the darkest ages of the past.
We know, today, that we were thoroughly deceived by our earlier optimism. We know that it was never true that we had set our feet in the path of inevitable progress. It seems to us, in dismal retrospect, an almost representative fact that at the very moment when the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was holding the dying queen, Victoria, in his arms, he was already plotting the events which led to the first World War. That was in 1901.
Instead of the turn of the century signalizing an era of progress and security, it was ending one. It was the 19th Century which had been secure, as it was also that century, together with the one before it, which had marked the real advance in human values. The French and American Revolutions–these truly had meant progress. And on the whole, the 19th Century had built upon them. But the 20th Century, with the resurgence of tyranny and the counter-revolutions which poured contempt on human values–this was retrogression. The French and American Revolutions had made men free. The Russian and German Revolutions made men slaves.
And so these two–the world advanced by the French and American Revolutions and the world forced back by the German and Russian Revolutions–confront each other in a struggle from which one or the other must sooner or later emerge victorious. In the world of events, this is the one commanding fact, the one all-dominating issue of the middle years of the 20th Century. But it is not only an external fact: it is also the dominating fact in the world of thought, the world of belief and ideas.
In the West, the 20th Century down to now has demonstrated more and more plainly the weakness–the moral and spiritual weakness–of our culture. Our typical ideals have been negative ideals, and this is largely true even of the prevailing ideal of peace. We have produced pacifists not of faith, but of fear. Instead of forging the foundations of peace, we fell back upon isolationism and appeasement. We refused to face realities, including moral realities. We ceased to care deeply for the freedom our fathers bequeathed to us. We did not believe that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. We did not care whether freedom was extended or diminished in other places, so long as our own privileges were not too much interfered with. We thought that peace could be bought by condoning injustice and by closing our eyes to tyranny. We said, “We are our own keepers; we are not our brother’s keepers. Concentration camps and death camps–we are shocked to know of them, but they are not our business. Subjugation and enslavement–these are unfortunate, too, but also not our business.”
We called escapism, morality; and cowardice, idealism; and we asked the blessing of a God who wasn’t listening on the most contemptible hodge-podge of pusillanimity and hypocrisy that the world has ever seen; then, not waiting to find out whether God had blessed it or not, we gave it the blessing of our churches and called it religion.
But God got along as best he could in spite of the opposition of the majority of those who claimed to believe in him, and somehow managed to find enough roughnecks and philistines of one sort and another to save the situation in the nick of time, and so the flag of hope is still flying. It cannot be said, however, that the souls of Western men have been filled with new life, or that our faith and purpose are renewed, or that the heart of our civilization is beating vigorously.
And so, in the inner would, just as in the outer, we are confronted with a challenge; and it is the same challenge: the challenge of communism demanding that the Western world acknowledge itself bankrupt: bankrupt of ideas and aims, bankrupt of faith and purpose–and being thus bankrupt, that it make way for communism.
The world of Jefferson and Lincoln has grown tired and must surrender to the world of Marx and Lenin–that is the demand. As to the world of Jesus and the prophets of religion–it is a world of dreams and has no meaning: it, too, will capitulate. This is the prediction.
Whose, then, is the future? Can it belong to the West if the West remains irresolute? Can free men claim it if free men have no faith, no zeal, no burning love for freedom? Can they make good their claim and not make good their promises? Promises of justice, of equal rights, of brotherhood?
The truth is — and this much we can say, no matter how little we are able to foresee the pattern of events before us — that we of the West shall only win, shall only survive, shall only claim the future and the chance to establish peace, if in the first place we are resolute enough and match our resolution with our strength; and in the second place, if we are good enough and bring our promise closer to fulfillment. For what we have to win are two struggles at the same time — two struggles which, in the last analysis, are one struggle — the struggle of events and the struggle of faith and morals.
Now, at this point, there are those who think that religion should restrict itself and select the inner struggle as its only proper province. I profoundly dissent. This notion belongs to an outmoded system of ideas. Religion has no right — none whatever — to separate itself from harsh realities and retreat into a protected world. Today, there is no protected world! That is the fact which all of us must brand deeply into mind and memory. There is no protected world. If there ever was one, it exists no longer.
The world in which we are now living is stark, gaunt and terrible with threats and menaces fantastic in their reality but far too real to leave the slightest room for fantasy. In the events of this rigorous world, those who profess religious convictions must go out, not with gloved hands and veiled faces lest they soil their fingers or suffer the sight of iniquity, but with naked hand and wide-open eyes — boldly grasping the stuff of reality with intent to shape it, and calmly looking upon its ugliness with the faith that expects to change it.
I agree entirely with the words of John Morley, said to have been much quoted at one time by Winston Churchill, that “those who would treat politics and morality apart will never understand the one or the other.” It is true. And it is true that the morality inspired by religion must be brave enough to do the thing it shrinks from doing; brave enough to say, no matter with how much grief, that we must be strong. For peace comes not through pacifism; peace comes where those who love peace have the will to enforce it.
This and no other is the verdict of history. Not once in the history of the human race has weakness ever ensured peace. Not even Gandhi would have succeeded if he had had to deal with Hitler or Stalin. Either would have made short work of him; and after that would have massacred as many millions as seemed expedient until the population was subdued.
If, therefore, we are realists, we shall admire Gandhi as a saint, and also perhaps as a strategist. But we shall admit that his success was not so much due to his pacifism as to the conscience of the people of Britain, backed, no doubt, by the conscience of the peoples of other Western lands. For this conscience would not permit the drastic action which would have seemed suitable to a Stalin or a Hitler.
These, I know, are not pleasing words to those who wish to keep their sweetness and light and the harsh facts of life in separate compartments. But I say boldly, and with full conviction, that unless we face the harshness of the facts, and face them candidly, it will not be long before sweetness and light will be very rare things in the world.
Whose is the future? The future — let us understand it plainly — will belong to those who have the strength to seize it, the fortitude to hold it, and the courage to possess it. If the people who love peace do not have this strength, this hardihood, this courage, they will have no part in the future. Except as remnants, degraded and enslaved, they will not even survive. Not even their one merit — the love of peace — will be credited to them. On the contrary, the future will impugn them. For history is not written by the annihilated; history is written by the survivors.
Nevertheless, strength alone will not ensure us the future. For even strength is not an external thing–not that alone. Strength is of the heart, of the conscience, as well as of arms and armor. The words placed by Tennyson in the mouth of Sir Galahad are not an idle boast–not altogether so. “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.” Is it not true that honest conviction and the righteousness of a just cause increase the might of those who hold such convictions and are dedicated to such a cause?Yes, it is true. And it is true, or so I profoundly believe, that in the second half of the 20th Century the struggle in which we are engaged is sure to issue either in the greatest advancement of freedom, justice and brotherhood the world has ever known, or in the destruction of the greater part of the civilized world and the general degradation of mankind.
If we are to avert this latter alternative, we must yield completely–sincerely, genuinely and without the plausible excuses, the old, worn-out hypocrisies with which we have procrastinated in the past–to the law of God that makes us, each of us, his brother’s keeper, and tells us that we are neighbors, from one pole of the earth to the other, and that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.
This we must do, not as a matter of pious affirmation, warm with sentiment, but as social and political action, drawing politics and morality together, as Morley said we must; and doing better, not just a little better, but enough better, with each fateful year that passes.
Whether we shall do this or not, I do not know, and in that sense, I do not know whose is the future. But I know whose it is if it isn’t ours. Mind you, I am not saying that it is sure to be Russia’s. The first half of the 20th Century held many surprises, and so may the second. The Soviet sands may be running out in ways that would astonish the men of the Kremlin. For they are not men of vision, or even of sagacity. They are dogmatists, and dogmatists are frequently outmarched by realities. They are conspirators, and conspirators take the risk of being caught in their own nets. They are shrewd little men, but the problems of the modern world cannot be solved either by shrewdness or littleness. So after a while, it may be Germany again; or a coalition; or any of quite a lot of things.
But whatever it is it will be essentially the same thing–the thing it was in Hitler, the thing it is in Stalin, the ancient evil that it always is, trampling, oppressing, brutalizing, destroying: always that, even though it be in the name of the Fatherland of “Strength through Joy,” or of the salvation of the downtrodden, or the working man’s Utopia: always the same thing, and always identified by its contempt of freedom, its disdain for human rights, its bitter cynicism, its falsification of truth, its slaughter of heretics–by these things and by others, which now, one may suppose, are at least familiar.
To win the future and destroy this hydra-headed threat, we must as I say, be strong; and being strong, we must be just. Just, as we have never been before. And yet, in a harsh world, we must also do this difficult thing: we must carry sympathy and compassion in our hearts. We must love the gentleness, the kindness, the quiet peace of a world that we ourselves may never see. We must carry its qualities with us at the same time that we practice the more rigorous ones. Is this possible? Of course it is! The weak are never gentle. They fumble and damage what their grasp is too feeble to hold. Only the strong can be gentle; and the very strong can be very gentle. And at the same time, of course, very strong.
Will we do all this? I do not know. But I do know that we must if the aims and hopes we serve are to survive and claim the future. And I am sure that we can.
To us, to whom the reverses of the first half of the 20th Century still seem surprising, it appears strange that we should be living so insecurely, and with such desperate tasks to undertake. But this is only because our perspectives are very short ones, and we have been spoiled by our earlier security. Actually, it has often happened–if not with the same scope, nevertheless with the same intensity of obligation–that people have had to attempt what we are now attempting. As, for instance, when the exiled Jews returned to their ruined city, nearly 2500 years ago, and they built the walls, the Scriptures tell us, standing with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. But they built the walls. They rebuilt their national life and built it better than it had ever been in the past. Such things can be done because they have been done.
Whose is the future? The future belongs to those who are willing to deserve it and resolved to possess it, who make neither boasts nor excuses, but whose quiet faith is such that having undertaken the task in hand, they expect to complete it.
God give to all of us a readiness to share this task, and zeal and courage equal to its burdens.