Mere Christianity 10: Social Morality

In this chapter Lewis talks briefly about Christianity and politics.  Or to put it in a more general fashion, how the Christian faith interfaces with the workings of culture and society.

For starters, Christian morality is nothing new.  It is only the quacks and cranks who come up with new moralities.  Good moral teachers always bring us back to time-honored moral principles which are at the heart of any moral or religious system that is worth mentioning.  The heart of Christian morality is what we all know and love as the Golden Rule:  “Do as you would be done by”, as Lewis says it.  Or, as it is said in the Sunday school environment for elementary-age children at my church, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Some key ideas from this chapter:

–Christianity does not have a political program.  There is nothing in Christianity which claims to represent the proper application of “Do as you would be done by” to any particular society at any particular moment.  The truth is that people are different, societies are different, cultures are different, circumstances are different, and what works in one time or place may not work in another.  Thus it is up to the individuals who live in a specific culture or society to determine what “Do as you would be done by” looks like specifically within their own society.

When it [Christianity] tells you to feed the hungry, it does not give you lessons in cookery.  When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew or Greek, or even in English grammar.  It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences:  it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.

Lewis is very big on the idea that this application of “Do as you would be done by” to the society in which we live must not come from ordained clergy, professional ministry, or denominational leadership of any stripe.  Instead it must come from the efforts of individual Christians who are involved in business, politics, education, economics, etc. working within their own specific field of endeavor.

For example, in a recent message the pastor at my church mentioned that he gets lots of calls from people who request that he send “someone from the church” to visit someone who is in the hospital.  He consistently says in response, “Well, you’re from the church, and I’m from the church.  Which one of us is it going to be?”

–A Christian society would look very odd.  There would be plenty of material in a truly Christian society to rankle both liberals and conservatives alike.  The New Testament has a lot to say about what a truly Christian society would look like, and if we look at this we will see that its requirements are very demanding, perhaps more so than we can take.

–Some things about our society are profoundly at odds with Scripture.  The charging of interest is the specific example that Lewis picks to hone in on.  Jews, Greeks, and pre-Renaissance Christian teachers were strongly opposed to this.

Now, it may be that they were not against the charging of interest but rather the charging of excessive interest.  Some interpreters of Scripture have made that argument.  Or it may be that the authors of Scripture simply could not foresee the development of the joint-stock corporation, just as Old Testament authors writing about the stars in the sky could not foresee the development of modern astronomy, just as New Testament authors who offer specific guidelines for women’s dress could not foresee the changes in women’s fashions which have occurred down through the centuries.

But, to quote Lewis, “I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilisations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life.”

–Charity is an essential part of Christian morality.  Now some people, namely the conservatives and libertarians among us, would say that giving to the poor is unnecessary and that instead we should be working toward a society in which there are no poor to give to.  That is all well and good, and maybe someday we will have a society where no one is poor.  But, to quote Lewis, “if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality.”

Lewis then goes on to offer his own rule on how much we ought to give, and it is that we ought to give more than we can spare.  If our charitable giving is not hampering us in some form or fashion–if it does not at the very least place us in the position of having to decide whether to stop at Starbucks for our morning coffee or get it at the convenience store and save a couple of dollars, or whether to buy a new book at Borders or wait and save a few dollars by getting it used on–then we are probably giving too little.

Lewis then observes that the greatest obstacle to charity is not luxurious living or the desire for more money, but rather the fear of insecurity.  Sometimes pride is a hindrance to charity, as people tend to prefer the showier forms of generosity (such as tipping or hospitality) to giving directly to those who most need our help.

–To sum up, no political candidate or party or social movement has Christianity pegged.  So be wary of anything like the “Christian right” or anything else that sticks the label “Christian” onto itself, such as a political candidate or a political platform or a political party.  On the other hand, Christianity applies to so much of the human experience that anyone involved in business, education, medicine, science, economics, public policy, etc. has plenty of standing to express his or her faith as it relates to his/her specific field of endeavor.  Don’t be surprised if this expression goes in different directions from what you expect, so that both conservatives and liberals are equally pleased and offended.