Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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In Search of the Age of Gold

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Image by Jan Steiner from Pixabay

From postmillennialism
to the social gospel
to saving the world from weather

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

This is the fifth and final verse of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, the Christmas carol written in 1849 by Edmund Hamilton Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts.

This verse is an expression of the prevailing view of that day that the gospel would permeate all nations and all levels of society, eliminating strife and injustice, in preparation for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. That view is called postmillennialism. There are still preachers, writers and churches that hold to that view.

The proponents of postmillennialism believed they had a duty to hasten the coming of the golden age which would lead to the return of the Lord. They engaged in many praiseworthy activities to help the poor and oppressed; they were the prime movers behind the movement to abolish slavery.

After the abolition of slavery in the USA, the movement move on to other targets. By now they had infiltrated political parties and began to influence them to use governments to achieve their objectives. They advocated for better working conditions for labourers, the right to vote for women, and the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages.

In the 1890’s postmillennialism morphed into the social gospel. Leading writers of the movement saw the private ownership of business as a roadblock in the way of making the golden age a reality. The social gospel movement succeeded in attaining many of its goals, yet the golden age still seemed as far away as ever.

Strife between nations, strife between social and ethnic groups, has not diminished. By now the movement has become disconnected from its Christian roots, though many churches still want to believe that it is going to lead to a better world. There are new targets today, climate change, gender choice and so on.

Some Christians today think the best way to counter this movement is to strive for influence in political parties. But this whole problem was caused by Christians trying to use political means to make the world a better place. Satan is a cunning enemy, he encourages such tactics, then turns them against us.

The best choice for Christians today is to renounce politics and get back to being Christians. People, politicians and governments are not our enemies, attacking them is another of Satan’s ruses to keep us from seeing who our real enemy is.

People around us are dying for lack of a drink from the well of salvation. Most of them may not be aware that is what they need; we can’t force them to drink, but we can tell them about the soul refreshing water and offer it to them.

Mennonites don’t have a social conscience!

During the first few years that we were members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, my wife was often puzzled about why other church members were seemingly unmoved by problems and injustices in the world that moved her deeply. One day a light came on, and she said to me, “Mennonites don’t have a social conscience!” She was right.

It was said of the apostles, “These are the men who have turned the world upside down!” The gospel changes the world one person at a time. The social gospel sees people as inherently good — it is the world that needs changing. Proponents of the social gospel have succeeded in implanting in the hearts and minds of a large portion of the population a deep-seated belief that we are personally accountable for all the evils in the world and that we must do something to right those wrongs. This is a social conscience.

Many of the larger Canadian churches, the Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and the Baptist Convention, adopted the social gospel program almost a century ago. One of their first targets was the sale of alcoholic beverages, believing that if such beverages were no longer available one of the greatest curses of society would be removed. Prohibition was established in Canada from 1913 to 1927 and in the USA from 1920 to 1933. Unfortunately, the real problem was that a large part of the population actually wanted alcoholic beverages. The net result of the experiment was a considerable expansion of criminal organizations.

Alongside the temperance movement was the women’s suffrage movement. In Canada it was Nellie McClung, a devoted wife and mother, an active church member and a writer of books for children who became the prime mover in pushing for women’s right to vote, temperance, and many other reforms. She was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921. In later years she was dismayed at the results of the movement she had helped create. She had believed that women, with their gentle and maternal instincts, would have a purifying effect on society. She had never dreamed that women would one day demand the right to enter public drinking establishments.

Economic injustices also were a major concern. The churches were enthusiastic supporters of the co-operative movement. Large grain-handling and retail co-ops were established in the Prairie Provinces of Canada and also co-operative banks (credit unions), with the profound faith that these would eliminate the injustices inherent in the private ownership of business.

In 1932 a new Canadian political party was established on social gospel principles and named the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The aim was to provide justice for all through the promotion of co-operative and government-owned businesses as alternatives to private businesses run for the profit of the owners. This party was elected as the government of Saskatchewan in 1944, with a former Baptist pastor as their leader. Despite honest attempts to implement their program, the promised benefits never seemed to materialize.

In the 1920’s the Methodist Church, the Congregational Church and half of the Presbyterian Church merged to form the United Church of Canada, making it by far the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. By the 1950’s it was noted that a decline had set in. A well-known Canadian writer, Pierre Berton, was invited to write a lenten study book for the church. The result was The Comfortable Pew. This book describes a condition where people looked on the church as a comfortable social institution where their hearts and consciences were never challenged. His proposed solution was a revival of the social conscience and the social gospel, to become more committed and active in dealing with the evils in society. The decline has continued. People appear to have decided that if this is all church is about, they can more effectively pursue those goals through other avenues.

The women’s movement took on a life of its own, demanding equal rights with men in all areas. For some years feminists loudly proclaimed that differences between boys and girls were merely the result of parental training. Recent research indicates that, given a choice between a doll and a toy truck, even very small girl babies naturally reach for the doll and boys for the truck. It is sad that we need the social sciences to tell us what our parents always knew.

A Canadian psychologist has recently written a book explaining why women are still very much under represented in upper management. It is not discrimination, it is because they are intrinsically different from men and have different priorities. The writer, Susan Pinker, describes herself as a feminist, and is also a wife and mother.
In their continued quest to eliminate all injustice, the social gospel movement moved on to discrimination against gays. The social gospel churches now appear to be quite comfortable with gay marriages and gay preachers. The social conscience is now trained to see any hint of lack of acceptance of such things as outrageous prejudice.
Animals have their rights, too. The difference between humans and other life forms is becoming blurred. Sometimes it appears that the needs of animals take precedence over the needs of humans.

The intolerant, totalitarian attitude that has developed in these movements may puzzle us. But if we consider that these are all manifestations of the social gospel, it becomes somewhat easier to understand. These are people who sincerely believe that society is in need of salvation and that they have the gospel message that is able to work out that salvation. Never mind that society actually seems to be growing worse as a result of the social gospel. It is only that unenlightened people stand in the way of the full realization of the redemption of society. The social gospel seems to create a zeal for the welfare of people in the abstract, and at the same time to anaesthetize feelings of compassion for real people, especially those who lack a social conscience.

The social gospel transformed the purpose of the gospel message from the salvation of souls to a kind of moral salvation. More recently, it seems to be focussing its attention on the salvation of the planet.

© Bob Goodnough, first published in The Business Bulletin, May, 2008

What if?

Many North American Christians appear to believe that separation of church and state only applies one way.  They feel it is part of their calling to try to fix what is wrong in government.  Yet cries of  outrage are heard when government shows an inclination to try and fix what is wrong in the churches.

There does not seem to be a realization that any organization that puts itself in the position of trying to influence elected officials, or elect the “right” people to public office,  has effectively entered the political arena and thus become subject to political scrutiny.

There are cogent sounding arguments made in favour of Christian political involvement and the irresponsibility of those who abstain.  But have these arguments ever been borne out by the results of Christian political activism?

Nellie McClung was one of the leaders in the movement to extend voting rights to Canadian women.  She believed that women were naturally more gentle and nurturing and once they had the vote they would be able to shut down the liquor industry.  She never foresaw that women would use their vote to obtain the right to join men in public drinking establishments.

The enactment of prohibition in the USA was another victory of the churches.  The result was an increase in alcohol consumption, in speakeasies and other illegal venues, accompanied by a dramatic increase in the power and influence of organized crime.

This example, however, leads me to muse about what might happen if Christianity were ever prohibited in the USA or Canada.  Would the Christian faith be as powerfully attractive as liquor was?  Would Christians still meet in unauthorized gatherings for worship?  Would they become even more effective in leading others to the faith?

That has happened over and over again in other ages and other nations.  Why couldn’t it happen again?  There is a systemic weakness in North American Christianity today, a lack of real acquaintanceship with the Word of God and what it teaches, a lack of earnestness and perseverance in prayer.  We have had it too easy for too long.

Isaac Akinyombo, a minister of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in Nigeria, once suggested that since we in North America do not experience persecution from outside, perhaps we need to persecute ourselves.  I believe his meaning was that we need to be shook up and if outside events aren’t happening to do that, we will need to do something ourselves to shake off our complacency.

I don’t believe we could do that by abandoning all the teachings and structures  that exist in the church today.   However, we need to examine them all in the light of God’s Word and in the light of the faith of fervent brethren in ages past who maintained and spread the faith in times of opposition and persecution.  The way forward is to go back to the true foundation that stood the test in those times.

 

 

There oughta be a law

Every time there is some terrible crime committed or a horrific disaster, someone is sure to say “there oughta be a law” to prevent such mayhem from ever happening again.  Governments are happy to oblige, but is there any evidence the laws are helping?

A poem that was often recited in the Christian school which my daughter attended was about the choice between a fence at the top of the cliff and an ambulance down in the valley.  The following verse gives the essence of the moral taught by the poem.

Then an old man remarked, “it’s a marvel to me
that people give far more attention
to repairing results than to stopping the cause,
when they’d much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he.
“Come neighbours and friends, let us rally:
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
with the ambulance down in the valley.”

– written by Joseph Malines, circa 1895

This all seemed to make sense at the time, but in later years I began to wonder what this poem was really teaching.  My suspicions proved correct, this is a poem inspired by the social gospel and the temperance movement.  The ambulance down in the valley is Christian rescue missions reaching out to the down and out, especially those brought low by alcohol abuse.  The fence on the cliff represents prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.

Well, prohibition was tried in the US.  It did nothing to reduce the need for rescue missions.  Legislators keep passing new laws every year to prevent people from falling off the cliff, yet somehow people still go tumbling down.  What has happened is that Christian missions have fallen into some disrepute and the ambulances are not always available for those who need them.

The social gospel taught that it was a mistake to think of people as sinful, the real sin was in society and a benevolent government would make laws to eliminate the sinful machinations of capitalists and other evil forces in society, so that everyone would be free to live as Jesus taught us to live.

It was all a fantasy dreamt up by folks living in cloud cuckoo land.  The Bible has man sized up as he really is: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  (Jeremiah 17:9).  Forget the fences, the world is in desperate need of more ambulances and ambulance attendants.

What I Did During My Summer Vacation – Part 2

I was born in this city sixty-eight years ago.  My parents are buried in a cemetery on the south side of the city, beside my Uncle Art and Aunt Katherine, my father’s brother who married my mother’s sister.  My wife’s parents are buried in another cemetery on the west side.

Moose Jaw is built at the confluence of three water courses.  Spring Creek comes from the west, passes north of downtown, turns south, then east, makes a horseshoe bend and turns south again.  Thunder Creek flows straight from west to east.  The Moose Jaw River comes from the south, with many turns.  When the three water courses meet, the Moose Jaw River turns and exits the city to the east.  The wide spot in the river where the three meet is known as Plaxton’s Lake.  There is a boardwalk here and farther along the river there are walking trails and picnic spots.  This area is known as Wakamow Valley.

On the east side of the city, Spring Creek has mostly disappeared below street level.  Eighty years ago the horseshoe bend downtown was developed into Crescent Park, a beautiful and peaceful spot covering more than six blocks that begins just a block away from Main Street.

In the 1880’s, Chinese workers were brought to Canada to build the CPR.  It was expected that they would leave when the railroad was finished, but they showed no inclination to return to China.  Laws were enacted to prevent the immigration of Chinese women — having all these Chinese men was bad enough, heaven help us if they bring wives over and start to multiply!  More men kept coming.  The government enacted a law requiring each Chinese man to pay a $500.00 head tax in order to stay in Canada legally.

This was an enormous sum of money.  The men dug tunnels to live under the downtown area, bringing the dirt up at night and adding it to the piles of dirt at construction sites.  The tunnels had secret entrances in the railway station, the hotels and the Chinese cafés.  The men who scraped together enough money to pay the head tax were given a card with their photograph on it.  The police cannot tell one Chinese man from another.  A cook or waiter in a café could work his shift,  disappear underground and hand the card to another worker.

The Chinese men discovered that the dusty and dirty cowboys bringing cattle to the meat packing plants are in need of a cheap place to sleep, a bath and a laundry and they provide these services in the tunnels.

Then came the Prohibition Era in the U.S.  It was legal to produce whiskey in Canada, but not to sell it to the U.S.  The Bronfman family was happy to look after the production part.  The Soo Line Rail Road, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific, runs directly from Moose Jaw to Chicago.  There was this wonderful maze of tunnels underneath the city, connected to the railroad station, just what Al Capone needed to look after the transportation end of things.

Moose Jaw shook off its stagnation by becoming a tourist destination.  Two guided tours of the tunnels are offered, one tells about the Chinese history, the other about the Capone era.  The Chinese tour has an off-colour reference or two, but it is a piece of our history that we should know.  The Capone tour is pure glamorization of sleaze.  I haven’t seen it and don’t intend to.

The Harwood Hotel was another grand old hotel fallen on hard times.  Some enterprising citizens drilled a well to hot underground mineral springs, piped the water to the Harwood, refurbished the hotel and renamed it the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa.  It features an outdoor swimming pool filled with hot mineral water on the second floor of an addition.  There is now a casino across the street.

There are 46 murals and sculptures around the city.  A double-decker bus gives tours, with commentary.  The commentary is a problem.  I once took a young lady on this tour and had to apologize to her after.  I hadn’t anticipated that the commentary would focus so much on glorifying the sleaziest aspects of Moose Jaw’s past.  The murals are worth seeing; now we do it on foot.

(written in 2010)

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