Setting aside the scandal caused by His Messianic claims and His reputation as a political firebrand, only two accusations of personal depravity seem to have been brought against Jesus of Nazareth. First, that He was a Sabbath-breaker. Secondly, that He was “a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” — or (to draw aside the veil of Elizabethan English which makes it all sound so much more respectable) that He ate too heartily, drank too freely, and kept very disreputable company, including grafters of the lowest type and ladies who were no better than they should be.
For nineteen and a half centuries, the Christian Churches have laboured, not without success, to remove this unfortunate impression made by their Lord and Master. They have hustled the Magdalens from the Communion table, founded Total Abstinence Societies in the name of Him who made the water wine, and added improvements of their own, such as various bans and anathemas upon dancing and theatre-going. They have transferred the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and, feeling that the original commandment “thou shalt not work” was rather half-hearted, have added to it a new commandment, “thou shalt not play.”
Whether these activities are altogether in the spirit of Christ we need not argue. One thing is certain; that they have produced some very curious effects upon our language. They have, for example, succeeded in placing a strangely restricted interpretation on such words as “virtue,” “purity” and “morality.” There are a great many people now living in the world who firmly believe that “Christian morals,” as distinct from purely secular morality, consist in three things and three things only: Sunday observance, not getting intoxicated, and not practising — well, in fact, not practising “immorality.” I do not say that the Churches themselves would agree with this definition; I say only that this is the impression they have contrived to give the world, and that the remarkable thing about it is its extreme unlikeness to the impression produced by Christ.
Now, I do not suggest that the Church does wrong to pay attention to the regulation of bodily appetites and the proper observance of holidays. What I do suggest is that by over-emphasising this side of morality, to the comparative neglect of others, she has not only betrayed her mission but, incidentally, defeated her own aims even about “morality.” She has, in fact, made an alliance with Caesar, and Caesar, having used her for his own purposes, has now withdrawn his support — for that is Caesar’s pleasant way of behaving. For the last three hundred years or so, Caesar has been concerned to maintain a public order based upon the rights of private property: consequently, he has had a vested interest in “morality.” Strict morals make for the stability of family life and the orderly devolution of property, and Caesar (namely, the opinion of highly placed and influential people) has been delighted that the Church should do the work of persuading the citizen to behave accordingly. Further, a drunken workman is a bad workman, and thriftless extravagance is bad for business; therefore, Caesar has welcomed the encouragement of the Church for those qualities which make for self-help in industry. As for Sunday observance, the Church could have that if she liked, so long as it did not interfere with trade. To work all round the week ends in diminishing production; the one day in seven was necessary, and what the Church chose to do with it was no affair of Caesar’s.
Unhappily, however, this alliance for mutual benefit between Church and Caesar has not lasted. The transfer of property from the private owner to the public trust or limited company enables Caesar to get on very well without personal morals and domestic stability; the conception that the consumer exists for the sake of production has made extravagance and thriftless consumption a commercial necessity: consequently, Caesar no longer sees eye to eye with the Church about these matters, and will as soon encourage a prodigal frivolity on Sunday as on any other day of the week. Why not? Business is business. The Church, shocked and horrified, is left feebly protesting against Caesar’s desertion, and denouncing a “relaxation of moral codes,” in which the heedless world is heartily aided and abetted by the State, The easy path of condemning what Caesar condemns or is not concerned to defend has turned out to be like the elusive garden-path in Through the Looking-Glass i just when one seemed to be getting somewhere, it gave itself a little shake and one found oneself walking in the opposite direction.
Now, if we look at the Gospels with the firm intention to discover the emphasis of Christ’s morality, we shall find that it did not lie at all along the lines laid down by the opinion of highly placed and influential people. Disreputable people who knew they were disreputable were gently told to “go and sin no more”; the really unparliamentary language was reserved for those thrifty, respectable, and Sabbatarian citizens who enjoyed Caesar’s approval and their own. And the one and only thing that ever seems to have roused the “meek and mild” Son of God to a display of outright physical violence was precisely the assumption that “business was business.” The money-changers in Jerusalem drove a very thriving trade, and made as shrewd a profit as any other set of brokers who traffic in foreign exchange; but the only use Christ had for these financiers was to throw their property down the front steps of the Temple.
Perhaps if the Churches had had the courage to lay their emphasis where Christ laid it, we might not have come to this present frame of mind in which it is assumed that the value of all work, and the value of all people, is to be assessed in terms of economics. We might not so readily take for granted that the production of anything (no matter how useless or dangerous) is justified so long as it issues in increased profits and wages; that so long as a man is well paid, it does not matter whether his work is worthwhile in itself or good for his soul; that so long as a business deal keeps on the windy side of the law, we need not bother about its ruinous consequences to society or the individual. Or at any rate, now that we have seen the chaos of bloodshed which follows upon economic chaos, we might at least be able to listen with more confidence to the voice of an untainted and undivided Christendom. Doubtless it would have needed courage to turn Dives from the church-door along with Mary Magdalen; (has any prosperously fraudulent banker, I wonder, ever been refused Communion on the grounds that he was, in the words of the English Prayer-book, “an open and notorious evil liver”?) But lack of courage, and appeasement in the face of well-organised iniquity, does nothing to avert catastrophe or to secure respect.
In the list of those Seven Deadly Sins which the Church officially recognises there is the sin which is sometimes called Sloth, and sometimes Accidie. The one name is obscure to us; the other is a little misleading. It does not mean lack of hustle: it means the slow sapping of all the faculties by indifference, and by the sensation that life is pointless and meaningless, and not-worth-while. It is, in fact, the very thing which has been called the Disease of Democracy. It is the child of Covetousness, and the parent of those other two sins which the Church calls Lust and Gluttony. Covetousness breaks down the standards by which we assess our spiritual values, and causes us to look for satisfactions in this world. The next step is the sloth of mind and body, the emptiness of heart, which destroy energy and purpose and issue in that general attitude to the universe which the inter-war jazz musicians aptly named “the Blues.” For the cure of the Blues, Caesar (who has his own axe to grind) prescribes the dreary frivolling which the Churches and respectable people have agreed to call “immorality,” and which, in these days, is as far as possible from the rollicking enjoyment of bodily pleasures which, rightly considered, are sinful only by their excess. The mournful and medical aspect assumed by “immorality” in the present age is a sure sign that in trying to cure these particular sins we are patching up the symptoms instead of tackling the disease at its roots.
To these facts it is only fair to say that the Churches are at last waking up. The best Christian minds are making very strenuous efforts to readjust the emphasis and to break the alliance with Caesar. The chief danger is lest the Churches, having for so long acquiesced in the exploiting of the many by the few, should now think to adjust the balance by helping on the exploitation of the few by the many, instead of attacking the false standards by which everybody, rich and poor alike, has now come to assess the value of life and work. If the Churches make this mistake, they will again be merely following the shift of power from one class of the community to the other and deserting the dying Caesar to enlist the support of his successor. A more equal distribution of wealth is a good and desirable thing, but it can scarcely be attained, and cannot certainly be maintained unless we get rid of the superstition that acquisitiveness is a virtue and that the value of anything is represented in terms of profit and cost.
The Churches are justifiably shocked when the glamour of a film actress is assessed by the number of her love affairs and divorces; they are less shocked when the glamour of a man, or of a work of art is headlined in dollars. They are shocked when “unfortunates” are reduced to selling their bodies; they are less shocked when journalists are reduced to selling their souls. They are shocked when good food is wasted by riotous living; they are less shocked when good crops are wasted and destroyed because of overproduction and under-consumption. Something has gone wrong with the emphasis; and it is becoming very evident that until that emphasis is readjusted, the economic balance-sheet of the world will have to be written in blood.