Abraham Kuyper's "Christianity and the Class Struggle" was published by Piet Hein Publishers in 1950. Though 64 years away from us, I find the message of the first chapter relevant to contemporary social issues. In it, he dealt issues like economic inequity, socialism and state interventionism (of course he did not use this last term but the essence is there). In this article, I just want to share the growing recognition during Kuyper's time for the lack of social consciousness among Christians, Kuyper's lament for delayed response, and his suggested form of Christian social consciousness.
Absence of Social Consciousness
John Gritter honestly accepted that many Christians including the Reformed community "seem to realize absolutely nothing of the implications of their religion in the social realm" (p. 7). This is despite of their zeal for Christian Education and Christian Mercy. He believed that "the application of Christian principles to the social problems is sorely needed!" (ibid.). He was not alone in that conviction. Many intelligent young people who were "impressed with the beauty and the urgency" of Calvinism confirmed that the absence of such application was indeed a serious situation (ibid.). And so for John Gritter, the appearance of Abraham Kuyper's book was timely.
"In the political sphere we are doing almost nothing; in the matter of social justice we are not doing much better. We have a principles also in the social sphere, will have to start again from the bottom up. We are as yet pretty much at sea as to just how we are to proceed. We are baffled by many practical questions to which we have no answer. In seeking such answers Kuyper can help us. The thoughts expressed in this book were first set forth almost sixty years ago, but they are today as fundamental as they were at that time. Many of the practical questions which Kuyper faced are with us now" (pp. 8-9).
It was Gritter's prayer that this little book would find its way to receptive readers and would somehow result into a movement for social change.
"May it be widely read and earnestly studied. May the assimilation of it produce an urgent consciousness of our calling, our God-given duty, to apply the truth of God also in the social sphere. May it blossom forth in a strong movement to fling out the banner of our Lord also in that domain of life" (p. 9).
Kuyper's Lament for Late Response
In the opening pages of the first part of the book, Kuyper described the gathering of Christian leaders in the Netherlands to discuss the economic issues of that time. Kuyper acknowledged that none of the delegate was an expert in economics. However, despite of their limitation, their goal was to seriously tackle what they should do about the social ills of their time. His regret was that compared to Christian leaders in other parts of Europe, their response in Netherlands was delayed.
Christian leaders outside Netherlands held their own meetings in search for solution to the social challenge. Instances of these were the meetings of Christian Workers Party in Berlin, Christian Socialists in London under certain Rev. Headlam, Christian Society for Social Economy in Geneva and the Catholic initiative under the influence of Le Play and Von Ketteler. They held series of congresses in Germany, France and Belgium. Also Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical about this issue.
And then Kuyper recalled the past. He reminded the delegates that delayed response was not a usual feature of Dutch Christianity. Under the intellectual contribution of Bilderdijk, Da Costa and Groen van Prinsterer, they had always been ahead when there was a social problem. Bilderdijk, an advocate of traditional liberalism, exposed the false theory of charity as early as 1825. Kuyper quoted him saying, "'Whenever a people is destined to perish in sin. It's in the church that the soul-leprosy begins'" (p. 15). Da Costa, in his Song of 1840, denounced Plutocracy, the "'rule of money'" (ibid.). For him, Luxury turns into a "'sap-destroying like a cancer, and as it were, destroying the balance between the classes'"(ibid.). He actually lead a meeting for this issue "at London in 1864 a quarter of a century before Karl Marx" (ibid.). Groen van Prinsterer in 1853 called Dutch Christians to extinguish the fire of socialism believing that "'socialism finds its source in the French Revolution'" and "'is conquerable only by Christianity'"(p.16).
Kuyper continued his lament that Dutch Christian leaders had been positioned in the "rear guard" not only by other Christian leaders in other parts of Europe but also "by the Socialists themselves, who constantly appeal to Christ in support of their Utopias..." (ibid.). He described these Socialists as continually holding "serious mottoes from the Holy Word..." and had "not hesitated to present Christ Himself as the great prophet of Socialism..." due to what they believe to be a strong bond between "the Socialist need and the Christian religion..." (ibid.).
And then Kuyper expressed the uneasiness of a certain Adolphe Naquet also from a traditional liberal school the way Socialism is advancing Christianity. Naquet said, "'You do the work of religion. . . when you put in the foreground exactly those problems in whose solution Christianity is so closely involved'" (p.17). Kuyper saw in this statement a commendation of the power of Christianity to aid the social ill.
Kuyper then introduced a most illuminating statement from Fichte.
"'Christianity conceals in its womb a much greater treasure of rejuvenation than you surmise. Until now it has exerted its power only on the individual and only indirectly on the state. But anyone who, as believer or as unbeliever, has been able to spy out its secret dynamic, must grant that Christianity can exert a wonderful organizing power on society also; and not till this power breaks through will the religion of the cross shine before the whole world in all the depths of its conception and in all the wealth of the blessings which it brings'" (ibid.).
Dr. Kuyper concluded his litany by embracing the undeniability of the connection between the social question and the Christian religion. He affirmed, "...Christian religion and the social question, are intertwined. The conviction that such a relation exists is not enough. It must also take on form and shape for us. Only so can it speak to our consciousness." Again, his only regret was that the Dutch Christian leaders have not spoken louder and have not acted earlier. He was so ashamed for such inactivity.
The Need for a Christian Social Consciousness
Kuyper then started to expound about his idea of a "form" or "shape" of Christian social consciousness by explaining the "antithesis" between nature and art. He ascribes power to both. By nature, he meant the power that lies beyond human reach. By art, he meant the power derived from human will to properly utilize nature. He gave several examples of this such as the breeding of horses, irrigation and the education of our children. The goal is "to unlock the power concealed in nature," (p. 19) and he believes that God is pleased with such exercise of the will.
Unfortunately, man did not properly use this higher power derived from human will. Instead of experiencing peace and happiness through the appropriate use of such art, its misuse brought countless miseries. Kuyper describes this misuse as "series of misdirected actions" (p. 20) originating from "two-fold unchanging cause, error and sin" (ibid.).
Concerning error, Kuyper explains, "Error insofar as there was ignorance as to the essence of man and his social attributes, and ignorance equally as to the laws which govern on the one hand human association and on the other, the production, distribution and use of material goods" (ibid.). And regarding sin, Kuyper mentions greed and ambition. These two "disturbed or opposed the sound growth of human society, whether through force or through vicious custom and unjust law, and sometimes for centuries abetted a very cancerous development" (ibid.). And then through time, both error and sin "joined forces to enthrone untruthful principles, which did violence to our human nature ; and out of these false principles to build systems which licensed injustice . . ." (ibid.).
Kuyper described such social ills with another name, "reckless play" (p. 21) that is done by the intellectuals and the wealthy, and through their influence, found way through the government. From this point, we read that Abraham Kuyper was not uninformed about the evils of statist interventionism though he did not use the term.
". . . . actually there has never been a government in any land of the world which did not in various ways dominate both the course of social life and its relations with material wealth. It did this through the various enactment of civil laws ; through trade laws ; and indirectly through its criminal law and penal code; and as far as concerns the relation to material wealth, more particularly through inheritance laws, through the system of taxation, through regulation of exports and imports, codes for purchase and rent, agrarian regulations, colonial rule, control of coinage, and much more" (ibid.).
Kuyper further described the social and economic results from such a "fixed rule" (p. 22) used by those who are stronger for their own advantage.
"The ineradicable inequality between men gave the stronger an advantage over the weaker, and as though an animal rather than a human society were involved, produced a world in which the fixed rule prevails that the stronger devours the weaker; and the stronger, almost without exception, have always known how to bend every usage and magistral ordinance so that the profit was theirs and the loss was for the weaker. Men did not literally eat each other like the cannibals, but the more powerful exploited the weaker by means of a weapon against which there was no defense. And whenever the magistrate did come forward as a servant of God to protect the weaker, the more powerful class of society soon knew how to exercise such an overpowering influence on the government that the governmental power which should have protected the weaker became an instrument against them. And this was not because the stronger class was more evil at heart than the weaker; for no sooner did a man from the lower class rise to the top than he in his turn took part just as harshly, and indeed more harshly, in the irreligious oppression of those who were members of his own former class" (ibid.).
Kuyper ended the first chapter of his book with a solemn warning based on Biblical material.
"No, the cause lay in this, that men regarded humanity apart from its eternal destiny, did not honor it as created in the image of God, and did not reckon with the majesty of the Lord, who alone is able to hold in check, through His grace, a race sunk in sin. This unjust situation was already born in ancient times of which the Preacher so movingly complains (Eccl. 4:1) : "So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of the oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter. " It is a situation like that when Naboth was murdered so that Jezebel might add his acre to the royal park of Ahab; or, if you will, a state of affairs once and for all typified by our Lord in the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus; and against which James hurls his apostolic ban when he writes: "Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. You gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth' (p.23).
Kuyper, A. (1950). Christianity and Class Struggle. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Piet Hein Publishers.