In Part 1 of "Christianity and the Class Struggle," I understand that Abraham Kuyper proposed a "form" of Christian social consciousness using the antithesis between nature and human will. However, he stated that human failed in its task to bring peace and happiness due to error and sin. In the 2nd part of his book, Dr. Kuyper explained how Christianity addressed the social problem caused by error and sin. In this article, I just want to share my overview and reflection on Kuyper's paper about the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the nature of Jesus' response to social problems, the meaning of usury, the assessment of Jesus' contribution, the role of the church, and the failure of the church.
The Disintegration of the Roman Empire
Dr. Kuyper opened the 2nd part of his book by recalling the downfall of the Roman Empire. He saw similar symptoms that caused the collapse of the Empire, which were also evident in his generation. He described those symptoms as follows:
"....the balance between the classes was lost: there was defiant luxury next to crying need; immense accumulations of capital and beggarly poverty concealed in the slums of Rome; and, necessarily following, there was corruption in government ; sensuality rather than morality setting the tone of public opinion; and the masses, carried away by need and passion, ready at any time for rebellion, murder and plunder" (p. 25).
The Kind of Hope that Jesus Offered
While such imperial disintegration was occuring, the hope for humanity dawned in Bethlehem through the person of the Son of God who took a human form. Dr. Kuyper explained the nature of this hope so as to distinguish it from the misapprehension of the socialists and the revolutionaries. Jesus was neither a "social reformer" nor a preacher of revolution. "Savior of the world was his higher and much richer title" (p. 26).
The hope that Jesus offered to humanity was important both for the future and the present life, though the primary emphasis was always on the importance of eternal life (p.26). In relation to combating error and sin, Jesus opposed them by truth and by giving up His life. Dr. Kuyper explained this kind of social response:
"And if you ask then what Jesus did to bring rescue in the social need of those days, here is the answer. Since he knew that such defiant abuses arose from the evil roots of error and sin, he placed the truth over against this error, and He broke the power of sin by shedding His blood for this sin and pouring out His Holy Spirit unto His own" (p. 26).
Dr. Kuyper further explained the social response of our Savior in terms of "moral motivation" and his "personal life." Jesus had a word for both the rich and the poor. He did not hate the wealthy. What he hated was the corrupt means in obtaining wealth.
"In Jesus' heart there dwelt no hatred against the rich, but rather a deep sympathy for their pitiable state....Only when possession of money leads to usury and harshness is Jesus angry..." (p 27).
What is Usury?
I just want to expand this idea about corrupt means to attain wealth. Kuyper specifically mentioned "usury," and He asserts that Jesus is angry with such financial practice. Usury is commonly defined as charging excessive interest to a loaned money. Granted that Kuyper's assertion is correct, then Jesus would be very angry with the existing monetary system since it is far worst than usury. I think it is Edward Griffin who coined a new definition of usury. To him, the existing fiat money is actually made out of thin air, and then it is loaned as debt to earn interest. If charging an excessive interest to an actual and existing loaned money is usury, how will you describe the interest asked from a money made out of nothing?
Following the information Abraham Kuyper shared in the first part of his book about the influence of the intellectuals and the wealthy using the government "to build systems which licensed injustice" (p. 20), I cannot avoid to think that the existing monetary system is one of those systems. I first heard this idea of "licensed injustice" from Frederic Bastiat, a classical liberal political economist, but he used a different term, "legal plunder" and applied it in not to the financial but to the legal system. These systems that Kuyper, Griffin, and Bastiat described during their time are still prevailing up to our time. And we wonder now why the global economy is like this?
Now if Jesus is angry with such a usurious and "licensed injustice," how come the contemporary church is not? Does it mean that the church lost its connection from her head? Or does it mean that the church believes that a neutral ground exists in this matter? What should take place before the church will realize that the myth of neutrality never exists?
An Assessment of Jesus' Contribution
Dr. Kuyper mentioned other details that require longer attention. I agree with most of his statements except for at least three that I think need further clarification. Subjects, which I have reservation are related to capital accumulation, the understanding that Jesus is on the side of the poor, and about the financial life of the apostles. What does Kuyper mean by "to cease his accumulating of capital...?" Are all kinds of capital accumulation prohibited by Jesus? Is Kuyper biblically correct? How about economically? If all types of capital accumulation is wrong, how can we reconcile this with biblical material teaching about wealth as outcome of God's blessing? Surely capital accumulation is a legitimate way to attain such wealth. Weren't there specific historical factors that we need to take into consideration? How about the status of those poor? Doesn't the Bible qualify those who are "poor in spirit"? Were the poor during Jesus' time the same with modern day poor? How about the financial situation of the apostles? Are they temporal or permanent? Are they normative or descriptive? Do modern day ministers have to follow their financial lifestyle?
Dr. Kuyper mentioned another feature of Jesus' response that though brief, is worthy of attention. This is related to his explanation of fighting error and sin with truth and the life of the Lord. As already mentioned, the nature of Jesus' response was classified as a kind of "moral motivation" both through his teaching and his personal life. Connected to this are his qualities of "devotedness, self-denial," and "divine pity" (p. 29). As a whole, this is Dr. Kuyper's assessment of Jesus contribution:
"Such a presence, such a preaching, such a death, would already have exercised an influence for good in social relations. The overthrow of the idol of Mammon and the transplanting of the purpose of existence from earth to heaven must even by itself bring about a complete revolution in the self-consciousness of the peoples" (pp. 29-30).
The Role of the Church
The response of the Lord Jesus Christ to the social problems was not confined in his teaching and personal life. It is also done through the ministry of the church. Dr. Kuyper identified at least three: ministry of the Word, organized ministry of charity, and instituting the equality of brotherhood. He explains:
"But Jesus did not stop with this. Jesus also organized. Did He not cause His church to go out among the nations; a church which was destined to triply influence the life of society? First, through the ministry of the Word, insofar as the Word constantly fought against greed for money, comforted the poor and oppressed, and in exchange for the suffering of the present time pointed to an endless glory. Then, second, through an organized ministry of charity, which in the name of the Lord, as being the single owner of all goods, demanded community of goods to this extent, that in the circle of belivers no man or woman was to be permitted to suffer want or to be without the necessary apparel. And, third, by instituting the equality of brotherhood over against difference in rank and station, through abolishing all artificial demarcations between men, and by joining rich and poor in one holy food at the Lord's Supper, in symbol of the unity which bound them together not only as "children of men," but, more importantly, as those who have collapsed under the same guilt and have been saved by the same sacrifice in Christ" (p.30).
As a result of the presence and ministry of the church, society experienced great trasnformation compared to its previous condition. For Dr. Kuyper, this is an established fact:
"And indeed it is a fact that, as a direct consequence of the appearance of the Christ and of the extension of His church among the nations, society becomes markedly different from what it was in the pagan dispensation. The Roman society of that time was strikingly like what Jesus once called a "whited sepulchre which on the outside is beautiful, but inside full of dead bones," and that whited sepulchre crashed into ruins. And without wishing to say that the new social order which arose as though spontaneously from these ruins corresponded in any sense at all to the ideal cherished by Jesus, we may nevertheless gratefully acknowledge that more tolerable social conditions were born. Earthly welfare no longer weighed heaviest in public estimation; eternal well-being also had weight. Slavery was broken at its root, and underwent a moral criticism which demolished it as an institution. Men began to be concerned about the care of the poor and of orphans. The accumulation of too much capital was checked by the opposition to usury. Higher and lower classes approached each other on a footing of freer association. And while the contrast of surplus and scarcity was not erased, the antithesis between overweening luxury and pinching poverty was not so sharp" (pp.30-31).
The Failure of the Church
Unfortunately, the church lost her way since the time that she gained influence and affluence through the conversion of Constantine the Great. Dr. Kuyper reminisced such lost opportunity:
"Man had not yet arrived at an ideal state, but at least he was started on a better path; and had not the Church gone astray from her simplicity and her heavenly ideal, the influence of the Christian religion on the state and on social relationships soon would have become dominant" (p.31).
Dr. Kuyper narrated further how the witness of the church started to deteriorate:
"But, first of all, the Christianization of Europe went too quickly, and the folk-groups which had to be assimilated were altogether too massive. And the conversion of Constantine was for the Church the signal to wed itself with the power of the world, thereby cutting the nerve of her strength, and from then on there was in consequence an infiltration again of the world into the church. Instead of disciples who went out without purse or food, richly endowed princes of the church, housed in magnificent palaces ; and as the heirs of the Galilean fisherman at the head of the Church, a series of popes displayed a royal pomp, and in a Julius II or a Leo X seemed more bent on paganizing Christianity than on Christianizing the life of the world. So the salt lost its savour; and social corruption regained its ancient strength; a corruption which was checked, but not conquered, in the lands of the Reformation ; and in that portion of Europe remaining Catholic, speedily spread in such fashion that finally royal absolutism and aristocratic pride evoked the unbearable social tension which issued in the French Revolution, revolution, therefore, which broke out on Catholic territory"(pp. 31- 32).
Dr. Kuyper discussed in the next part of his book the lessons we can learn from French Revolution.
Source: Kuyper, A. (1950). Christianity and Class Struggle. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Piet Hein Publishers.