Religion - Cleansing
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
0N summer days along the Hudson's upper reaches one sees soiled trampers going in for a cleansing dip, and as the river sweeps by New York City hundreds of sewers discharge their filth into its waters to be carried out into the purifying salt ocean. The river is a means of cleanliness and health. So men find that their contacts with God wash mind and conscience, and wherever the Christian ideal goes throughout our world, the social life is purified.
The Bible is full of this cleansing effect of religion; and in quoting its witness, one is not slighting similar testimony from other faiths, but using its passages as summing up the highest and most widely tested religious experiences of mankind. "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean : from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you." "He is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap." The New Testament presents "the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world."
No one ever exposed the polluting factors resident in human nature more clearly than Jesus "For from with in, out of the heart of man, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasoiviovsness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness; all these evil things proceed front within, and de-file the man." But He and His followers were confident that the same heart of man could be cleaned and made the seat of motives as purifying as these were defiling. Paul mentions a number of the dirtiest and worst elements in the notorious city of Corinth, and adds : "Such were some of you: but ye were washed in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God." The Gospel which he proclaims "renews" men's minds. James insists that the genuinely devout man shall keep himself "unspotted from the world"; and John announces that they who walk in the light of Christ are cleansed by His blood from all sin. There is a graphic description of the socially purifying effect of religion in Ezekiel's picture of the magical stream, which issues from the temple at Jerusalem, and flowing down to the Dead Sea so heals its briny waters that they teem with fish. Another prophet speaks of a fountain opened in Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness; and the seer on Patmos portrays a great multitude with robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb. And these passages, let us remember, have become holy scriptures to millions because they picture experiences of the cleansing by religion which they themselves have in some measure repeated.
When one turns from the Bible to the writings of those who in the first centuries passed from paganism into the Christian Church, one discovers these followers of Jesus vividly aware that a transforming river is flowing in the new religion which has entered the Roman world. The philosopher Justin writes :
"We who formerly delighted in sexual license now embrace chastity alone; we who once used magical arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a. common stock, and distribute to every one in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ."
The African lawyer, Tertullian, flings back at the de-tractors of Christianity their own remarks about acquaintances who have embraced the new religion: "What a woman she was ! how wanton ! how gay ! What a young blade he was ! how profligate ! how dissipated !—they have become Christians !" "So," he adds, "the hated name is given to reformation of character." Origen answers the attacks of Celsus, who holds the usual opinion of a man of the world that human nature cannot be altered, and then charges Christians with peculiarly vile iniquities :
"The work of Jesus reveals itself among all mankind where communities of God founded by Jesus exist, which are composed of men reclaimed from a thousand vices; and to this day the name of Jesus can produce a marvelous meekness of spirit and complete change of character, and humanity, and goodness, and gentleness, in those who have honestly accepted the teaching concerning God and Christ."
And Lactantius, who had spent years as a teacher, and knew the futility of trying to make men over by the virtuous precepts of the wisest sages, having late in life become a Christian, says confidently :
"Give me one who is grasping, covetous and stingy; I will presently hand him back to you generous, and freely giving his money with full hands. Give me a man who is afraid of pain and death; he shall shortly despise crosses, and fires, and the torture. Give me one who is lustful, an adulterer, a glutton ; you shall soon see him sober, chaste, and temperate. A few precepts of God so entirely change the whole man, that you would not recognize him as the same."
Admitting that there may be in these statements the exaggeration of the enthusiastic devotee, they bear eloquent witness to the sense of a cleansing force in the Christian religion.
In a society long familiar with the ideals of Jesus, we are often not aware of the moral rottenness from which He spares us. New Yorkers seldom think of the service which the ceaselessly flowing Hudson renders our city; its cleansing goes on unnoticed. One has to live for a time in a non-Christian land, become acquainted with family life in homes unhallowed by the Gospel, watch the plight of woman, see how cheap human life is held and what cruelties are inflicted without compunction, find vices which. occur rarely and only among the most degenerate of our population accepted as matters of course, breathe in an atmosphere unvitalized by the breezes which flow from the hillsides of Galilee and from Calvary, to appreciate what Christianity has done for our society. An eminent university professor, himself (I understand) without avowed Christian loyalty, after lecturing extensively in China is reported to have said that in America he had taken too much for granted. He found in a non-Christian land an absence of that moral background to which he had been accustomed to appeal. Although many thousands of our people profess no regard for Christ and never connect their principles with Him, we are as much indebted for our moral health to the presence of His standards, as is New York City for its well-being to its usually unthought-of purifying Hudson.
What the early leaders of the Church saw happening about them, unbiased observers notice in the work of Christian missions to-day. To scan the faces which one sees in a Chinese or Korean market-place, and then to look into the faces of a gathering of Christians in the same town, is to be struck with the transfiguring power of the Gospel. Charles Darwin, reporting his voyage in the southern Pacific, wrote : "The lesson of the missionaries is the enchanter's wand. The march of improvement consequent on the introduction of Christianity through the South Seas probably stands by itself in the records of history." A British officer, in an account of two African campaigns in the London Spectator some years ago, introduces a word of admiration for the work of the Scotch Mission in the Shiré Highlands: "First you must see the negro boy in his savage state, and then see the finished article as turned out by the Blantyre Mission, and I think that you will say that truly the thing is little short of marvelous—from a wild, unkempt, savage urchin, with a rag for a wardrobe, to a pleasant, self-possessed lad, who dresses in spotless white garments, can read and write, and conducts himself with quiet decorum."
Dr. Schweitzer, versatile musician and Biblical critic, who went out as a physician to Equatorial Africa, writes of his first impression of a Christian congregation:
"As we mounted the hill through the rows of neat bamboo huts belonging to the negroes, the chapel doors opened for service. We were introduced to some of the congregation and had a dozen black hands to shake. What a contrast between these clean and decently clothed people and the blacks that we had seen in the seaports, the only kind of native we had met up to now ! Even the faces are not the same. These had a free and yet modest look in them that cleared from my mind the haunting vision of sullen and unwilling subjection, mixed with insolence, which had hitherto looked at me out of the eyes of so many negroes."
One of my own cherished memories is of a visit to a community of earnest Christians on Lake Biwa in japan, composed of people of varied stations—students, farmers, a physician, an architect, an ex-Buddhist priest, and several interesting women—who looked back on their pre-Christian life as essentially unclean, and whose devotion to Jesus showed itself in a thorough-going consecration and in a purity beyond that commonly insisted on among American Christians. John's declaration concerning Jesus is superbly confirmed: the Lamb of God does "take away" the sin of the world. There are plenty of faults in the best of Christians, but one has only to read history or to observe the ways of non-Christian communities to realize how many forms of loathsome evil disappear 'where men have felt, however unconsciously, the uplifting and shaming touch of Jesus. Hosts of excellent people in Christendom, who consider themselves nowise indebted to Jesus of Nazareth, and sometimes speak slightingly of Him, have pure and affectionate homes, move in a society where there are countless incentives to unselfishness, and are themselves high-principled, tender-hearted, and keen of conscience, because centuries ago Christ lived and died, and in His life and cross set flowing a river of spiritual motives which has cleaned and vitalized both them and their neighbors. In many non-Christian communities the small groups of believers exercise a cleansing influence upon social standards out of all proportion to their numbers or prestige. The ideals which they hold, and which they illustrate, set in motion little rivulets of the Christian Spirit which purify the minds of many who have no personal touch with Christ. And in long-established Christian societies the majority of people are not even exposed to numberless gross and filthy sins, which fiercely tempt men and women without their inspirations. Christ has removed the inclination to and taste for such things, and developed an instinctive repugnance to them.
Nor can we forget the cleansing of smirched lives and the salvation of the dregs of our own social order by the religion of Christ through the ministry of those who, like their Master, have felt themselves specially commissioned to seek the lowest and the lost. Vachel Lindsay has set before us the tatterdemalion group who owed their rescue and redemption to one such notable ministry in his lines entitled General William Booth Enters Into Heaven:
Booth led boldly with his big bass drum.
It was queer to see
It is not an overdrawn picture of the recreating and trans-figuring power of the Gospel as preached and applied by spirits afire with earnestness.
In outstanding Christians, where the flow of the Spirit is not a trickle but a river, one is usually aware of a cleansed sanctity. Professor Masson, treating of the literature of the Restoration period, calls attention to the fastidiousness in matters of speech of John Bunyan, the tinker. While university men used coarse expressions, Bunyan, a man of the common people and thrown with the lowest for twelve years in Bedford gaol, was kept by his religion from the slightest filthiness of utterance in an age where such cleanliness of phrase was rare indeed. George Herbert attributed to his ideal country parson a purity of mind "breaking out and dilating itself even to his body, clothes and habitation." And this ideal was realized in the spiritual impression of one of the greatest city preachers and pastors, Dr. Thomas Chalmers, of whom lord Rosebery said in a memorial address a few years ago:
"He wrote enormously, he spoke continually, he revealed his inner self in every possible way; but after his first struggles and victory every word that remains on record seems instinct with a pervading, undoubting, eager Christian faith. There was an unconscious sanctity about him which was, as it were, the breath of his nostrils; he diffused it as his breath, it was as vital to him as his breath. . Here was a man, bustling, striving, organizing, speaking and preaching with the dust and fire of the world on his clothes, but carrying his shrine with him everywhere."
Nor is there any question of the purifying effect such devoted disciples of Jesus exercise. The touch of so-called Christendom on so-called heathendom has been often anything but cleansing. An Asiatic seaport, where West and East mingle in trade, is invariably more vicious than an interior city. In Dr. Schweitzer's volume already quoted he mentions finding ruins of abandoned huts on, the banks of an African stream : " `When I came out here fifteen years ago,' said a trader who stood near me, `these places were all flourishing villages.' `And why are they so no longer?' I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and said in a low voice, `L'aleolzol.' " But these debasing group contacts only serve to render more conspicuous the influence of genuine Christian individuals. One reads in the biography of Li Hung Chang the impression made upon that astute Oriental statesman by General Gordon. "It is a direct blessing from Heaven," he says, "the coming of this British Gordon. He is superior in manner and bearing to any of the foreigners whom I have come in contact with and does not show outwardly that conceit which makes most of them repulsive in my sight." Professor William dames, after spending months in reading the experiences of religious men and women in preparatïon for his Gifford Lectures, speaks of himself as feeling "washed in better moral air."
A crystal clear brook discontents us with a muddy stream, and Christianity renders certain motives unclean which would not seem so apart from Christ. But dwellers beside discolored rivers are not displeased by their tainted hues until they become familiar with a pellucid stream. One often hears lamentations over the absence of a sense of sin, and the consequent lack of interest in Christianity as a means of cleansing. Such bewailers have read little history. Mr. Lecky tells us that "no philosopher of antiquity ever questioned that a good man, reviewing his life, might look upon it without shame and even with. positive complacency." And he adds: "There is no fact in religious history more startling than the radical change that has in this respect passed over the character of devotion." This change has been due to the coming of the Christian conscience with its new sensitiveness to evil. If one scans the mass of testimony from many mission fields contained in the reports made at the Edinburgh Ecumenical Conference of 1910, there is scarcely an in-stance of any who have come to Christ burdened with a consciousness of iniquity. That consciousness has developed, if at all, as a result of contact with Him. The Spirit of Jesus both creates the sense of evil and provides the cleansing. And in that lies its incomparable value for social advance.
Throughout her history the Church has eyed askance the realm of amusements, and has frequently condemned it as unclean. There have been, and there still are, reasons for this condemnation. Happily the modern Church is learning to discriminate between wholesome and un-wholesome recreations, and to recognize that in the sphere of amusements the Spirit of Christ exercises a purifying touch, Among leaders on the American stage few of the last generation stand higher than Edwin Booth. He was open-eyed to the debasing character of many theatrical performances, and said in a letter to Dr. Lyman Abbott : "I never permit my wife or daughter to witness a play without previously ascertaining its character." He was not afraid to incur serious losses in carrying on his theater according to his ideals. When in financial difficulties he once wrote a friend: "My disappointment is great, to be sure, but I have the consciousness of having tried to do what I deemed to be my duty. Since the talent God has given me can be made available for no other purpose, I believe the object to which I devote it to be worthy of self-sacrifice." A clergyman, wishing to attend a play in his theater and afraid of the censure of his parishioners, had the bad taste to ask him whether he might not be admitted to a performance by a side or rear door, and Booth replied : "There is no door in my theater through which God cannot see." Joseph Jefferson testified that Booth's theater was conducted "like a church behind the curtain."
The wholesale disapproval by Christians of certain forms of entertainment is a confession of unbelief in the cleaning power of the Spirit of Jesus. There is no part of the landscape of human life—and certainly not that part of it in which millions find keenest pleasure—where the stream of religion cannot carry away the polluting filth.
But there are other parts of the landscape upon which Christians have looked with too lax scrutiny, or where they have calmly concluded that the cleansing river of the Holy Spirit could find no watercourse. We are all agreed in condemning sexual sins as unclean, and it is because of their stimulus of the sex instinct that many forms of amusement have been banned by Christian leaders. The New Testament places in the same class with sexual defilements a pervasive spirit in our whole life, which colors our point of view and corrupts our motives in every public and private issue. Repeatedly in the writings of apostles and of the fathers, and in that saying of Jesus quoted at the outset, one finds covetousness, the acquisitive spirit, classed with "fornication, uncleanness, passion, lustful desire." You may have noticed this in the quotations from Justin and Lactantius given a few minutes ago. But few among us regard the instinct of acquisition as filthy, or the man who is ruled by it as a moral leper. From the New Testament viewpoint every business which is carried on primarily to make money, every public policy which is adopted for our own national enrichment, every individual who takes up an occupation or accepts a position with his eye on what he will get from it, is impelled by a motive as foul as the sexually lustful. We are children of a holy God, and His holiness is His creative love: He does nothing for His own advantage merely, but spends Himself that He may add to the beauty of His world and the fullness of His children's lives. Who, then, are of clean hands and of pure thoughts before Him ? They only who are impelled by the creative spirit—artists who put themselves into their work for love of it and for the joy of enhancing earth's loveliness, inventors who add to the serviceable possessions of mankind, producers who supply goods with a sense of obligation to do their best to fill men's needs, workmen of every calling who dedicate themselves to their task because they believe it to be a service of the commonwealth. With all such, considerations of payment are secondary. The instant fees become foremost in the mind of a physician, or salary in the thought of a preacher or professor, or profits in the enterprise of a merchant, or dividends in the eyes of an investor, or wages in the outlook of any worker, that instant his calling is sullied and his own heart is soiled. For the honor of business the word "commercialized" must be cleaned until it no longer is a synonym for "degraded." A British economist diagnoses the disease of our present social order by entitling a book The Acquisitive Society. As originally published in England, its title ran "The Sickness of an Acquisitive Society," and the title on our American edition is an improvement, both because of its brevity and because an acquisitive society cannot be anything but sick. By Christian standards acquisitiveness is in the same class with sexual disease. We take measures to prevent the spread of plagues which have their origin in impurity. The Christian conscience demands a prophylactic in our industrial life to safeguard workers with head or hand against the deadly bacilli of the gain-seeking spirit. Like the lustful impulse, it "hardens all within and petrifies the feeling." It eats up consciences and rots characters as loathsomely as leprosy destroys the tissue of the body. Our social order will not be sanitary until it can be fairly described from its dominant motive as "The Creative Society," or "The Ministering Society."
And what a mass of filth has to be washed out before that can be! In international relations, such devices as preferential or protective tariffs, ship subsidies, the use of the diplomatic representatives of governments to obtain advantages over rivals in trade, the imperialistic de-sire to hold some weaker people in subjection for commercial profit—devices more fundamentally causes of war than the possession of huge armaments, for without national self-seeking armaments would be robbed of almost all danger—must come to be abhorred as smirches on a nation's honor. In business life, investments made in order to obtain returns irrespective of the service per-formed by the investment must be viewed with the disgust now felt for the traffic in vice. There is an amazing page in Edward Bok's Autobiography on which he tells how as a stenographer, in the Western Union Telegraph office at 195 Broadway, Jay Gould used to dictate his stock orders to him; and how Bok went to his Sunday School teacher, a Wall Street broker, with the information of how Gould was buying and selling; and how this Sunday School teacher bought and sold for his pupil and for himself. In the Plymouth Church of that day when Henry Ward Beecher was proclaiming a large Gospel, this was apparently considered by intelligent hearers as quite legitimate, while the New Testament would call such gain-seeking filthy covetousness. In education, studies pursued with an eye to getting on in the world, the teaching of certain views—capitalistic or socialistic, conservative or progressive—because they please the supporting constituency, the exclusion from colleges or schools of the presentation of facts which offend some powerful group in the community, must be regarded as prostituting institutions dedicated to the fearless and untrammeled pursuit and propagation of truth. This thorough cleaning which our social order requires will not be compassed save as we let the Spirit of Christ render consciences sensitive with His judgment of filthiness and purity.
It is a religious cleansing which is indispensable. Still, as in the days of Celsus, the ordinary man of the world does not believe in the possibility of radical transformations of human nature. Only believers in the living God expect men to be born again and to show themselves new creatures. Professor Hocking recently wrote : "There is a kind of official legislative pessimism or resignation, born of much experience of the unequal struggle between high aspiration and nature, a pessimism found frequently in the wise and great from Solomon to this day. The world-wise lawgiver will respect the attainable and maintainable level of culture, a level not too far removed from the stage of no-effort. How different from this legislative pessimism is the pessimism of religion. The great religions have spoken ill of original human nature; but they have never despaired of its possibilities.... In spite of the revolutionary character of their standards, they are still committed to the faith that these standards are reachable. Religion declines to limit the moral possibility of human nature." The Harvard philosopher entitles his believing book Human Nature and Its Remaking. Contemporaneously with his lectures appeared the last book of a suggestive British thinker, Benjamin Kidd, The Science of Power, in which he, points out in how relatively short a time the whole mind of a people can be made over for good or ill, and a social heredity set flowing, which shapes the thoughts of the new-born and moulds them to the established type. Germany was militarized, and Japan was westernized, in a single generation. Individually and collectively men are plastic. With God the scabbiest moral leper and the most grasping society can be cleansed and renewed with incredible swiftness. That is the heart of the Gospel of Christ. If any man or any community be brought under His control, there is a new creation: "The old things are passed away; behold, they are become new."
Men cannot fully believe that there is this cleansing power in the Christian religion until they have themselves experienced it. They are led to try it through the testimony of those who have known what it was to be foul and then through Christ washed white. A book like Augustine's Confessions has perennial force because it gives this personal witness. Surveying his earlier years, he cries out: "O rottenness !" and breaks off from their contemplation : " 'Tis filthy, I will never give my mind to it. I will not so much as look towards it. But Thee I desire, O Righteousness and Purity. . . I slid away from Thee, and went astray, O my God, yea, too much astray, and I became to myself a land of want." From a soiled self that had been to him the far country of harlots, swine and hunger, he had been cleaned into a companionable child of God.
Can peach renew lost bloom,
Penitent shame has begun to flow in Christian hearts oftenest when they caught sight of the figure of Jesus. None can face Him without feeling himself dirty by contrast. "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord," has been the instinctive utterance of thousands since the words first surged to Peter's lips. The cross has always made our world appear blackest, for every generation knows its own religious traditionalists, commercial exploiters, expedient politicians, false friends, unthinking mob, indifferent public; and Calvary is no event of the past alone, but a present tragedy in which the hands of the living are stained with the blood of the Righteous. No men have ever accused themselves with such searching sincerity, or felt themselves so smirched by the guilt of their community as disciples of the crucified Jesus. John Howard, the reformer of prisons, just before his death in the Crimea, whither he had gone to investigate the plague, writes on the cover of his memorandum book: "I think I never look into myself but I find some corruption and sin in my heart.. Oh, that the Son of God may not have died for me in vain!" Their consciences align Christians among those who slew Jesus Christ—one with Caiaphas and Pilate and Judas in motive and principle. And their consciences also charge them with complicity in the social guilt of their own day. Clement of Alexandria says: "If the neighbors of an elect man sin, the elect man has sinned. For had he conducted himself as the Word prescribes, his neighbor would also have been filled with such reverence for the life as not to sin."
This sense of being involved in corporate wrong-doing has grown stronger among Christians in recent generations. When the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, Emerson declared : "There is infamy in the air. I have a new experience, I wake in the morning with a painful sensatitan, which I carry about all day, and which, when traced home, is the odious remembrance of that ignominy which has fallen on Massachusetts, which robs the landscape of beauty, and takes the sunshine out of every hour.» R. if. Hutton records the sensitiveness of Frederick Denison Maurice which made him charge himself with every iniquity which he found in the life about him: "His cone fessions were a kind of litany, poured forth in the name of human nature, the weakness and sinfulness of which he felt most keenly, most individually, most painfully, but which he felt at least as much in the character of the representative of a race by the infirmities of which he was overwhelmed, as on his own account." This self-reproachful complicity in the sinful tendencies of the life about them is typical of the finest Christian spirits. A keen-minded Chinese official, comparing the influence of Jesus with that of Confucius and Buddha and Lao-tse, once said to me in Peking : "He seems to have the power to create a more delicate conscience." One is aware of its presence in those in our generation who take seriously the mind of Christ. Caught in judgments like the Great War, or faced with the selfishnesses and sordidnesses of our peacefulest times, they own: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean motive, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean motive, for mine eyes have seen the lord of love, and looked on Him whom we have pierced." In that experience of personal and social shame, men are set free from soiling self-interest and made passionate enthusiasts for the reign of brotherhood. In contact with Christ they are disgraced and reborn.
We return to the metaphor with which we began—the Hudson River cleaning those who bathe in its waters and bearing the filth of a thronged city into the salt ocean.
The Spirit of God touches men like the moving current of a great stream. "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and railing be put away from you with all malice"-Paul's words suggest an outbearing current re-moving this moral sewerage, if men will allow it to be carried off. And his next sentence easily connects itself with a picture of the cleaned streets of a wholesome city where children of God dwell together in spiritual health: "And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you." Men have found this cleansing in religion. They have confidently prayed, as individuals and as nations : "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."