Throwback Thursday: The Social Chemistry of Our Times

In the wake of the continuous societal upheavals which convulsed so much of the world during hectic 1968, an editor for Chicago’s American newspaper said, “Our great problem might be called one of social chemistry: How to make the mixture less volatile.”

The ingredients or elements that make up the social chemistry of our times are extremely volatile. This is evidenced by the widening economic gap that separates the “haves” and the “have-nots”-nations in the Western Hemisphere and the North Temperate Zone (mostly affluent) versus those nations in the Eastern Hemisphere and to the south (mostly poverty-stricken), and within each nation a terrible disparity between rich and poor. The rising specter of hunger brought on by the population explosion, coupled with the increasing determination of the have-nots to share in the immense wealth created by technology, constitutes the great danger of our times.

The situation is described by the Apostle James:
“Come now, you rich men, weep and shriek over your impending miseries! You have been storing up treasure in the very last days; your wealth lies rotting, and your clothes are motheaten; your gold and silver lie rusted over, and their rust will be evidence against you. It will devour your flesh like fire. See, the wages of which you have defrauded the workmen who mowed your fields call out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have reveled on earth and plunged into dissipation; you have fattened yourselves as for the Day of slaughter; you have condemned, you have murdered the righteous-unresisting. Be patient, then, brothers, till the arrival of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious crop of the land, biding his time patiently till he gets the autumn and the spring rains; have patience yourselves, strengthen your hearts, for the arrival of the Lord is at hand.” James 5:1-8, Moffatt.* The prophet sees a time when it will be in order for the rich to weep. He sees the change in relationships between the hitherto docile poor and the domineering wealthy autocrat, a time when rich men will be prime targets for violent retaliation, a time when the voice of the poor, silent for ages, suddenly becomes raucous and strident, demanding to be heard.

The prophetic portions of the Bible correctly understood are a true reading of history. It is not the purpose of God to supply all the details of history in advance. God makes no attempt to satisfy the unbridled curiosity of the skeptic. He does, however, through the “sure word of prophecy,” confirm the faith of the believer in the ultimate outcome of His plans and purposes concerning man and this planet. The prophet is let in on the “secret of God”; this he is commissioned to communicate to his fellowmen in broad outline, and this he is to develop and trace as it is revealed to him from age to age.

In the prophecy under review, the elements that go to make up the “social chemistry” of today’s world are identified. There iS the rich man, as Phillips’ Translation has it, the “plutocrat.”

The prophet is not indicting all rich men, only those whose hands are stained with ill-gotten gain. Wealth or riches are not evil in themselves. Money is neither moral nor immoral. Material possessions may be used for good or for evil purposes. The warning here is given to all who would worship what Jesus called the god mammon.

More specifically, the prophet is warning against the tyrannical spirit of materialism which leads men to store up unneeded treasured garments that are not worn and treasure gained by exploiting helpless laborers. ‘Your riches have rotted, and your garments are motheaten.” Verse 2, R.S.V. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud.” Verse 4, R.S.V., This inordinate desire for wealth dries the milk of human kindness and makes its victims blind and deaf to suffering and need. “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” Verse 5, R.S.V.

Like the idols of antiquity, the idols of the twentieth century are made of gold and silver. They have merely assumed a different shape. Their worshipers in every age are similar-the same grasping spirit, the same indifference to human misery, the same false sense of values, and mixed-up priorities. Jesus taught that people are to be loved and things are to be used. The “rich man,” as James describes him in this tremendous passage, loves things (material possessions) and uses people!

A second element in the social chemistry of our times is the “poor man.” That there is great poverty in the world, no one can deny. That there are stubborn pockets of poverty in the midst of affluent America is the paradox of our times. There are really two Americas-one well-off, well-educated, and well-favored; the other is poverty-stricken, undernourished, and educationally disadvantaged.

This disparity between the two worlds is a frightening reality, for herein lie the seeds of violent revolution. The envious poor rise up against the exploiting rich. There is a reason for the rich man to “weep and howl.” In a sentence or two, the prophet describes the whole phenomenon of social change that characterizes this revolutionary age-the studied attempt to eliminate classes, the development of socialistic governments, the rise of the labor union movement, the stirring of underprivileged peoples all over the world. “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Verse 4. R.S.V.

Many thoughtful and informed persons are pessimistic about the outlook. The eminent British author and statesman C. P. Snow, in a recent address delivered at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri (where Winston Churchill first used the “iron curtain” phrase), said, **] have to say that I have been nearer to despair this year, 1968, than ever in my life.” Economist Peter Drucker, writing in the December issue of Harper’s Magazine, warns that the greatest danger confronting the world today is the threat of conflict between the poor and mostly colored peoples against the white, rich community.

Says Drucker, “If the United States, the world’s richest. most technologically advanced and managerially most accomplished country, cannot bring about the economic and social development of a non-white minority in its midst, then it will be taken as proved, by white and colored alike, that there is an unbridgeable race conflict.’ Michael Harrington, sometimes called the father of the antipoverty program, is exceedingly concerned over what he calls the “other America,” the twenty to thirty million persons who live on the edge of poverty and the eight million who are actually hungry.

There is in this country and all over the world a hardening of attitudes, an alienation of persons, a polarization of races and groups, a growing “wall of hostility,” and disunity of generations. To bridge the widening gap between haves and have-nots (nations and individuals) will take massive cooperation and self-sacrifice on the part of the haves. There is no evidence that such an effort is forthcoming. On the contrary, the increasing tendency of the affluent is, as Lord Snow remarks, to draw the curtains and stop the ears, to ignore the plight of the suffering neighbor.

It is evident that this torn and divided country, this alienated, fragmented world, needs some powerful force of reconciliation to bring the pieces together. There is a third element in the social chemistry of today’s world that can potentially “make the mixture less volatile.’ “Be patient, therefore, brethren.” Christians, followers of the lowly Nazarene, are to be peacemakers and reconcilers.

In these difficult times, Christians who are rich, who are poor, who are black, who are white, who are drawn from every stratum of society and from every race of mankind, Christians who are freed from the slavery of selfish materialism and class consciousness, must build bridges and reconcile peoples. The patience recommended here is the same quality which John the revelator calls “the fortitude of God’s people,” “the endurance of the saints.” (Revelation 14:12, N.E.B., R.S.V.) Worshipers of the God of heaven, who is Spirit, have always been compelled to live out their faith in spite of difficulties and opposition, but the focus of James 5 is upon this age. “You have laid up treasure for [in] the last days.” Verse 3, R.S.V. The age which raised god mammon to the zenith, the age which produced the greatest wealth, the age which has seen material gain and pleasure hailed as the ultimate good-it is this age which brings to bear upon Christianity its greatest test. The twentieth-century Christian is called to witness in a time of racial conflict, ideological struggles, worldwide violence, and social revolution: a time of fierce hatred, bitterness, and despair. No wonder the writer of Revelation calls for endurance. A weak faith will surely collapse under stress and strain.

The fully committed Christian is qualified to witness to all men because he does not envy the rich nor despise the poor. His ultimate loyalty is to Jesus Christ. This frees him to become the disinterested servant of all men. He is not “labeled.” He rises above the things that divide the human family–extreme nationalism, racial pride, caste, and class distinctions. Instead of serving mammon (material things), he uses mammon to serve the best interests of humanity. He sees other persons not as enemies or outsiders but as potential brothers. With the prophets, his faith is centered on this ultimate certainty: *The coming of the Lord is at hand.” Verse 8, R.S.V.

The Christian message is not an escape from reality. Christ’s gospel grapples with the facts. Indeed, the prophetic forecast speaks to the human situation as it is. It sees selfishness and greed as basic to man’s nature and the root cause of his troubles.

The other prophets and Jesus Himself join James in pointing out the difficulties of “the last days.” It is an age of sorrows, and extreme difficulties, when “evil men shall wax worse and worse.” But amid it, all the Christian iS summoned to witness, to testify that the power of love iS greater than the love of power. Because love is stronger than death, the ultimate outcome is assured. The Christian is sent forth into the world as that element that can “make the mixture less volatile.”

Originally published in Message Magazine’s October 1969 Edition by C.E. Bradford

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