Our Tradition: If Christ Should Come

by G.K. Chesterton.

If I am to answer the question, "How would Christ solve modern problems if He were on earth today?", I must answer it plainly; and for those of my faith there is only one answer. Christ is on earth today; alive on a thousand altars; and He does solve people's problems exactly as He did when He was on earth in the more ordinary sense. That is, He solves the problems of the limited number of people who choose of their own free will to listen to Him. He did not appear as an Eastern sultan or a Roman conqueror then; and He would not appear as a policeman or a Prohibition agent now. From this I fear that many will infer that I mean one of two-things: (1) That Christ deals only with the individual and has "no politics," affecting the commonwealth; (2) That I hide behind the hackneyed and wearisome evasion that Jesus of Nazareth had beautiful social ideals which died with Him; and which "The Church" has forgotten, perverted or reversed. I accept the challenge; and I flatly contradict both these views. I say, and I mean to say, that the Catholic Church continues to advise men as Jesus advised men. And that there has been a collapse of Capitalism because it would not listen to Catholicism; exactly as there was a fall of Jerusalem because it would not listen to Jesus.

I am quite prepared to base this definite claim on the solid facts. Forty years ago, when I was a boy, our present industrial civilization was at its worst, because it was supposed to be at its best. Parliaments, parties, papers and effective public opinions were all praising the prosperity of the system; businesses grew bigger and bigger; small owners were bought up or frozen out; all Capital was being centralized in the Capitalist, and the only intelligent criticism came from a small knot of Socialists, who wanted it centralized still further in the State. It was at this time that the head of the Catholic Church, whom we call the Vicar of Christ, sent forth a proclamation commonly called Rerum Novarum, in which he subsequently stated three things: (1) That the existing concentration of wealth in the Capitalist "laid upon the labouring millions a yoke little better than slavery." (2) That we must not escape from this by the further concentration of Communism, as it denies even the natural forms of property, freedom and the home. (3) That, while wage-earners are entitled to combine and even to strike, on certain conditions of justice, it would be better if "the poor so far as possible should become owners"; that is, small capitalists or possessors of the means of production. That is not an old Greek text from the Synoptics; neither is it a purely theological counsel addressed to the isolated soul. It is a perfectly clear outline of a general course of action; and there was nothing wrong with it, except that nobody acted on it.

Now, of course, it was not very likely that the whole world would suddenly swing round, reversing its course, as at a word of command, and instantly begin to act on it. It was not very probable that all the modern millions of Puritans and Pagans, agnostics and anti-clericals, to say nothing of weak and worldly Catholics, would all suddenly obey that trumpet-blast like soldiers. They would hardly start instantly to unwind the coil of the combines, to divide private property among the poor, to persuade every millionaire to break up his millions into independent fortunes for total strangers. And it was not very likely, on the face of it, that the High Priest of Jerusalem and the Procurator of Judaea would instantly take the advice of a peasant from Nazareth riding on a donkey. But it was good advice, and it looked even better forty years later.

Now I will maintain without hesitation that if the modern world had taken the Pope's advice even forty years ago, had really made a violent effort to decentralize Capitalism without accepting Communism; to make full ownership more of an ordinary thing for ordinary people, we should not be in the ghastly mess we are in at present. We should have a decent and dignified condition of property, which Christians could really defend against Communists. Having gone our own horrible heathen way, we have now to defend something nearly indefensible; only because the remedy is even worse than the disease.

Therefore I answer, what I fancy few of the symposiasts will answer, that Christ would say divinely just what the Church of Christ says through human mouths, and therefore only humanly. That the Ten Commandments are right though we nearly always apply them wrong; that we must not covet our neighbor's ox, but that he ought to have an ox. And which of us has a neighbor who has an ox? An ox is a Means of Production, and they have mostly been bought up by the Beef Combine. The historic Church has in fact frequently warned the world; only the world forgot the warning until it once more found the peril. For instance, half our tangle of unnatural finance would have been cut, if the old Catholic commands against Usury had been kept sharp from the first. I defy anybody to show that Christ or Christianity has failed; except in the sense that everything else has failed, as soon as it failed to take their advice. If our Lord could give it again in person, it would certainly be a thousand times more impressive. But even when He did, it was not entirely well received.

This essay first appeared in the April 1982 issue of "Good Housekeeping" magazine. Reprinted with permission of A.P. Watt Co., London.

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Last modified: 6th April, 2018
Martin Ward, Email: martin@gkc.org.uk