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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Thursday, November 4, 4pm - 8pm

The Lebanese diplomat, political theorist, philosopher, and Orthodox Christian theologian Charles Malik, is known principally for his political work. In 1948 he co-drafted, with eight other authors, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in 1958 he served as president of the UN’s General Assembly.

While Malik’s political career was impressive in its own right and gained him international recognition, it is his theological vision of the world and society in his 1962 book Christ and Crisis that I’d like to see resurrected by a new generation of readers today. Despite its Cold War context, Christ and Crisis (in just 101 pages) offers a nuanced approach to Christian social thought and action, acknowledging the unique tasks of practitioners and theorists in their own competence in each realm of life, while never losing sight of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Malik begins with a peculiar definition of crisis: “the crisis is simply the fact that Jesus Christ is the Lord and is judging.” He derives this from the Greek krinein, from which we get the English word crisis. “Krinein,” writes Malik, “means to separate, to winnow, therefore to distinguish and discriminate, therefore to judge.” As Christ Himself said, “For judgment I have come into the world” (John 9:39). And again, “Now is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31). Crisis, in this sense, is ongoing at all times, though it takes different forms, both personally and throughout the world.

So, what was the crisis in Malik’s day? He isolates four challenges: “the challenge of international Communism”; “the challenge of the rising nations and peoples”; “serious internal challenges and problems in the West itself”; and “the formidable challenge of the technological revolution.”

For Malik, the answer to these challenges involved each realm of life responding within its own competence, not just from a material point of view, but morally and spiritually, as well. “Everybody has a role to play. Government, business, labor, the press, the university, the churches – every agency and every person must respond, each in his own way and each within the limits of his competence,” he wrote. In fact, “Distribution of competence and division of responsibility is of the essence of all civilized existence.” But, he warned, “The greatest weakness of Western strategy is its relative neglect of the intellectual and spiritual dimension.”

The West had neglected its own best strength. Yet in the midst of a world full of transience, Malik asserted, “governments and politics and cultures come and go, but Jesus Christ endureth forever.” If Jesus is the cause of the crises in our world, at least in the sense of bringing challenges of the heart and society to our consciousness, then we ought to look to him to find their meaning and solution, as well. Malik wrote, “Only the thrust itself which brought about the disturbance can calm it. Only the Cross which shocked and condemned the world can reconcile it.”

And what are those things that, in Christ, transcend the chaos and crises of our world? “[A]n [international] order that is not based on natural justice, on the dignity of man, and on the trust of truth to vindicate itself, cannot flow from the mind of Christ, nor can it merit His love,” Malik wrote. In a word, they are natural law, human dignity, and the confidence that the truth will prove victorious in the end. These things are all rooted in the reality of Jesus Christ, the Truth itself, Who is the Logos of God, after Whose image we were made, and Who is victorious over sin and even death (John 1:1, 14:6; Genesis 1:26; 1 Corinthians 15:56-57).

But what about today? “[E]very man lives in his own age and in no other,” wrote Malik, “and faces his own problems and carries his own cross.” We have our own crises, and thus our own crosses, to bear. I do not think it within my competence to provide an adequate list, but similar concerns still haunt us today, in some cases more than in 1962.

  • While the USSR fell apart in 1989 and China has economically benefited from flirting with the free market, basic freedoms in Russia continue to decline as it flexes its muscle on the world stage once again, and in many cases they remain elusive in China as well.
  • We have seen massive alleviation of global poverty in the last 30 years due to the expansion of markets and market principles, but much harm has been done in the name of helping the poor without proper competence.
  • In the United States and Europe, government taxation, regulation, and spending continues at unsustainable rates.
  • In the Middle East, radical Islam has taken on a new, unimaginably anti-human form in the so-called Islamic State.
  • And above and beyond all of these concerns, there is the perennial and primary need to face the crises in our own hearts through faith in Jesus Christ.

Rather than confront these challenges, we more often shrink back, as if our comfortable place in this world could continue as it is forever, immortal and incorruptible, apart from the grace of God, apart from the Cross of Christ. Rather, Malik would urge us to have the courage to take up our crosses today, each in our own capacities and competencies, putting the life of the spirit first, not settling for easy answers and scorning all distractions. “There are three unpardonable sins today,” wrote Malik in 1962 – but just as relevant now – “to be flippant or superficial in the analysis of the world situation; to live and act as though halfhearted measures would avail; and to lack the moral courage to rise to the historic occasion.”

Above all, Christians can never be ashamed of Jesus Christ. “To be fair, to be positive, to be thankful – these are highly desirable Christian virtues today,” wrote Malik. But he did not stop at that commendable fairness, cautioning, “And of course you are not fair at all if, in trying to be fair to others, you are so fair as to cease to be fair to Christ Himself – Christ who was much more than just fair to you and me when He took our sins upon Himself on the Cross.”

The model of social thought and action that Malik offered in Christ and Crisis is thus one in which Christians would pattern their lives, both personally and socially, each in his or her own competence, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such a Gospel-centered vision surely transcends Malik’s own time. We would do well to revisit it and revive it today.

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Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of the book Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton 2017).