The Chambers Lesson: From the Negative to the Positive

I discovered Witness by Whittaker Chambers back in the 1980s as I was working diligently on my doctorate in history. From my first reading, the book took hold of my spirit. More than thirty years after that encounter, it has never released its hold. I’ve used it in classes since the late 1980s, and one of my greatest teaching joys is to offer a full-semester course called “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers.”

I’m teaching the course once again this semester. Even after thirty-plus years of re-reading this masterpiece, I continue to come across passages that seem new, primarily because they touch upon what God is doing in my life at that moment. I’d like to highlight one of those passages today.

For those unfamiliar with the Chambers story, here’s a brief overview. Whittaker Chambers was a member of the American Communist Party who was then whisked into the underground movement designed to place communists in important posts in the government. Their job was to influence policy and pass on classified information to the Soviet Union. Chambers was a highly placed individual in the underground, serving as a key liaison between some of those hidden communists and their Soviet masters.

Then came the break. Disillusioned by the purges conducted by Stalin, by the epiphany of the monstrous nature of the revolutionary movement to which he had given his life, and by his own spiritual longings that eventually led him to Christian faith, Chambers left the underground—a dangerous move for someone so essential to its workings. Yet God, in His mercy, protected him.

Freed from those chains, Chambers was able to get a job as a writer for Time magazine, probably the most widely read periodical of the era. He started as a lowly staff writer but later became one of the senior editors. His tenure at Time from 1939-1949 was stormy at times. There were sympathizers with communism who worked there, hoping to get him fired. With the enthusiasm of a new convert away from communism and for Christianity, Chambers attempted to speak boldly against his former faith. He hoped to be allowed to write about foreign news where he could aim both barrels at the communist conspiracy.

But he was shut out from doing so. Yet this turned out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise for his own spiritual development. Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject. But gradually I welcomed the ban.

I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that. It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify, on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

Notice that he didn’t change his views on the pernicious nature of communism; what he did change was his approach.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack, for it meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This change in my mind and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

What, then, is the lesson I have taken from this insight? I find myself on the same course as Chambers. There are things in our society that I find to be terribly wrong, and it is very easy to spend the majority of time speaking out forcefully against those wrongs: abortion, acceptance of sexual immorality, the nanny state of socialism, the loss of the Christian ethos that used to dominate American culture—I could go on.

Now, it’s never wrong to point out the sins of a society. Jesus called Pharisees whitewashed tombs, clean on the outside but rotten within. He also overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. Yes, there is a place for that. Being a voice against hypocrisy and unfaithfulness to God is sometimes what we are called to be.

But it’s far too easy, as Chambers noted, to simply attack, attack, attack. After a while, that becomes not only annoying, but deadening to one’s spirit. And others begin to tune you out because you are a “Johnny-one-note.” You offer nothing fresh, nothing to make people rethink, nothing to challenge their souls.

Chambers changed from the negative to the positive: here is what is good, right, honorable, and pure; now compare it with the sordid nature of the evils our society has adopted. The comparison itself should make the case more forcefully than the usual attack mode.

I will continue to point out what is wrong, but I want to do so by showcasing what is right. I want people to be attracted to true godliness and walk away from sin because it destroys all that is beautiful. I want integrity to be valued and dishonesty and hypocrisy to be shunned. Moreover, I want Christians to take the lead (for who else can or will?) in exhibiting the godliness and integrity of the Gospel that will be the salt and light that this world desperately needs.