Voices of Reform

John Calvin and a Contemporary Social Activist

I prepared this resource to provide some material that might make Reformation Sunday more relevant, particularly for youth. It was first prepared for Canadian Presbyterian congregations using The Whole People of God Resource 2000 to 2001 (Wood Lake Books) and is slightly adapted here. The dialogue can be used as a group activity for older children and youth or as a presentation in worship. Encourage participants to expand and/or modify the social activist’s part, using their own words or quotes from recent newspapers and newsmagazines.

John Calvin’s words have been compiled from paraphrases, interpretations, and quotations of his writings and sermons (see references at the end). When the actual words of John Calvin are used, they are set in italics.

Social Activist: Look at the headlines! Didn’t you hear the news? Talks between management and workers have broken down! The number of poor in the country—in the world—is increasing! The environment is in a mess! God, O God, what are we doing to this world?

John Calvin: It is the responsibility of every Christian to pray daily. We all have direct access to God through Christ. When we are accustomed to flee to God, our heart is enflamed with a strong desire to seek, love and adore him. Faith in God and God’s promises must be revived constantly by prayer and devotion in order that we may persevere in love of and obedience to God.

Activist: All we seem to do is obey the god of globalization! The world is now the global village. Only a few are prospering from the global market. Where is all this leading us?

Calvin: We are not our own: we belong to the Lord. . . . Let’s not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to ourselves. As far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. Let us therefore live and die to him.

Activist: All people think about today is themselves—oh, yes, and their possessions. Our lives are tangled up with economic forces that reduce us all to players—mere pawns—in the game of global market. So many—particularly women, children, and refugees—continue to be marginalized, impoverished, and exploited. Don’t these people matter in the overall scheme of things?

Calvin: Our neighbor includes even the most remote person. We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; there is no distinction between uneducated and educated, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated as bearing the image of God.

Activist: Our communities need social programs! Both in North America and around the world, international financial institutions are influencing economic decisions that set the stage for our governments to cut social programs and public services.

Calvin: During my time in Geneva, what mighty works were done! The City Council organized ministries to care for the needs of all people: the poor, the sick, the aged, those unable to work, the widows, orphaned and abandoned children, those suffering the plague, and refugees who had fled persecution in France and Northern Italy.

Activist: We don’t need tax cuts paid for by reducing social and educational services! We don’t need tax cuts that benefit the “haves” of our society! We want a fairer system of taxation. We need to find ways for lower income people, not for higher income people, to have more.

Calvin: In my mind wealth possesses dangers and involves serious responsibilities. Let us then that have riches . . . consider that their abundance was not intended to be laid out in intemperance or excess, but in relieving the necessities of the brethren.

Activist: The debts of poor countries must be cancelled! In these countries the poor are paying for most of the country’s debt. They are oppressed by stiffer taxes, higher prices, removal of subsidies on staple foods, and the lack of basic health and educational services.

Calvin: I can accept lending money for risk capital, provided one charges no more than 5 percent interest, but one must not charge any interest when lending to the poor. Indeed, it would be better, in the face of the distress of the poor, to give them the necessary money outright. And I don’t care what society may say is legal by way of lending rates; if it’s unjust, then it is prohibited to the Christian.

Activist: We need less talk and more action on the issue of homelessness! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the homeless are joined by more homeless.

Calvin: What with the social hardships of the day and the influx of refugees, there was a major housing shortage in Geneva when I was there. If someone with a large household uses a large house, he cannot be blamed; but when people, swollen with ambition, make superfluous additions to their houses so they may live more comfortably, and when one person alone occupies a habitation that would be enough for several families, this would be empty display and must be condemned.

Activist: Consumerism is killing humankind and the earth! Twenty percent of the world’s population consumes over 80 percent of the world’s resources. The gap between rich and poor has more than doubled in the last twenty years.

Calvin: I believe it is a major plague ruling the world that people have a mad and insatiable lust for possessions. Like Martin Luther, I relate this to the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” We will duly obey this command . . . if we are zealous to make only honest and lawful gain; if we do not seek to become wealthy through injustice, nor attempt to deprive our neighbor of his goods to increase our own; if we do not strive to heap up riches cruelly wrung from the blood of others; if we do not madly scrape together from everywhere, by fair means or foul, whatever will feed our avarice or satisfy our prodigy.

Activist: Look around us. This world is divided into “haves” and “have nots.” The disparity is increasing daily. Who with power really cares? Who will advocate for justice? Who will stand firm against oppression?

Calvin: We must recognize that God has wanted to make us like members of one body. Our Christian faith must invade every avenue of life—money, property, work were all meant to be used not to deprive our neighbors, but to serve them. The economic life of the world is bound up with our faith. We Christians and our churches must give ourselves to ministries of social justice. We must be compassionate advocates of justice for all! The church must be the implacable foe of tyranny!

Activist: Right on! Let’s begin! The time is now!

[John Calvin and the social activist walk up to each other, “high five” each other or shake hands. The activist gives out placards; Calvin gives out pages of his writing to those nearby. Then they exit together, arm in arm.]


Suggestions for Staging

  • “John Calvin” could wear a long dark robe and dark hat. Participants can decide how the social activist should appear. The two speakers enter separately and take positions.
  • The social activist could pace and speak emphatically. He or she could be carrying placards and have other people alongside as if part of a demonstration.
  • John Calvin could be sitting at a desk writing thoughtfully. Alternatively, he could be standing behind a podium delivering a sermon to a group of listeners. The two characters direct their words to the congregation, not to one another.

References on John Calvin

  • “The Calvinist Reformation,” from a paper on Ministry of the Laity, by the Muskoka Task Group, 1998 Acts and Proceedings, pp. 344-46. www.presbyterian.ca/mcv/resources/laity.pdf.
  • “The Christian Gospel and the Market Economy,” by the Committee on Church Doctrine, 1997 Acts and Proceedings,pp. 235-54. www.presbyterian.ca/documents/actsproceedings/1997.pdf.
  • “The Church’s Debt to John Calvin,” Neil G. Smith, Presbyterian Record (Oct. 1959), pp. 4-5, 29. (To inquire about a copy of this article, e-mail circulation@presbyterianrecord.ca.)
  • “John Calvin: Social Revolutionary,” Allan L. Farris, Presbyterian Record (May 1974), pp. 10-11. (To inquire about a copy of this article, e-mail circulation@presbyterianrecord.ca.)


Anne Saunders (annesaunders@rogers.com) is a freelance writer and editor with particular interests in pastoral care, community development, and social justice; she is a member of Beaches Presbyterian Church in Toronto where she is part of the refugee sponsorship team.

Reformed Worship 80 © June 2006, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.