We are living in momentous times when the ethical foundations and nature of western society is being radically reshaped. In part one, I briefly surveyed the situation. In part two, I offered three possible reasons for our relative silence as Christians – some are unaware, some are strangely unconcerned, and some are understandably overwhelmed.
Let’s continue that list with two very important additions:
4. Some are afraid. There is a lot of fear in Christian ministry. Let me put it out on the table. It is probably better to discuss it rather than pretend it is not there:
- Fear of upsetting people in our church. Every church will have people across a spectrum of political or cultural views. Our society controls contrarian perspectives by its reaction. This mechanism is evident with gender, sexuality, race, public health, climate crisis, military conflict, etc. Some people sit primed to be upset if we touch the wrong nerve. It always feels safer to play it safe.
- Fear of upsetting Christians beyond our church. Maybe your local church is not as diverse as the wider church. Perhaps you can speak freely in your local pulpit without concern. But we live in an age of online recordings. Spurgeon used to have his sermons typed and published in newspapers. At the same time, thousands of other pastors could preach anything, and only their smaller congregation would hear them. Today the pastor of an obscure church can be heard by someone on the other side of the world. That person might disagree vehemently and take to their keyboard.
- Fear of upsetting people in our society. A decade ago, church leaders were concerned about being forced into a complicated legal situation. “What if someone asks me to perform a wedding I can’t offer in good conscience? If that happens, then I could get in trouble.” Today, we are already in trouble with many people because of our beliefs. We don’t have to do anything wrong; we are already wrong. We are already guilty of wrong-think. We hold dangerous views. When some agent in society requires us to affirm certain things, we will already be in trouble. This dynamic can lead not only to silence but also to participation so as not to stand out. When Daniel’s three friends did not bow down, they stood out. They were heroes then, but it is genuinely challenging to know when to stand out in the complexities of today.
- Fear of the backlash. Nobody wants to be in the sights of the mob. The destruction meted out by today’s cancel culture can be ruthless and unforgiving. The antagonistic othering of people who do not conform to society’s expectations has already become quite sinister. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen people wishing on me imprisonment, the withholding of medical treatment, the restriction of movement, and even death. Thankfully they did not name me specifically, but I happened to be in a class of people that were overtly “othered.” Nobody wants to face the force of that anger on any of the triggering issues.
Solzhenitsyn’s stunning warning in 1978 at the Commencement of Harvard University still rings out today. Does it apply to us? “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”
5. The category I have not mentioned. You may have read through these points and said, “yes, but there is another perspective.” I know. Let me raise the common one that I anticipate. I agree that the hope of society, indeed the hope of humanity, is the gospel. Absolutely. Signing petitions, participating in protests, writing to our representatives, voting one way or another, or any other political action are not the ultimate answer. I agree. The gospel is the answer, and we must rest in it ourselves. Then we must also broadcast it and share it from person to person.
But can I be candid? I feel like sometimes we might be hiding behind a gospel-only approach. To do so allows us to say nothing about what is going on, human rights, moral evils, etc., and thereby not face much in the way of antagonistic response. I know exactly how to say the right Christian things to avoid criticism or backlash. I’m sure you do too. We still have the freedom to speak Christian truths to each other, so long as we do not trip the growing number of hyper-sensitivities in our culture. Gradually the freedom to quote Bible verses will grow ever more restrictive. When referencing the Bible at all becomes culturally unacceptable, will we then quietly comply with that expectation too?
As Solzhenitsyn provocatively wrote in Live Not By Lies, “And as for him who lacks the courage to defend even his own soul: Let him not brag of his progressive views, boast of his status as an academician or a recognized artist, a distinguished citizen or general. Let him say to himself plainly: I am cattle, I am a coward, I seek only warmth and to eat my fill.”
I do not quote that to point only at others. I fear that I can too quickly be part of the herd too.
In closing, my mind goes to two scenes:
- The best burger I can remember. I sat with another pastor enjoying both the burger and the conversation. We were both expressing the same thought. It isn’t easy to prepare people for what seems to be coming in our society when we are not allowed to mention what is coming. In my preaching and social media, I can make every public statement both gospel-centred and relatively safe. But the gospel has always been radically counter-cultural. And as culture pivots away from a Judeo-Christian ethical basis, the gospel will only become more radical. Many people in the church are not prepared for a world that is overtly antagonistic and institutionally persecuting them for their beliefs.
- That congress. The film, Tortured for Christ, begins with the “Congress of Cults” that brought together religious leaders in Romania in 1945. Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor, sits with his wife listening to the leaders praising the “progress” brought by the new Stalinist regime. Then he spoke out. We could just as easily go back to the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany a few years earlier. It is hard to speak out when almost nobody else does. I know some Christian leaders are taking a stand today and speaking out on various issues. I am thankful for them. But I also see that many are already choosing to play it safe. We aren’t in the 1930s or 1940s, but we are in the 2020s. How can we be so sure this decade will not prove equally significant?
As we come to the end of the year, we also may be coming to the end of an era. One last quote from Solzhenitsyn, “If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.” If we were not at a major historic watershed in his day, it feels like we are now. So, let’s all pray for wisdom, insight, courage, and strength as we head into 2023. Let’s not take part in the lie. We need a spiritual blaze. God has put us all here for such a time as this.