Encouragement: A Future and a Hope
The spiritual and moral turn our nation has taken over the last several years has made this a time of grinding disappointment and discouragement for Christians and others of like convictions. The news media, entertainment industry, educational institutions, courts and government have generally dropped even the appearance of neutrality.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, Second chapter, "The Shadow of the Past"
The spiritual and moral turn our nation has taken over the last several years has made this a time of grinding disappointment and discouragement for Christians and others of like convictions. The news media, entertainment industry, educational institutions, courts and government have generally dropped even the appearance of neutrality. Dissent is regularly labeled as hatred and bigotry. Freedom of conscience—the foundation of the First Amendment—is poorly understood, and its exercise often unprotected by courts and government, the very institutions charged with its enforcement.
Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus observed in a 1997 First Things piece titled “The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy,” “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”
He further detailed, “With the older orthodoxy it is possible to disagree, as in having an argument. Evidence, reason, and logic count, in principle at least. Not so with the new orthodoxy. Here disagreement is an intolerable personal affront.”
As the Tolkien quote cited above should remind us, we are not the first to see such times and feel such pressure, not by a long shot.
So what do we do?
Some, both believers and not, say we Christians should do nothing. Teach within the four walls of the church, avoid the public square—implying it is rightly secular—and keep church and state apart. This is, quite obviously, at odds with biblical teaching such as the duty of a watchman (Ezekial 33:1-9), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the task of being Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), among others. It is also a misconception about what “church” and “state” mean in this context. What they are really saying is that freedom of speech, assembly and public action don’t apply to us, only to them.
We live in a representative democracy, so failure to make our voices heard means failure to exist. Silence implies consent. We get involved because compassion and duty compel us. The abolitionists, women’s suffragists and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King used pointedly biblical reasoning to bring about seismic public and state change. Ought they not have? Would the world be better if they had avoided the public arena?
Princeton professor Robert P. George advised in a Facebook post, “The most effective way to secure and protect rights when they are in jeopardy is to exercise them. When people are too fearful to exercise a right they formally hold, that right will easily and swiftly be taken away. So don't let anyone intimidate you into silence or bully you into hiding your beliefs…Speak your mind—out loud and in public.”
The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher proposed this in his article “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country.” Citing philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s comparison of this era being like the fall of ancient Rome, the Benedict option directs that we are to be like St. Benedict and find new ways to separate ourselves from the broader culture while building community to keep both the Christian faith and traditional values alive despite the “cultural darkness;” and, like the Benedictines, to be around to “refound civilization.” There have been times and places where this was necessary, and there likely will yet be more, but I don’t think here and now is such a time or place. We are called to be salt and light and, as ambassadors, to manifest the kingdom of God in this world without being of it (Matthew 5:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:20; John 15:19, 17:16). People are coming to Christ in record numbers and we are to co-labor with Christ, not hide, until the Lord comes.
As described in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (NKJV). God is using the present darkness to set the stage for the greatest revival yet. What is being made clear to the world is that salvation won’t come from human institutions. I suspect one reason for the current perfusion of superhero movies is that people know humanity needs a Savior, they just don’t know His name is Jesus.
Lost Causes and the Right Side of History
Some say cultural battles, like traditional versus same-sex marriage, are lost causes, unworthy of further sacrifices of effort, money or time. Dr. Michael Brown objects. He draws historic analogies of other supposed lost causes (some of the details are mine):
- In the early 1800s, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote to Bishop Madison of Virginia, saying, “The church is too far gone ever to be redeemed.” Then came the Second Great Awakening.
- The April 8, 1966 cover of Time Magazine asked “Is God Dead?” Five years later the June 21,1971 Time cover story was “The Jesus Revolution.”
- The overthrow of communism in the 1970s seemed unlikely. Then came Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul and Lech Walesa.
- After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, pro-lifers were more reviled than those supporting traditional marriage are now. It took time and much effort, but in many of the past several years more Americans self-identified as pro-life than pro-choice, and a majority favor limiting abortion.
As several have observed, Obergefell v. Hodges is the Roe v. Wade of this generation. This is far from over.
Dennis Prager wrote, “The Left since Marx has asserted that every one of its radical positions—such as the demise of capitalism—is on the right side of history. Virtually none turned out to be.” As for “being on the right side of history” and “getting with the times,” it has been said that if you marry the spirit of the age you will find yourself widowed in the next. If our critics condemn us for upholding orthodox Christian standards, respect will never come from our compromising the same.
In a 2005 speech before the Knights of Columbus Baton Rouge Council, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia challenged Christians to "[H]ave the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world."
A Bit More Guidance
Ultimately our fight is not against political opponents, but is a spiritual conflict: we wrestle not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Similarly, our weapons are not material (2 Corinthians 10:4). Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8), but love/compassion looks like something, and that something is not enablement and codependency of destructive practices. Loving interaction must include the option of compassionate confrontation, which is to say proper disagreement, or the relationship is dysfunctional by definition.
Boundaries need maintenance. The primary difference between a fetid swamp and a healthy river is stable boundaries. Jesus said He was, among other things, the truth. Truth is not ours to compromise or negotiate down, just to pronounce and represent. Sometimes clearly understanding an opponent’s position is to know there is nothing further to discuss. Again, if the world rejects us for upholding godly standards, they won’t suddenly respect us for scuttling them.
When God commissioned Joshua to lead the children of Israel to the Promised Land, He told Joshua repeatedly to be strong and very courageous. The need still exists. Encouragement is generally our responsibility. Perseverating on what we perceive God is not doing is a formula for discouragement and disbelief. Focusing on what God is doing fosters courage and builds faith.
The late Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen warned “that if the church loses the intellectual battle in one generation, then evangelism would become immeasurably more difficult in the next.” Engaging the battle requires being there. As columnist Mark Steyn penned, “The future belongs to those who show up for it.” To this my friend Havilah Cunnington adds that we succeed by outlasting the crowd. Presence and persistence achieve much.
Be compassionate, truthful and courageous. We get to proclaim the truth, but without guarantee of being popular for it. And for a while it won't be fun. Better to take our lumps now for speaking out than to really be hated later for having cowardly withheld what we knew while others needlessly suffered for it.