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After the Gillette ad and the Lincoln Memorial incident, I’m still leaning on the church
Jesus needs a Body to overcome evil
The body of Christ is the best tool to change the world. As a gathered corpus, we act like and for Christ in the world, helping to bring about redemption and reveal the event of salvation inaugurated by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We tell the story of this event as a part of our worship and also as a part of lives.
Our battle is against powers of death that resist this revolution that God is bringing about; sometimes the forces are of great magnitude. They have a great ability to diminish life, that is to say, to sin. You can think of governments, corporations, and other huge agents of change as these forces. In other cases, the forces of evil are abstract, but also huge in an existential and cosmic sense; think of big sins like racism, sexism, violence, and greed. The world is in a condition of sin and that is translated often in individual actions. We can diminish life in our personal relationships and interactions because of the fallen nature of the world. Most readily, we see the forces of darkness express themselves in our personal relationships. And so, as such, we begin to think that people are the problem with the world, and not this greater force of darkness.
The problems aren’t just personal
And when we reduce the evils to the world to individual action, we start blaming each other and fighting each other. The defensiveness that arises is entirely predictable, yet we do it again and again. I think this is in large part because we haven’t agreed upon the big evils, and more important, the Greater Good given to us by God.
I started thinking about this problem this week when I was hearing about the country’s response to two seemingly small things that turned out to be much bigger (at least where I am paying attention): Gillette’s ad about men behaving better; and the incident at the Lincoln Monument between Nathan Phillips, an American Indian elder from the Omaha tribe and Vietnam vet, attempting to quell a situation between young MAGA-hat wearing teenagers and the notoriously annoying Black Hebrew Israelites.
Here you saw our evidently polarized culture in the content of these incidents, but also in how the world reacted. Social media specializes in collecting our reactions, and so I think we see them more flagrantly. I actually think aggressive, off-the-cuff reacting is bad for building community and mutuality and I think it deepens the hostility we have toward one another. But I don’t think social media is fundamentally at fault. It’s just another way the aforementioned sin condition of the world is expressing itself.
Truth isn’t just a matter of perspective
The reactions that people had were not just a different opinion about the events themselves. It is as if we saw them with different eyes and in a different lens altogether. It seems to me that how we say things, know things, and do things are becoming different. That we’re operating based on a whole different way to understand the world.
I’m committed to having Jesus inform my agency, my grammar, and my epistemology. I think he is the author of the truth and goodness and love. So wherever those things appear in the world, regardless of what it may seem, those things came from Jesus.
Some people saw the Gillette ad as an attack on men; while others saw it as simply a way to encourage men to behave better (and still others thought it was an opportunistic opportunity a corporation took to make more money). With regards to the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, people were ready to blame the Catholic school boys with hostility, Nathan Phillips for engaging at all, or vilifying the Hebrew Israelites. I guess everyone has a side to take, but more than that, people have a different idea of what even happened.
Loud messaging has a purpose
So I see a polarizing world, and honestly I think Jesus will be called partisan among it, that puts on one side or the other. As Christians our goal is to stand on Jesus’ ground and on no one else’s. And quite frankly, I don’t think apolitical neutrality is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he was speaking about his Kingdom not being of this world. There is truth and goodness present among God’s creation and I think we need to discern and look for that. More than that, I want everyone in on that project.
If the incidents above were not a clear indication, loud messaging does not necessarily convert anyone, but rather galvanizes us. That is a good thing in one sense, since it encourages people who feel alone and isolated, and misunderstood. It’s a good way to “rally” people, too. I think Jesus employed loud messaging all the time. I think we often do have to speak loudly about the truth so as gather the people on the side of truth and light. And we do have to prophecy in truth and love in these times, whether it means moving men to behave with decency and honor, or whether it means raising our children to treat people with respect.
But at the same time, the loud message is not the best tool to disciple someone and sometimes it even makes our polarization deeper. Yelling at your racist co-worker or uncle probably won't do much besides deepen your anger.
But for those of us that love the loud messaging, and let’s be honest that social media selects for loudness, we are interested in gathering like-minded people. The idea is not to convert individuals, but rather change the culture. The trouble with this is that it leaves people behind. A common loud message isn’t just that the other side is wrong, but, among Christians, that they aren’t even Christians. I think that sort of rhetoric ends up dividing us up into smaller churches and denominations. It doesn’t effectively hold anyone accountable to what they do in the name of Jesus.
Our work is both cosmic and personal
The result of loud messaging happens across generations, but it is not personal. It may be what ends up happening, but I think it actually ends up being more about power and oppression. It doesn’t fundamentally cure the disease, though. The whole world needs to change and everyone in it. Jesus is transcendent and imminent; personal and cosmic. The Logos made the Cosmos and then entered into it.
So it’s not the end of the story. I think it’s important that we maintain our personal relationships in order than we might influence one another to follow Jesus together. What I’m seeing now is a lack of dialogue or even the possibility of dialogue. Our deep polarization prevents so much of it because we are automatically defensive, for one thing, or for another have a fundamentally different view of the situation. Facts and the news are literally up for debate, never mind the interpretation of them!
It is not a easy time for discipleship, community, and relationship, and it's thus a ripe time for it. We struggle to talk to each other, to relate, to connect. We need new ways to build community and trust so that we can have truthful and loving conversations. And I guess we’re back to where I started: the church. The body of Christ is the best tool to change the world. Our cells are the most intimate expression of the body. In them, we can relate, agree, and act for world redemption and transformation. Can they be the key to changing the world? I think they can be a key. I don’t know how to forgive the oppressors, and move them toward repentance and reconciliation, without a common community.
I’ll admit it, I’m concerned about the future. I have two daughters who are entering a world that rewards toxic behavior and vilifies decent behavior. They are entering one where they aren’t taught to be respectful to others and their elders. They are being thrown right into the polarization. It affects me personally. So I’m holding out hope. I’m idealistic enough to think we can help build a whole new world, one where truth isn’t a matter of an opinion and love isn’t a matter of preference.