Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When A Christian Meets The Culture

I remember it very well.  I had worked at the retreat center for a few months, mostly doing odds and ends and taking care of the various retreat groups.  This particular group was a rather large, a very traditional and very passionate Catholic group, and their speakers redefined the term "fire and brimstone."  My job was merely to alert them when their meals were served and ensure they were well accommodated for, not to monitor their content. However, the talk I walk in on caught my attention and made me rather alarmed.  It was titled along the lines of "Our Wicked Evil Culture" or something like that, and the presenter was a very passionate man.  "How many of you watch pornography?" he howled to the audience. (On a side note, great question to ask a group of 60 yr old ultra-conservative Catholics.)  No one answered of course.  "How many of you watch television?" he asked again.  This time every hand went up.  "Then you are watching pornography!  Everything on the television is pornography!"  Needless to say, this startled me.  The moral quality of TV is certainly deteriorating, but for me, there seemed to be a far cry between Duck Dynasty and blatant pornography.  The speaker's talk continued on and on, laying into the "evils" that envelope our society.

We know these folks certainly do.
The speaker is not alone in his sentiment however, especially amongst much of the Church.  More and more often, we hear deploring calls against the evils of our culture, ranging from mournful cries for a lost society to nostalgic eulogies for times past to electrified calls for repentance.  People, especially of the Christian bent, are increasingly and (at least to me) alarmingly fixated with the presence of evil in our culture.  We love to drone on and on about how wretched a culture we have, how corrupt the system is, how our society is devastated by sin and evil.  We yearn for an opportunity to remark on how hard it is to be a Christian in today's culture, or to talk about how Catholics have to heroically face off against the evil in this world which seeks to suppress them.  At face value, you'd almost conclude that the Church takes a sort of morbid pleasure in gazing upon the wickedness of our society.

Now, before I am misunderstood, I don't mean to apologize for society, or to suggest that society isn't all that bad once you get to know it.  Far from it, I wholeheartedly agree that we have a huge problem.  Our society generally sucks at being human, this I profess.  However, such a fact seems self-evident enough to us that it doesn't need professing.  Go to a passerby on the street.  Ask them if they think there's something wrong in the world today, and I'll bet my lunch money they'll say yes.  They might vary on what that exactly is, but there's a pretty universal consensus that we've got a problem.  If we're all in agreement that human society is flawed, why do we seem so content to reiterate that point?

The Christian, when faced with a messy and disordered world, is not asked to gaze upon it and remark about how twisted and broken it is, just like a paramedic, when faced with a tangled car wreck, is not summoned to gaze upon it and remark about how mangled the wreckage is.  Nor is it the job of the Christian  (or paramedic) to smirk lithely about how foolish those trapped in the wreckage are.  No, the Christian is called to do as Christ did.  Christ gazed upon a messy and broken world full of messy and broken world and rather than separating himself from it, entered into the midst of it.  From the moment of conception, Christ surrounded himself with the world of brokenness and wickedness, they were tighter to him than the swaddling clothes he was wrapped in.  From the beginning  of his ministry, Christ designated for himself a course into the heart of the dystopic world, culminating in his own destruction at the hands of the powers that be.  He did not avoid the brokenness, nor did he partake of them, and he certainly didn't stand in the temple and say "Oh my Dad  (  <---- its a joke.  ) this world is absolutely hopeless!"  Facing off against a broken world, Christ took the radical option:  he undermined it by self-sacrificial love.

We love to draw a bold line between the Church and the culture, tracing in the dusty earth neat and clear battle lines on which we can wage war against a world full of sin and suffering.  We love to picket abortion clinics and March for Live and imagine we're a vast army against evil.  But Christians aren't soldiers against culture, and the line of battle isn't drawn between Church and the culture, but down our own hearts.  If we come to question how our world got to be such a mess, I should hope we look in our mirrors.  Sin starts and ends in the hearts of human beings, and even the best intentioned of today's Christian must confess to their part in our world's condition.  If we seek to stare deeply into the evils of our society, we will only end up staring into the brokenness of our own hearts.  This solves nothing.

Christians in the face of a shattered world are called to one simple, yet revolutionary, duty:  Love.  It sounds so obvious, but do not disregard its profundity.  Love, true love, is the only acceptable response a Christian can give to a world so lacking.  Not violence, not fury, not indignation, not disgust, but radical love.  Christian love does not obsess over what is evil, but delights in goodness.  "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Phil. 4:8  The Christian, if he wishes to close abortion clinics and slow teenage pregnancies, would be wiser to love life and treasure his daughter rather than complain about a sexually dysfunctional world.  If he wishes to end loneliness and poverty, let him delight in the company of others and tend to the poor rather than scoff with the latest statistics about depression and homelessness.  

The Christian must never be a spectator, nor must he or she be a polemicist.  The Christian has to be active in the world, an agent through which Christ's love continues to save the world.  It's easy to cringe at how bad the problem is.  Its much harder to laugh with joy at how good our God is.  We must take this hard road.  In a dry and dusty time, we must plant the seeds of eternal life.  We must constantly show the world the God who loves them.  This is how we slay dragons and fell giants, not in anger, but in charity.  Let no one who suffers be mistaken, make it irrefutable that our God is a God who loves absolutely.  This is our only task, and may it be done by all.

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