Ceasefire in the Culture Wars

I am so tired of fighting the culture wars (on either side), so tired of the antagonism, the enmity, of putting good, well-meaning people on the other side of a pitched argument rather than having a discussion where we can learn from each other. The us-versus-them framing of so many political and social issues is toxic, kills dialogue, and reduces our opponents from fully realized people to hollow stereotypes.

The real tragedy of the culture wars is that I think each side has a lot to offer the other – to be rather blunt, I think that modern secular liberalism does a better job listening to, loving, and serving the poor, the disenfranchised, and the ignored than significant parts of the Christian church do, and that this service is a core part of Christ’s mission, and thus the mission of his Church. James says “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27, NIV) – the action of right religion should be in supporting those in need of it, the “orphans and widows” of the world who lack other supports. On the flip side, I think Christianity has a lot to offer the various social justice movements – even in this rather post-Christian Western society, we have a large body of generous, engaged people who follow a redeemer God, who believe in a world that is both broken and being made whole, and who want to be part of making this world right, as part of the way we follow and imitate our God. I don’t pretend that Christians have always been on the side of redemption – to borrow one historical example, we have to balance out our William Wilberforces fighting for the abolition of slavery with all the Christian pastors who spoke out against Martin Luther King Jr. That said, Christianity does have its social justice warriors, men and women who express their passion for God and the work of his Kingdom through fighting against injustices in the world, and I think that the people and the energy and the resources the Church puts into these causes could be fruitfully allied with secular movements for justice.

Now, I suspect some of my Christian brothers and sisters reading this are thinking “but what about that ‘keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ part – aren’t we supposed to be ‘in the world, but not of it’?”. I would respond to this that God’s work isn’t always done by his people – just look at the Good Samaritan, who wasn’t Jewish, but was doing God’s work – and that “the world” which we are called to not be “of” is a system of values which is self-serving and self-focused, not people doing God’s work for reasons other than that it’s God’s work. The James passage I cited earlier is followed immediately by an admonition to serve the poor, and another passage on “in the world, but not of it” reads as follows: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (I John 2:15-17, NIV). I think it’s really key here that “the world” is defined in terms of self-centeredness, discontent, and pride: those are things that followers of God should eradicate from their lives. Contrasted to this, though, is the will of God, which Christians are called to do; I would argue that doing the will of God doesn’t always happen within the walls or programs of the church, and that Christians are just as called to do God’s will when we find it outside our churches as when we find it inside.

In saying this, it is not my intention to bring the culture wars inside the church, but rather to call for a ceasefire. The antagonism saps everyone’s energy, and gets in the way of both serving God and making the world better (which can very well be the same thing). The stance of us-versus-them divides people who should be allies from each other. As Christians, we are “in the world” – we are part of “the culture”, and our aim should not be to remove ourselves from the rest of our culture, or to defeat it, but to serve God as part of that wider culture, and through our involvement in it. I don’t want to capitulate in the culture wars, but I don’t want to win either, because any victory in this war is a scorched-earth victory that is no good for anyone. Rather, let us retire our culture warriors, have peace, fix the brokenness in the world and serve God, and let us do it together with our brothers and sisters, both in the Church and in the rest of the human race.