This is a very brief reflection on why the church cannot afford to accept the notion that culture is evil and corrupt.
I was asked very pointedly, “You don’t think the culture is in moral decline?!?!” The emotion in the voice of my friend was obvious and overt. How could I not think that American culture was in the gutter?
I answered as pointedly as I was asked. “No. I do not believe that culture is in a moral spiral.”
I know that may come as a shock to many, but I not only believe this is a cultural reality, it is a biblical one too.
First, let me address the cultural assessment that American morality is in decline. This may be offensive to some, but I believe it is an accurate assessment. Have you ever noticed that when someone voices the warning and signals the alarms of moral decline in America… have you ever noticed what comes next? Have you ever noticed what the answers and the solutions are to that problem? I have. It usually could be summed up like this – “if we could just go back to 50 or 100 years ago…” what? Things would be better? I don’t think so.
I had a friend on Facebook that moaned about the election of Barack Obama for several weeks. He started a series of Facebook posts called “Once Upon a Time in America…” where he would paint nostalgic pictures of American life in days gone by. He once told a story about a day, when he was about 10 years old, he could get up on a Saturday morning or Summer morning, get on his bike, disappear with friends until sundown, come home for dinner, and his parents had not a single worry about his well-being. I suppose the take-away is that now things are different. It is no longer safe, I suppose, to not keep a keen eye on your children at play.
I could not help myself. I sent him a private message (I hate public Facebook debates – especially religious and political). I said, ” About what year was this?” he said it was in the 1960’s. I replied, “And what if your skin had been black? Would you parents have been worried then?” He did not reply.
I had tapped into something that, if we could calm down long enough to reflect on, we all know is true. Some things are worse – some things are a lot better. And “better” and “worse” are often in the eyes of the beholder. That is, depending on ones social standing, what is “worse” to some, may be “better” for others. And my point is this – waxing eloquently about how much better things were in the 50’s & 60’s sure is offensive to African Americans don’t ya think?!
Now, what does the bible have to say about this?
I think the biblical answer to the problem of moral decline AND social progress, lies (frustratingly) in a parable. The parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13.
If the parables of Jesus teach us anything at all, it is that the kingdom of God (and all that comes with it), has been planted in the world and is coming to birth, growing, and bearing fruit. The reason the parable of wheat and weeds is significant is that it reminds us that evil is doing the same exact thing.
Evil grows alongside good. It is totally futile to try and determine which is winning. It is a completely worthless endeavor to try and root evil out of the earth. And that is the scandal of the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13 – you, me, us… we are NOT in control of human history.
Now, why is this important to me? Why am I even bothering to say anything about this?
Because I believe it is dangerous for the church to set itself against culture for 2 reasons – both of which grow out of reading this parable.
(1) Because if we set ourselves against culture how will we know when culture is right and we are wrong? That happens you know! Take the above example. For at least 150 years, many churches in my own heritage used scripture to try and justify everything from slavery to segregation – in the name of God. Alongside these claims to scriptural interpretations regarding race and identity was a basic mindset and attitude – “The church is right and the culture is wrong and corrupt.” So when culture came along and said, “NO! Slavery is morally wrong. Segregation is morally oppressive and degrading.” well… the church couldn’t listen. Quite honestly, we were the last institution to accept it. And that is just wrong. We were wrong.
But I want to ask a question. What if the church had a better theological position on “culture”? If we had understood that God created and loved culture(s), and that he was working redeem culture, not condemn it (John 3:17), then we might have had the heart and mind to listen to what our culture was teaching us about race in America. It was our negative and arrogant view of culture in general that kept us blind to God’s truth – a truth he was revealing THROUGH culture and its conscience.
(2) Because thinking we can rightly distinguish “who is good and who is evil” is arrogant and idolatrous – and this according to the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13. The business of sorting good and evil belongs to no one but God.
* Just a personal note. It is liberating to not be a part of the game of social diagnosis. It is freeing to know that it is not my job to set culture straight on every point. I am truly thankful that I am not a part of that endeavor. If the world was as my own heart is, it would be all the more wretched. I think I’ll just let God have his own world. I think of this quote from John Howard Yoder: “How preposterous the assumption from the time of Constantine until yesterday, that the fundamental responsibility of the church to society is to manage it.”