Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Pacifisticuffs, Part Four: Kulturkampf

Every year at Christmas time, we are inundated with signs, commercials, and bumper stickers exhorting us to "Keep Christ in Christmas." Apparently we are also thus exhorted in early February, as I noticed when leaving Mass a few days ago. There are few things that annoy me more. I don't know whom these things are designed to convince: Christians who celebrate Christmas for religious reasons will presumably do so anyway, and I can't fathom the idea that non-Christians have an obligation to perform religious observances that pertain specifically to a religion they do not profess. As for those who are on the fence, or whose faith is habitual or residual, I cannot quite bring myself to believe that a bossy bumper sticker will fulfill for them the role that the light from heaven and the divine voice played for St. Paul.

This is one example of what has been dubbed, sometimes in cold prose, the culture war. Evangelicals are noteworthy for the gusto they devote to it, as are Catholics: forming political blocs, founding their own branches of the entertainment industry, hailing The Passion of the Christ as a masterpiece and branding Harry Potter with anathemas. It's us versus them, and the us are us because we are faithful to God.

This comes in harsher and in milder forms -- at its worst in collections of deranged fanatics like Westboro Baptist Church; possibly at its sappy best in many Christian bookstores, where every cover is in pastels and every decoration an American flag or a sentimental statue of Jesus, generally in Nordic mode. The essential quality of it, whatever its presentation, is the conviction not just that Christianity is true, but that Christians are right, a very different thesis. The former is, well, simply what it means to accept the faith, speaking intellectually. The latter is a first step on the road to spiritual pride, and one that nearly always comes with the corollary that "those people" -- whoever "those people" are: conservatives; secularists; Jews; pagans -- are the enemy.

I distrust any system or atmosphere of thought that makes another human being, as such, my enemy. That there are destructive, false ideas in the world, I readily accept, and I am (I hope) prepared to oppose such ideas; that people who embrace them are rendered less human by doing so, I will never accept. I have precisely one enemy, and that enemy is evil: evil is not a person, and therefore no person is my enemy. C. S. Lewis, in a passage I cannot now find, recounts that he once met a pastor from continental Europe "who had met Hitler, and had ... good cause to hate him. 'What did he look like?' I asked. 'Like all men,' he replied. 'That is, like Christ.'"

Now, I readily accept that our faith should inform our morals, our politics, our choice of entertainment, and so forth. But the idea of a culture war is not in my opinion a helpful one. It engenders and fosters an idea, a false idea, that Christians ought to believe all things that are in some vague sense "Christian" are better than things not so labelled. If the term had any content, as applied to anything and everything, it might be true, maybe; but even then I would be seriously skeptical. Right religious beliefs do not, in themselves, give someone an understanding of political science, or a talent for music (regardless of what the Christian music industry might have us believe), or any of the other things that make up a culture. The role of the Church is one of forming men's character so that they will be the right kind of men to hold public office, to make outstanding art, and so forth -- not to mass-produce such things as alternatives to what is already there. 

When a child is baptized, the parents aren't handed a new baby; they are given their own baby, who is now a baptized child. The change is interior and organic, not external -- which is, nearly always, related to superficiality or coercion. So here: the influence our faith should have in culture should be coming from us doing the things people do anyway, but doing them in a way that is suffused with the Holy Spirit. Thus the culture is changed, by being regenerated from within, not compelled from without.

To take a concrete example, one of the most hotly debated issues of our day is gay marriage. I don't say that the churches are wrong to say that gay marriage is wrong (the ones who do say that, anyway); I think so myself, though without relish. But -- while my political views on the subject will require a post of their own, later -- I really believe that democratic, legislative, and juridical action are beside the point. If we want reverence for marriage, we don't need to prevent gay marriage from being made legal in the remaining forty-odd states; we don't need stronger conscience clauses; we don't even need stricter divorce laws. What we need is reverence for marriage. And that comes from the heart.

I am a pacifist in the culture war because I do not believe that war is the answer to cultural problems. As long as our interaction with our neighbor is dominated by the thought of war, we who live by the sword shall die by the sword; or, if you throw a dead cat in your neighbor's back yard, he will probably throw it back into yours.

A good example of what I mean about a pacifist approach to the culture war is to be found in Acts 19. St. Paul was in Ephesus, and had made so many converts that the silversmiths, whose profits came in part from the sale of idols of the goddess Artemis, became worried that he would depress their trade, and bring Artemis herself into disrepute. The silversmiths started a riot, dragging two of the apostle's companions into the theater, where, for two hours, the crowd shouted, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" over and over again. Finally they were quieted by the local governor, who made, in passing, the interesting remark that the Christians had neither robbed temples nor blasphemed the goddess. Dr. Glenn Parkinson, the pastor of my mother's church, said in a sermon that if the Moral Majority had been there they would have organized a boycott of silver idols, or tried to pass legislation making them illegal; but that as a result of St. Paul's message, and his love, "Thousands of people stopped buying little silver statues! Not because they wanted to hurt the economy, not because they were trying to make the pagans stop buying idols; they just didn't want them any more."

Change doesn't come from any external thing, from bumper stickers to legal reforms, even if they help. What it comes from is people aglow with the grace of God, a grace that animates their thoughts, their words, and their actions, in a way that those outside find irresistible. Violence is not the way, not even ideological violence. The way is to love God so totally that it fills every corner of our being, transforms it, and bursts our seams and floods everyone around us. And then, if they absorb it, they transform from within.


  1. I really like this series you are writing. When it comes to influencing our culture, I believe you are spot on. This whole attitude of trying to force people into beliefs, or of trying to push people out who don't share the same beliefs as we do, or of pushing people out who have fallen short in some way among so many Christians today just literally makes me sick. I've seen so many people before who really needed help or to just recieve the love of Christ from other Christians and yet be turned away. People have left the church and their faith for this very reason. And I just don't understand it. It is, like you said, a sort of us verses them mentality, and it does such a disservice to the church. Your last paragraph of this post says it all though. If we want to change the world, that really does have to begin from within.

    Keep up the good writing. :)