Nothing New Under the Sun

Judging from what I’m seeing, hearing and overhearing lately, a lot of conservative Christians are really worked up right now. Details vary, but the general feeling seems to be that recent developments in religious liberty, LGBTQ trends, mask and vaccine “mandates,” and Afghanistan mean all we hold dear in the U.S. is now collapsing.

With the exception of Afghanistan, most of the alarm seems focused on loss of freedom. On Afghanistan, concerns are appropriately more focused now on the casualties from Thursday’s attack in Kabul. A week ago they ran the gamut from the suffering of Christians there, to national embarrassment and the frustration of our military, to betrayal of allies …to the feeling that Joe Biden is an inhumane monster.

For my part, though I have concerns about cultural trends and the Afghanistan mess, I don’t see our times as unprecedented. The word “perilous” fits, but that’s been true for a pretty long time. I don’t feel the sense of doom that many of my fellow Christians and conservatives seem to feel right now.

I’m sure some would say my problem is naïve optimism, arrogance, ignorance, or bias. That may be part of it, son of Adam that I am—but there are also other factors.

The lens of history

The disaster in Afghanistan isn’t World War II’s battle of Okinawa or Vietnam’s Battle of Ong Thanh. Admittedly, it’s hard to find historical examples of American failures bringing greater peril to American and allied civilians.

I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those impacted by Afghanistan. I do want to encourage those not impacted by it to take a breath and put it in perspective. The tragic reality is that any nation with war in its history also has humanitarian disasters in its history. I know that’s not comforting, but it should be calming.

On the culture war front, we also need to recover some sense of scale. The declines in attitudes and values we’re seeing aren’t the Cultural Revolution of 1960s China or the cultural devastation of the Soviets’ rise to power. Most civilizations for most of human history haven’t known a fraction of the freedom we enjoy in the U.S.A. in 2021—or that we’re likely to still be enjoying decades from now, if Christ hasn’t returned by then.

Traditional beliefs about sex and gender are losing in American culture. Religious liberty might be losing in the culture also, but it’s winning most of the time in court. True, policy is downstream of culture, and if cultural trends continue, we’ll eventually see serious erosion of religious liberty under the law also.

But two observations on that prospect: (a) Christians have thrived without religious liberty before, and (b) the U.K. and some other nations are a good bit further down the post-Christian road culturally and legally than we are in the U.S.—and it’s not all that bad over there. We’re unlikely to catch up to where U.K. is in my lifetime. We might catch up with Canada.

We should fight that deterioration, but we can certainly do it calmly. We should also do it with the understanding that the real fight is cultural, and political success is often cultural defeat. When that happens, winning is really losing and losing is ultimately winning.

The lens of our faith

There’s sin and suffering all over planet earth all the time. Sometimes we see it concentrated in a particular place in a highly visible way, but it’s always there—in multiple places. The fire flares up at times, but it never goes out.

Whether we’re talking about sin or suffering or both, the reality that these are constant should have a calming effect on us when we’re looking at a flareup, or multiple flareups over a year or two.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom 8:20–22)

The Christian faith tells us what to expect the world to be like, what to expect human leaders to be like, and what to expect our neighbors and ourselves to be like. It also tells us what to expect the experience of life here to be like. When our expectations are biblical, our response will be more biblical.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Pet 4:12)

The faith also tells us how to focus in a world where a lot is going wrong everywhere, all the time.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt 5:43–45)

There’s a reason that the second-greatest commandment is “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39) not “love the entire world as yourself.” We only have so much capacity to care, and Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles all taught us to care most about what is most near us. “Near” may be less geographical than it used to be, but it’s still about who we’re connected to in our daily lives or who we become connected to by circumstances. This is what “neighbor” means (Luke 10:29-30).

Finally, our faith also tells us how to live in such a broken, sometimes dramatically disturbing world.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Php 2:14–16)

There’s no alarm in these verses. There’s faithfulness and consistency. In other verses, there’s one more critical response for these times.

For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5:5–8, emphasis added)

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:13)

The keyword here is sober. It’s in contrast to a distracted, amused, relaxed, uncaring attitude, but neither is it an alarmed, angry, or hostile attitude. It means restrained, self-controlled, well composed (see lexicons, DBL, BGD and Louw-Nida respectively).

Fortunately, we don’t have to bury our heads in the sand or turn our brains off in order to achieve this attitude. It actually makes perfect sense. Appearances and details and expressions change, but there’s really nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9).

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

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