Certainly, we need to be concerned about the state of society.
I’m even more concerned with the state of the American church.
This isn’t partisan. I’m neither Republican nor Democrat, and this is equally applicable to both ends of the political spectrum.
In a recent (October 2020) essay, fifteen eminent social scientists identified three core reasons for the extreme political divisions we are experiencing in America today. They are:
Othering means lumping people into a group and viewing everyone in that group as alien, different, dissimilar. Othering allows us to condemn whole people groups in our minds and hearts, to dismiss large swaths of human beings created in God’s image for whom Christ died.
Aversion is disliking, even hating or loathing those in the other group. Step back and listen to the language used by your tribe when referring to other tribes. It is too often deeply disrespectful, unloving, even at times cruel.
Moralization is judging the other group as being sinful, iniquitous, wrong, evil. It is impossible to reason with someone who thinks God is on his side or that he has special insights into the nature of morality. When all is reduced to good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, we lose the ability to listen, learn, respect, and connect.
It’s all around us. White/black. Citizen/non-citizen. Male/Female. Law-abiding/thug. Democrat/Republican. Conservative/Liberal. Jew/Gentile. Straight/LGBTQ. Moslem/Christian. Pro-life/Pro-choice. Black Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter. News/Fake news. Vaccine/anti-vaccine. Guns/regulation. My kind of Christian/your kind of Christian.
Most tragically, it’s in the church.
If we are followers of Jesus, we will love one another. We will love our enemies. We will turn the other cheek. We will be one as God is one. We will seek unity and peace. We will be humble and teachable, vulnerable and authentic. We will refuse to judge. we will serve. We will wash feet. We will care for those Jesus called “the least.” We will love.
 Political sectarianism in America; Eli J. Finkel, Christopher A. Bail, Mina Cikara, Peter H. Ditto, Shanto Iyengar, Samara Klar, Lilliana Mason, Mary C. McGrath, Brendan Nyhan, David G. Rand, Linda J. Skitka, Joshua A. Tucker, Jay J. Van Bavel, Cynthia S. Wang and James N. Druckman; Science 370 (6516), 533-536. DOI: 10.1126/science.abe1715
In his latest book, N. T. Wright speaks of “broken signposts.” In his view, there are seven main sign posts:
All seven point to God. They are real signposts that really do point us toward God – we do not live in the world of John-Paul Sartre where all is absurd, nor in a Nietzschean world where might makes right. The innate longing for justice that is heard in every child’s cry for fairness, the beauty of the unpolluted natural world, the natural pursuit of meaningful human relationships, the universal longing for spiritual meaning, our unanimous yearning for freedom, and search for truth, and the necessity of owning one’s personal power in order to flourish are all indications that there is a Higher Power behind it all. We would not yearn for love or beauty, or truth or meaning, if there were no beauty, truth, meaning, or love somewhere in the universe. If those things were nonexistent, we would have no hunger for them. The presence of thirst is itself proof that water exists, whether or not it is at hand.
An ultimate Being who fully just, essentially beautiful, who lives in loving relationship, who gives spiritual meaning and purpose, in whom we find freedom, and discover truth and the real meaning of power, is in fact the Triune God of the Bible. Throughout scripture, God is revealed as a God of justice, beauty, relationship, spirituality, freedom, truth and power. Discovering those things, points us towards God.
And yet, all seven are, as Tom Wright points out, broken. Each can go wrong. Justice can, and too often is, perverted, denied to this or that group. The beauty of nature may be destroyed by greed, and the beauty of art or music can deviate into debauchery. Relationships, as we all sadly know, can become toxic or violent. Spirituality is morphed into self-worship; sacrifices are offered to consumerism, nationalism, or militarism. The freedom of one is built on the enslavement of another, and freedom degenerates into doing whatever I want to do even if it harms you. Truth, whether it be scientific, medical, or political has in many circles already been replaced with lies and propaganda. And, as Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Abuses of power are routine.
The signposts designed to point us to God can instead, if misapplied, lead us in the opposite direction. The rebellious nature has the ability to reduce beauty to ashes.
So-called “natural evil” presents a dilemma for theodicy. It is not difficult to see that we humans cause much of the evil in the world with our wars, racism, exploitive greed, and selfish choices. But what about tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes?
There once was a magnificent factory designed to produce all that the village needed safely and efficiently, without polluting anything or overworking anyone. The architect was brilliant. She employed the finest minds in engineering who employed the latest concepts in sustainable design. Empathetic industrial psychologists carefully considered working conditions, and the finest contractors in the land built the factory. It was a work of art.
The villagers were thrilled. Every adult had meaningful, enjoyable employment. The town prospered. The finest of schools were built. Every child had the latest computer technology. The teachers were the highest paid in the land. Music halls, theaters, art galleries, and sports facilities were built – all the envy of the land. There was no homelessness. People of all ethnicities lived together in safe affordable housing. The best of medical care was provided to all, free of charge – the factory paid all the bills. Firefighters and paramedics, like doctors and nurses, were paid wages triple that of anywhere else. There was simply no need of a police force. There was no jail, no prison, no criminal court. No one owned a gun. Anyone who showed the initial signs of emerging mental illness or addiction was swiftly provided with state-of-the-art treatment. Houses of worship were filled each week.
The towns people voted to give the newly open job of factory general manager to a golden boy. He had all the credentials. He was handsome, rich, and had an enviable resumé. He always had a stunningly beautiful woman on his arm. And, he knew how to tell everyone exactly what they wanted to hear.
At first things seemed fine, but after some time had gone by, little deteriorations were noted. The factory’s products became increasingly shoddy, working conditions grew dangerous, accidents occurred. Someone noticed sludge being pumped into the river. Clouds of foul-smelling dust covered the town. People started to get sick. The company stopped paying for medical care. Orders dropped off. Workers were laid off. Unemployment and poverty grew. Hungry and desperate people started to rob and steal. A police force was established and a jail built. Criminal courts emerged. Attorneys moved to town. Politicians made deals behind closed doors. They grew richer as the town grew poorer. The manager played people off one another. Prejudice, racism, scapegoating, gaslighting grew. Reporters warned of corruption. They were renounced as “enemies of the people,” threatened, run out of town, and replaced with propaganda masters. Truth came to be defined as whatever the factory manager said it was. Many of the artists and musicians moved elsewhere. Teachers, physicians, and nurses took jobs in other towns and were replaced by gamblers, grifters, and mobsters. Addiction, suicide, crime, and murder rose as education levels and church attendance fell.
Of course, there was still beauty to be found in the stars above, the hills outside of town, in the eyes of babies and lovers. There was still some music, some art, and some (mostly elderly) devout souls. The oppressed hungered or justice; the young yearned for authentic relationships, and the wretched longed to breathe free.
What had gone wrong? There was nothing wrong with the original design. It was all the fault of the manager and those he hired.
So it is with our world, designed by a loving God and created in perfection. But humans gave their power to a manager, an angel of light, the god of this world, the prince of darkness, and under his malevolent oversight, things are amiss. Hurricanes, tornados, pandemics, parasites, and toxins exist because satan in managing the factory we call earth. Most of the other bad stuff we humans cause ourselves, albeit with satanic influence.
He was one of those men whose
Age was impossible to
Ascertain – he likely was not
As old as he looked because he
Appeared ancient. Bedraggled,
Poor, shuffling along in shoes
Three sizes too big stuffed with
Socks that hadn’t been washed in
Months. Or has it been years?
Worn out coat pulled tightly against
The bitter New York wind, hands in two
Sets of gloves, also worn. And yet,
He looked happy. He smiled at passersby
Not with a smile seeking anything other than
Giving away some strange joy that
Rested within him in spite of being an impoverished
Homeless discounted black man in
America the White.
Past the humming neon
Past the blindingly lit high end
Stores where stylish young
Women took platinum credit cards out of
Four-thousand-dollar purses to pay for
Yet another pair of eight-thousand-dollar
Shoes too uncomfortable to walk in.
Past the Lamborghini and Ferrari
Dealership where glistening vehicles
Await the princes of this world and
Past the jewelry cases full of diamonds and
The exclusive trendy restaurants where
Couples routinely spent a thousand dollars
For dinner before setting out for the
Theater box seats
Not a hint of envy in his visage as he
Shuffled along, nodding and smiling his
Greeting to the shocked who mostly
Looked away either in shame or in
Embarrassment or in arrogance.
Small children unskilled in proper
Class etiquette smiled back not knowing
The danger of admitting humanity.
Through Times Square, past
Rockefeller Center with towering
Blinking Christmas tree and laughing
Ice-skaters. Past the theater district, he
Shuffled along without a token for
The subway where more fortunate
Homeless people slept in urine-soaked
Pants, McDonald’s wrappers at their sides.
On he walked, still nodding, smiling at
Passersby, through the financial district where
Young men in ten-thousand-dollar suits sped
Energized into fast-forward by caffeine and
Cocaine. Far too busy to even notice him as
He turned down alleys into places only
Ragged and broken people know exist.
There, he paused, moving slowly from
Cardboard shelter to blanket bundle to
Dumpster to grate where steam emerged
From a nether world where dogs licked
Scraps of bone.
There, he knelt, and touched, and
Smiled. There, he wiped faces and held
Hands. There, he prayed and sang
Soft lullabies his mother taught him
Before she died so young so long ago.
There, he waited and watched as
Sirens screamed while far above an
Infant wailed unceasingly, her belly
Craving food, any food,
Any at all.
There, he held a sick old woman as she
Shook with the chills of fever and wretched
With vomit. He did not seem to even
Notice the smell of feces, garbage, rot,
Urine, vomit, and cheap whiskey that
Combined to meet the hot steam as it
Joined the frigid winter air.
Friends of his arrived in twos and
Threes as subway cars roared off
Clanking towards another stop. Their arms
Were full of blankets and boxes, the
Boxes filled with meals of protein and
Grain. They greeted him with embraces,
Returning his smile as they wrapped
Cold bodies in waterproof blankets and
Handed out meals to hungry hands while
Spooning food into those too weak to
Here was Christmas
Here was Kingdom
Here was King
Here was Cathedral
Here were Christians
Here was love
But the world did not notice.