Culture War: Towards a Better Way, part II
In part I, I argued that in order to move beyond the culture war, we as a church need to firmly root our identity in Christ, rather than in some sort of moral exclusivity or, worse, in an opposition to culture. But what, exactly, does this mean? At the end of Monday’s post, I suggested that the benefit of identifying primarily as a Christian is the gap it creates between us and our surrounding culture, a gap that allows for meaningful critique and engagement.
Now, to be clear, I’m enough of a postmodernist to be deeply skeptical of any claim of objectivity. I’m certainly not claiming that Christians can fully separate themselves from their broader culture; we are deeply implicated in our culture, for both better and worse. Indeed, one of the shortcomings of the culture war mentality is that it often focuses on a few areas of opposition without more carefully examining our immersion in the assumptions and values of western culture.
Once again, the Nashville Statement provides a prime example of the way the evangelical culture wars can focus on small constellation of issues without addressing our broader complicity in oppressive power structures. The statement itself insists that faithful Christians cannot even allow other Christians to so much as identify as gay — a position that even conservative evangelicals find too strong.
And yet a number of the signers of the statement both endorsed and continue to support Donald Trump, despite his staggering and continued disrespect for women. Trump embodies the sinful sexism and misogyny that permeates American culture, and yet he gets a pass as a “baby Christian” that actual faithful Christians don’t. This is, of course, hypocrisy of the highest order. But it also illustrates the way that the culture wars obscure the ways in which the church is complicit with the powers of evil and injustice in the world.
I’m using the Nashville Statement as a recent example, but it’s a single illustration of a broader problem rather than a unique instance. And to make the point once again, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to extract ourselves from our cultural context. But if our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God, we need to think carefully about how our cultural assumptions and values conflict or mesh with the values of Christ’s coming kingdom.
Because modern western culture has been shaped, in many ways, by Judeo-Christian values, because even non-western societies exhibit what theologians have called “natural law,”1 and because I believe that the line between good and evil runs through all of us, no culture is going to be wholly evil. But because evil is present in the world, and the church is in the world, the church will be implicated in evil.
Our job is to carefully sift between the two, identifying the good in our cultures and the evil in our midst. We should also, of course, do the opposite — but it’s seductively easy to point to the evil outside and the good inside. How can we speak prophetically to our culture, identifying the evils that cause harm and suffering, if we refuse to examine ourselves for those very evils?
This is abstract, but one specific example is sexism. Now, most Christians (there are exceptions) would agree that the sort of sexism that sees women as inherently less than men is wrong. But in myriad ways the church — both evangelical and mainstream — is terrible at actually encouraging women to be full participants in the life of the church.
As a more progressive Christian, it’s easy to point my finger at complementarian churches that actively discourage women from using their gifts of teaching and leadership, or at least using those fully. But across denominations — including mainstream ones — only 10% of senior pastors are women. This means that even churches that theoretically affirm the full participation of women often do a poor job of addressing the underlying sexism that prevents women from reaching leadership positions.
And if we don’t have the will to address sexism in our midst because doing so reveals assumptions and attitudes that make us uncomfortable, how can we speak to the oppression of women outside the church? Additionally, addressing sexism in the church means that we need to listen to feminist thinkers — many, if not most, of whom are now outside the church. But their insights are vital to understanding how we participate in and reinforce sexism, and how we can begin to end the oppression of patriarchy. And in the absence of a robust critique of sexism from within the church, we must partner with those outside it who also seek to end the oppression of patriarchy.
When we commit to modeling ourselves and our churches on Jesus, we put ourselves at an angle to our culture. But this doesn’t mean war; rather, it places us in a unique position to speak to the evils of oppression and injustice. Existing at an angle to culture, however, does not mean that we are removed from it. So in order to maintain our witness, we must acknowledge the ways in which we participate in the evils of the world and be willing to amplify those outside the church who are also working against the powers of evil in the world.
culture war# #feminism
Cultures worldwide and throughout time have had prohibitions on things like murder and theft, showing a certain baseline morality or ethics that humans in general share.↩