The Israelites’ Cruel Bondage in Egypt, by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)
Exploiting areas of moral overlap between the bible and contemporary culture is always a good principle. Contemporary America is essentially a culture-in-transition, so there’s a lot of ambiguity present in our national consciousness, but there’s plenty there to be taken advantage of.
It’s common to read melodramatic laments from the John Hagees and Robert Jeffresses of the world about how far America has drifted from Christian principles it used to cohere to. In reality, there was a time when our nation’s basic moral framework overlapped with the moral vision of the Christian faith in certain areas and not so much in others. We came to hold those areas of overlap very dearly and ignore the areas where the American moral framework fell dreadfully short of the biblical worldview.
But much of the angst that American Christians feel today about the nation’s supposed drift away from biblical values is actually a misplaced panic at the fact that the cultural shift we are experiencing is shaking things up so that the specific points of overlap between the American mindset and the biblical mindset are different. Top that off with the fact that America no longer pays institutional lip-service to the Christian religion, and we’ve got a new cultural situation that, although not worse than the one our grandparents grew up with (even in the good ol’ days, America was a kiddie pool of sin), is distinctly different, and we have to engage the culture accordingly.
For example, the contemporary America is not, like the America of yesteryear, consumed to a fault with questions of personal moral piety. Every culture inherits a doctrine of sin even if they do not, strictly speaking, have the necessary vocabulary to identify it. While sin is what it is, because truth isn’t relative, it has been uniquely understood through the ages.
The contemporary American doctrine of sin, if any such monolithic agreement can be clearly identified, is concerned primarily with sinful systemic structures. Never before has Total Depravity been an easier concept to sell. In the last several centuries, our notions about right and wrong have been torn asunder and then stitched back together by Darwin, Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger and other heavy-hitters. We’ve watched totalitarian demagogues rise and fall while honest, God-fearing citizens marched along to the rhythm of Apocalypse. We’re not really sure what evil is in the abstract, and we’re not entirely convinced it exists. But rarely do we fail to identify it when it appears in concrete form. There has not previously been a generation more sensitive to the pervasiveness of coercion in human behavior, and the contemporary western doctrine of sin deals extensively in the difficulty associated with preventing coercion without stifling human freedom.
The subtle suspicion that our collective moral convictions are environmentally conditioned has led those with sufficient influence and vested interest in maintaining the ideological status quo to forcefully suppress those who would pose a threat. Society has caught on to this trend and responded by trying to undercut the militarizing influence of moral uncertainty by privatizing convictions. In the absence of a clear-cut pathway to discerning non-partisan truth, we have shifted the emphasis away from conformity to a common moral standard in favor of conformity to a common commitment to “pursu[ing] our desires fairly—that is, in a manner that does not impinge on anyone else’s freedom.” (Quote by Stanley Hauerwas).
But privatized convictions are their own worst enemy. They actually bolster the culture of coercion by undercutting their own commitment to mutual non-coercion. Because the hyper-individualization wrought by contemporary society’s “live-and-let-live” ethic devalues the actual truthfulness of moral convictions we are left with no actual basis on which we can bravely oppose violent coercion. Having been overwhelmed by the pervasive role of power-plays in institutional morality, contemporary people take for granted that no alternative exists. “As a result of our self-deception, we have become unrelentingly manipulative,” Hauerwas laments. Thinkers both religious and secular have sought all the more rigorously a social ethic built atop a “universal” foundation–that is, a non-religious basis for doing right by others. That didn’t work out either.
“The attempt to secure peace through founding morality on rationality itself, or some other “inherent” human characteristic, ironically underwrites coercion, [because] if others refuse to accept my account of “rationality,” it seems within my bounds to force them to be true to their “true” selves.” quoth Hauerwas.
All of this means that we can no longer expect those outside the Christian community to share even the basics of the Judeo-Christian moral framework. This has staggering consequences on efficacy of what had been tried-and-true aspects of gospel preaching. Until recently, the forcible Christianization of the western world remained largely intact. The American consciousness was (to use a term coined by Jonathon Martin), “Christ-haunted”. As a result, we did not need to define our terms. We could assume that there was, at the very least, a basic agreement about what was and was not kosher. Even those who reveled in debauchery either did so in secret or conceded that the debauchery in which they reveled was indeed debauchery and that they reveled in such debauchery because they were debauched.
The America in whose midst we stand as the Body of Christ, however, is undergoing the probably overdue process of dechristianization and correspondingly the points of contact it does have with the Judeo-Christian ethic are both fewer and different than before. One such example is that while the biblical push toward monogamy is no longer a considered viable in the American consciousness, the Old Testament’s ambivalence toward unregulated economic systems is unprecedentedly welcome. Monogamy is now seen as stifling and probably coercive, but laissez-faire capitalism is no longer accepted uncritically as the paragon of individual freedom. We are more conscious than generations past of the oft-hidden wheels that turn in the background, rendering a wholly autonomous class of big-business figureheads nightmarish for those (read: the labor force) under the thumb of their unmitigated sovereignty.
My own colors will show here (I’m politically conservative and I happen to like Capitalism), but what makes the American experiment work (in theory) is the presence of communities who prophetically push for justice in an arrangement in which the government’s role is not to coerce individuals and businesses into doing right by others. It’s true that there can be no such thing as a morally neutral government, but in a non-invasive arrangement such as the American republic is meant to be, the Church is one example of a community that helps make capitalism possible. There will always be a power struggle. There will always be a coercive sovereign–whether it is the Federal government or the corporation. And the culture is now more acutely aware of this than ever before.
So although the Church and the culture are no longer on the same page regarding sexual ethics (amongst other things), ambivalence about what we might call corporate sovereignty has become a point of convergence between the two. The difference is that our ambivalence is shaped by the Old Testament narrative, which paints a picture of a monarchy whose tumultuous politics gave birth, at points, to economic arrangements that left common folk at the mercy of Pharaohesque employers – a situation roundly condemned by the prophets, perhaps not because they opposed hands-off economic policies (to apply modern economic vocabulary to ancient Near-Eastern culture would be a bit anachronistic) but because no checks-and-balances existed to protect workers from abuse.
Such focal points are the jumping-off points on which we ought to zero in. You can no longer assume that your next door neighbor has a moral commitment to monogamy, but they’re probably appropriately ambivalent about Wall Street cacophony and corporate corruption. They’re probably anxious about systemic forms of injustice – police brutality, the disproportionality with which minorities are sentenced to death for the same crimes as Caucasians, militaristic Bush-era empire building, etc.: concrete examples of authoritarianism revealing the cracks in its own asphalt. Those who are only now becoming concerned about such issues are, in a sense, finally catching up to the Bible. These are only a few examples.
As in all generations, the Bible ought to direct our gospel proclamation. But the points of convergence between the Bible and the culture are the in-roads by which we effectively witness. And as the culture has changed, so have those points of convergence. Let’s exploit them well.