“I thought we were better than that”

I have a longstanding tradition of not discussing events of the day on this blog. I will be breaking with that tradition for the duration of this post. As partial atonement, I will do my best to keep it brief. All three items involve the response of the church to a current event.

The first is the release of the Planned Parenthood videos. The initial response from the Christian community was gleeful—finally, the world will wake up to what abortion mills are doing!—followed by a baffled and crushing disappointment—where’s the outrage?

I have some hope that the disappointment will inspire us to face the facts. Our instincts tell us that normal, decent human beings should be outraged by these revelations. But the news has moved on, and not much has changed. So what went wrong? Did they not hear? Do they need to hear it again? Do we not live amongst normal, decent human beings? Or are we mistaken in how we understand the situation? (I vote for the last.)

The second is the sudden awareness of mistreatment of blacks at the hands of the police. I am afraid that society at large is far ahead of the church in being brought up short by the constant stream of outrageous revelations. But I do have some hope, precisely because the church has been so feeble and mealy-mouthed in its response. I think as a community we simply don’t know what to say, that our understanding of the situation has failed us, and for once we haven’t yielded (completely, anyway) to the temptation to retreat into some pious claptrap about how the real problem is that we’re all sinners, or whatever. Perhaps in the partial silence we’ll find the strength to do some thinking.

The third event is the hacking of the Ashley Madison website, which revealed that when it comes to sexual purity many Christians, pastors and teachers and laymen, celebrities and little-known, talk a far better game than they live. The response I’ve seen from the community so far is exactly the sort of response the commumity hoped the Planned Parenthood videos would evoke but didn’t—shocked, stunned disbelief. An unbelieving observer who noticed both would have to laugh at the irony. Meanwhile, I take heart from the fact that folks were at least shocked, stunned, and disbelieving. At least the standard which was violated turns out to not be cynically hypocritical—we really did believe our men were better than that.

How could the church have failed so miserably in this third area? I have my own answer, and I think it applies to the first two situations as well. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people will find it very helpful.

It is this: we choose to put our faith in the rules, rather than in what the rules point to. We require righteousness, but don’t train people in righteousness. When those in the community fail to meet the standard, our response is: didn’t you hear me the first time? Here, let me tell you again, slower and louder and in a very stern voice. Surely you didn’t understand me before, and once you do you will naturally do what I tell you is right. Just stop doing what is wrong. That’s all it takes.

We’ve told our men to be pure, and they’ve failed to be pure. We’ve told ourselves that ours must become a colorblind society, and blacks suffer disproportionately at the hands of police. We’ve told ourselves that good people view life as precious, and good people are not outraged by events where life is treated as a commodity and (in)convenience. None of this excuses the behavior of the people involved. But perhaps we should re-examine our faith in the power of our rules and standards.

We thought we could save the world (and ourselves considerable effort) by codifying the Christian worldview and then imposing it on everyone, Christian or not. Instead we found that not only did the unbelieving world reject it, believers began substituting the code for character—rather than exemplifying a way of life as a result of long years of training, they substitute a promise to adhere to the code, without regard to whether they are constitutionally (or situationally) equipped to fulfill that promise.

Based on my own experience, I believe that everyday people can train themselves to meet the Christian standard—eventually, and imperfectly, but with increasing success as a result of their efforts. Unfortunately, these days that almost certainly means self-training, with little or no assistance or guidance available. Teachers are all too pleased to expound the standard, and we’re all too eager to judge one another against it. But there’s precious little available to train you in how to meet that standard.

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3 thoughts on ““I thought we were better than that”

  1. “A long obedience in the same direction”
    Tips on the training would be especially appreciated.
    Living in a wealthy Christian suburb, dominated by a prominent Christian college, your point is even more obvious. Except that here, we are often better at covering up the sin out of a desire “not to gossip.” I look all around me and am terrified at the lack of discipline, young and old, in the church. Things were not as bad when I was growing up, and I’m only in my mid-40s.

  2. Tips on the training would be especially appreciated.

    Do you mean training one’s self, or one’s children? Regarding one’s self, many of my tips would be adaptations of what I wrote in the “Getting Things Done” series under the Useful Posts tab, which describes my approach to tackling a difficult and long-term project. The adaptation would be to the specific project of building a righteous, well-rounded character.

    Regarding one’s children, my primary “tip” is simply reassurance that it is possible—not a certainty, but possible—to influence them deeply, as youngsters and into adulthood. That is based on our own experience here. You have to earn the right to wield influence, by always putting the interest of the child first, and by sharing true wisdom rather than just imposing opinions and preferences—which requires that you gather and internalize true wisdom! Beyond that I could mention lots of specifics that have helped us, but they are only responses to the specific situations we found ourselves in, not magic formulas that guarantee results. It’s the thinking which led us to those specific responses which is crucial.

    I look all around me and am terrified at the lack of discipline, young and old, in the church. Things were not as bad when I was growing up, and I’m only in my mid-40s.

    The “good news”, perhaps, is that rules are failing us in ever more obvious ways, which may finally encourage us to look elsewhere for help. Rules can be helpful in molding the character we need to live righteously, but we’ve tried instead to substitute merely conforming to the rules for becoming a person who naturally behaves in a manner that the rules imperfectly describe. As T.S. Eliot observes, we dream of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” It relieves us of the burden of becoming good. But it also misses the point. We don’t need a world of well-behaved bad people. We need a world of good people. The good behavior is gravy.

    My other observation is that our responsibility to influence is a matter of concentric circles, where we need to master each level of relationship before venturing out into the next. For me the circles are: myself, my wife, my children, my parents and siblings, my co-workers, my friends, and strangers. Not that we have to be perfect before venturing out, but remembering that the work must proceed from innermost to outermost. One of my favorite Tolstoy quotes is “Everyone wants to change the world, and no one wants to change themselves.” True! And the irony, of course, is our only hope of exerting influence on the world is to become able to influence something a bit closer to us than the world, and so on until we are left with the job of working on ourselves. That’s where we must begin.

    Sorry for the lack of polish. I’m hesitant to talk about these things because I am still a long way from having them worked out.

  3. I tend to agree with you about the larger point, which is that religions (not just contemporary American Xty) tend to get focused on legislating and lose the larger point behind the rules. I think this happens out of a fundamentally decent impulse, i.e., the “legislators” know how people will come to harm, it’s entirely predictable, and they want to prevent those things. But there are a certain number of moral lessons that don’t seem to become internalized until one has made a few mistakes or experienced an unsettling life crisis, and teaching rules seems to ill equip people to deal with these crises. I’m not saying that one has to commit adultery in order to understand why it’s a bad idea, but rather that if the focus is on teaching the words of the rule but not on that of the worldview that generates the rule, people get focused on the rule per se. Xian kids learn “thou shalt not commit adultery” from an age before they even know what adultery is, it’s a very internalized rule, and “adultery” is marked as bad, so kids grow up thinking, “of course I don’t want to commit adultery, that’s a sin / bad.” As a result, I think that most people don’t want to commit adultery until suddenly they do — but if they are in that situation and all they have is a rule that they have never thought much about, it’s so easy to talk oneself into thinking that breaking a single rule is minor, as opposed to having an entire worldview that points out what the consequences of infidelity will inevitably be. And if I’m not troubled by the possibility of a particular sin, a system of rules doesn’t exactly encourage me to think about responses to it beyond “well, don’t do that, then.”

    I don’t think that I was necessarily unmerciful before, but my capacity to be merciful others increased drastically after a series of life events that made me need grace and mercy from others. I don’t think rules can really teach that to most people; we have to suffer. It makes me wonder if the ungenerosity of so many of our public figures stems from the fact that we as a society have simply had it too good for too long.

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