Our culture does not want us, as Christians, to love it. Our culture wants us to hate it. That makes us the bad guys, and our culture wants us to be the bad guys. Loving our culture—really loving it—and proving that we love it in the face of deep presuppositions to the contrary may well be the single hardest challenge we face.
Nothing else we do in the public square will work if we don’t do everything from a position of love that challenges the deeply embedded assumption that we hate our culture. We must fight, and fight hard, for the great pillars of a morally sound culture: human life, religious freedom, marriage and family, the rule of law, an entrepreneurial economy, and a democratic republic. But any and all such victories will be short lived if, simultaneously with these struggles, we fail to challenge and root out the assumption that we hate our culture.
Love is our king. It doesn’t matter how many pawns, rooks, and knights we capture if we won’t defend our king.
In our culture, enmity between Christians and non-Christians has been institutionalized. You don’t have to do anything to create the expectation that Christians and non-Christians hate each other. That’s the default expectation.
It is one of our most urgent tasks to de-institutionalize enmity. We must go out of our way to challenge the assumption that we hate our culture. We must go out of our way to prove we love it. Rightly or wrongly—and it’s really a little bit of both—the burden of proof has been placed on us. Instead of complaining, let’s accept that burden and meet it. When our culture says we hate it, let’s prove our culture wrong.
I’ve experienced the institutionalization of enmity firsthand in a deeply painful way. Not long after I was converted, one of my closest friends in the world renounced me. This person had counseled and encouraged me through the darkest times I ever saw. She had been in my wedding party. It felt a little like she was a sister. But now she didn’t want to have anything to do with me —not if I could no longer “be okay” with a certain aspect of the way she lived her life. It’s been about ten years now since she told me she never wanted to hear from me again.
What makes this story really surprising is that she and I had never seen eye to eye on things before. We had argued over almost—almost—everything. Politics, religion, philosophy, you name it. We argued as friends argue; there was never any question that these differences would come between us. But there was one thing about her I had always accepted, and when my views changed—because of Jesus—she cut me off.
The point is that there was nothing about either me or her that forced us into this position. I have asked myself time and again whether I said or did something that could have come across like it was me rejecting her as a person, rather than me changing my mind about how people in general should live their lives (which was the kind of thing we’d always disagreed about before). But I honestly don’t think there was. Nor do I think she, on her end, lacked the emotional strength to stand up for herself in an honest way—as if my withdrawing approval for this aspect of her life was such a crushing blow that she had to tell herself I was a bigot to avoid facing it.
No, this happened because of deep structures in our culture. All day, every day, she had been immersed in a culture (especially in the subcultures to which she belonged) where it is simply assumed that there is no such thing as honest disagreement about this issue. There is only hatred, period. And on my part, I lacked the wisdom to anticipate this problem and take steps to preempt it.
As I hope should be obvious by now, this is about far more than politics and courts. True, the Supreme Court recently declared, as a binding precept of constitutional law, that all people who support natural marriage do so exclusively out of hate. That is an unusually dramatic example of the institutionalization of enmity. But, in this as in everything else, the law is the caboose of the culture. It is not the first thing to change, but the last.
Here are some specific things we can do to de-institutionalize enmity without giving up our views on issues that divide us from our neighbors—including active advocacy for our views in the public square:
Speak with Respect: When we talk about our neighbors and our culture, we must talk about them in a way that shows we view them as beautiful creatures whose intrinsic dignity we respect and whose flourishing we are actively seeking. No matter how depraved they may become in some respects, we must avoid speaking with an attitude of snotty superiority toward our neighbors outside the church and the culture to which we belong. Arguments like this and this, while their positions on the core issues may be formally correct, are communicated in ways that also send the message “I look down on you.” (See here for more.)
Religious Freedom in Law and Culture: We must clearly state, over and over, that religious freedom is a core, non-negotiable value for us. This means not only the protection of the law, but a culture in which people of diverse beliefs are accepted as civic equals. We want to find a way to build a society in which those who are and are not Christian can all live as respected, loved equals. This does not mean moral anarchy without shared values; it does mean that the process of building on shared values includes legal and cultural respect for diverse beliefs. This is essential both to our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians—especially for evangelicals.
Don’t Be Shocked, Shocked: As a consequence of our commitment to religious freedom, we should not speak in a way that implies it is somehow surprising or shocking that people advocate values and practices other than our own. Language that seeks to stigmatize people because they advocate what they believe (e.g. “promoting the gay agenda”) is inconsistent with our own best commitments. We sound like Prefect Renault closing down Rick’s Café: “I am shocked—shocked —to discover that non-Christian values are going on in here!” Given that diversity of beliefs is a persistent fact in a fallen world, we should welcome a boisterous public square in which many views are advocated rather than pining for the mythological good old days when everyone agreed on everything.
Speak the Language: We must avoid speaking the language that makes sense to us and start speaking the language that makes sense to our neighbors. This does not mean compromising our positions; it does mean connecting our positions to the words, symbols and stories that are meaningful to our culture. We must describe the moral and social benefits of our positions in language that our culture recognizes as beneficial. This is the only way to show that we love them.
Create Stories: Human beings are narrative creatures in addition to cognitive creatures. They do make sense of their world by thinking about it logically, and that’s why arguments are important. But they also make sense of their world through stories. We need to speak to this area. In particular the question of motive—do Christians really love their neighbors and their culture or are they just seeking power over their neighbors?—is one that arguments can’t address. The only way to make our arguments plausible is to tell stories that establish, in effect, “I live in the same story you do; here’s a part of the story you haven’t seen yet.” Doing this in an effective way will require a major expansion of our effort beyond merely political activism (though that must continue as well). When people hear stories from political activists, they have their guard up. We need more Christians in Hollywood.
Don’t Define Ourselves as a Minority: For the moment, we are in the minority. We need to recognize that fact and stop talking as if we were the spokespeople for American culture. At the same time, we also must avoid defining our core identity in terms of being a minority; that would be just another form of the same mistake. If we want to de-institutionalize enmity between ourselves and our culture, we must avoid defining our identity in terms of opposition to the majority. Even the status of a “loyal opposition” is not quite a firm enough ground to stand on. The effort to define Christians as aberrant begins with defining us as abnormal. We are currently the minority report on many important public issues, but we are not sociologically abnormal. Let’s not defect from mainstream identity.
Love By Serving: How do I love my neighbor? Not by feeling warm and fuzzy feelings toward him. I love my neighbor by exerting effort to benefit him. The Bible’s vision of Christian life for all believers is one of diligent, generous and fruitful service to neighbor. A pastor of mine once said that Christians should live in such a way that everyone around them says, “I can’t imagine this place without you!” How many of our churches teach that effectively? Once Christians become known as the people who work hard and go out of their way to make the world a better place, our neighbors will believe that we love them—because that’s how love shows itself.
Love is our king. Our opponents have spent the last two generations defining us as haters, and it doesn’t matter how many other battles we win if we allow that definition to stand. But we can’t reverse that definition by redoubling our efforts to defeat our adversaries. That would be just a little too ironic. We must overcome evil with good, hatred with love.
To show that we love our neighbors, all we really have to do is love our neighbors. That may well prove the hardest challenge of all! In the end, though, it’s the only one that counts.