No Fear

I had the privilege of speaking this past weekend at the Peacemaker Ministries Life Together Northwest conference in Portland, Oregon. It was a bit of an unusual fit. I am not a mediator, a Christian conciliator, nor even a pastoral counselor helping people deal with conflict. So what was I doing there?

Well, I am a public theologian. I do theology in public, where the watching world can hear. And because we are living in an increasingly hostile age to Christian virtues, I think the ministry wanted me to address the calling of being peacemakers in a context of cultural conflict. And that is what I attempted to do.

Make no mistake: increasing hostility is what we're up against. My own Dead Reckoning.TV episodes have been getting a small amount of hostile feedback. The message is uncomfortable and, well, offensive to modern ears just like it was to ancient ears.

Just this morning James K.A. Smith tweeted:

As it happens, much of my own address was to this very question. The manner of our witness is as important, arguably more important, even, than the matter of our witness. Just before telling believers to "always be ready to give a defense of the hope that is within you," (a favorite verse of would-be Christian apologists), Peter "nests" this command in a context of other cardinal Christian virtues.

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

It is amazing how our eyes glaze over these words as we try to get to the "good part," the part about contending for and defending the faith against all comers. Harmony. Sympathy. Love. Compassion. Humility. Not exactly the first words that come to mind to describe many Christians. But Smith is surely right: those virtues are not at all the same thing as "affirmation" of the world's cultural idols. And that is precisely the calculation we must resist.

Owen Strachan, the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, just published a related piece that is sobering reading. He writes:

The new mark of being culturally acceptable is affirming homosexuality as virtuous (not merely okay, but virtuous, even exemplary). This is the litmus test. I don’t think many of us expected that it would so quickly fill this role, but it has. The mark of being a progressive, kind, socially courageous person today is simply this: affirming same-sex marriage. There are other cardinal virtues of a contemporary au courant identity, but this is the lodestar, the one that hangs one’s personal moon.

I don't see any possible way of denying this. The ancient Roman Empire devised a single "test" whereby they could discern whether these Christians were mostly harmless (I've been quoting Douglas Adams a lot lately) or a clear and present danger to the Empire. That test was simple: bow down and worship the Divine Emperor. Do this, and we'll let you be. Don't do this, and it's the Coliseum for you and your families where you'll be kept company by ravenous lions.

The new test is equally simple: approve of homosexual behavior. Or else. This should tell us something. It is not really about homosexuality. That particular practice is a cipher, a stand-in for a whole host of other issues all centered around humanity's rebellion against the Creator. There is no God, no lawgiver, no one who sets "rules" for us and our behavior. There is no design and no designer. We are radically free to do whatever we wish to do. "Let us break their bonds, and loose their fetters" (Psalm 2). It's the ultimate in what Thomas Sowell calls the "unconstrained" worldview.

We are living in the midst of a seismic culture shift. And when earthquakes come we all reach out for something stable and unmoving, something to restore our balance. We do this in really panicky ways. We feel vulnerable and alone. We think nobody has ever experienced what we are now experiencing. So we quickly develop "new" approaches, "new" evangelism techniques, "new" apologetic methods, "new" ministry models, and so forth. Always "new" because we think we're the first to ever experience a cultural earthquake. Surely nobody else has resources to help us! After all, we think, the culturally corrosive postmodern worldview is new, so we too need something new to counteract it.

The title of this website is "Dead Reckoning." That involves having a "fixed point" to enable us to chart our cultural location. I believe there is such a fixed point, and it is nothing other than our transcendent God himself. He is not taken by surprise or swayed by the ebb and flow of history. He is Lord. Sovereign. And he has given us a fixed point. "Your word is a lamp to my feet; a light to my path," says the Psalmist. And the Bible gives us great reason to not be afraid of the increasing hostility of our age.

After Jesus told his followers to be "peacemakers," those that seek to reconcile people to each other and people together to God for their good and his glory, do you remember what his very next sentence was?

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Do you remember what he said next?

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you."

Jesus keeps it pretty real. He's not surprised at our little cultural earthquake. This is not new. When he told his followers to seek peace in the world (and I take that to mean seeking the well-being and wholeness of our neighbors in all facets of life) he was under no illusions that this involved rainbows and unicorns. He knew full well that this meant, ironically enough, conflict. And lots of it.

So too Paul. Right after telling us to "live at peace with everyone" as far as we are able (Romans 12:18), his very next words were: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath."

Revenge? Revenge for what? Revenge for all the really crappy things that are about to happen to you.

Peter's exhortation is identical. Right after telling people to "live in harmony," he writes: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult."

Why would that admonition be necessary if living in harmony as Christians is a bed of roses? 

News flash: What is happening right now is not unprecedented, new, or unanticipated. We are flailing about searching for something stable in our cultural earthquake, and when we actually go back and read the Bible we find that we are exactly where God expected us to be. I find that comforting.

The popular T-Shirt of a decade or so ago puts it best: No Fear.

Brian Mattson