Part 3: How We Evaluate Morality in the Context of Culture
In the first part of this series, Christianity and Culture PART 1: Asking the Right Questions, I explored the definitions of culture and Christianity in the sense of following Christ, and looked at how we can tell if a battle is really between Christ and culture, or just a battle between cultural preferences. I also looked at areas where the teachings of Christ very much conflict with culture, but Evangelicals have chosen the culture over Christ.
In the second part, Christianity and Culture PART 2: Scripture and Culture, I discussed the fact that the Bible was written by actual humans, who wrote in the context of their culture. I then presented my belief that scripture is most relevant when it appears to push back against the culture in which it was written, not when it appears to affirm the culture of its times. I also noted that the Culture Wars(TM) are about imposing the culture of the past on the present times - particularly the injustices and the privileges of the past.
In this part, I want to look at how we judge the action or inaction of people, past and present, for their relationship to culture. Specifically, when and how a person either goes along with or stands up against culture, and what that says about a person’s ethics and morality.
As I see it, we can divide the cases into four basic categories:
#1: Going along with the evil in a culture
#2: Going along with the good in a culture
#3: Standing in opposition to evil in a culture
#4: Standing in opposition to good in a culture
These are by no means intended to be exclusive categories of people, merely of specific actions or inactions. For example, Martin Luther stood in opposition to culture when he nailed the Theses on the church door. But he went along with the evil of anti-Semitism of his culture. On the flip side, someone like George Washington went along with the slavery of his culture while Louis XVI stood against the growing democratic culture in favor of aristocratic privilege and got shortened a little bit.
Now, let me acknowledge that good and evil are not in every case readily apparent and that we often disagree on whether something is one or the other. But really there is a lot that we can generally agree is good or evil. Likewise, “culture” isn’t monolithic, as I have pointed out in previous installments in this series. Culture wars are usually Culture versus Culture, not a lone person standing against a culture - but that does happen, as I hope to show.
Let’s unpack these a bit:
#1: Going along with the evil in a culture
This is the one where we end up judging people of the past by a different standard than the present. To use one of the above examples, most of us consider George Washington to be a pretty good guy, even though he owned slaves. But we would consider it a monstrous evil if someone today was discovered with hundreds of slaves.
Now, I hope we can agree that slavery was an evil institution, and that it was, morally speaking, wrong to own slaves. (Obviously, the Doug Wilsons of the world will disagree with me.) So we have the question as to why we judge Washington less harshly than we would a modern person?
We judge him less harshly because he was going along with the culture. In other words, his actions and inactions matched those of society and culture in his time and place. He may have acted out of ignorance (mistaken beliefs about human rights, the intelligence of Africans, and so on) or out of unwillingness to make waves, or just because there was no reason to believe differently than his culture.
Or, to put it a different way, Washington would have had to deliberately and intentionally chosen to go against his culture and didn’t. A current slave owner would be the opposite: he would have to deliberately and intentionally choose slavery against the flow of culture.
Guys who did some good stuff we celebrate, but also some bad stuff that their culture excused...
On another issue, we do not necessarily blame people of the past as harshly for believing women were inferior to men, for being tribalistic, or for being superstitious. We may believe they were wrong, but the degree of evil is softened by the times they lived in.
It is no virtue to go along with the crowd and do evil, but we don’t consider it as bad as intentional evil.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a certain amount of (possibly intentional) confusion between honoring a flawed person for the good that they did and celebrating the evil that they did because it was “of the time they lived in.” See below for more on this.
#2 Going along with the good in a culture
All of us do this all the time. To use myself as an example, did you know that I am opposed to segregation? I’ll bet that impressed you. Or not. Because, bully for me, I agree with the broader culture (at least most of it) on this issue. It does not take a lot of moral courage to oppose segregation in my culture. It might take some courage to, for example, go to one of Richard Spencer’s rallies and call him and his followers (correctly) Nazis, but I can guarantee you that my family and friends would not disown me for my position.
So, there is no shame in doing right when everyone else is, of course, and the world is at its best when the culture supports doing right. In fact, the beauty of a culture that supports good is that those with evil inclinations are often held in check. One example that comes to mind is that until recent electoral events, most people (at least here in California) were too embarrassed to hurl racial epithets at strangers and threaten children with deportation. The culture kept the hate in the closet, so to speak. (When you hear someone complain about “political correctness” ask them to explain what they would like to be able to freely say. It’s a real education to hear what comes out of their mouths.)
To borrow from Christ: if you only do good when it is easy, how are you better than the pagans?
#3 Standing in opposition to evil in culture
This is where true heroes reside. There is nothing more noble than to stand, at great cost to one’s self, against the tide of evil. There is a downside, however. These sorts tend to get themselves killed.
A few names come to mind: Jesus Christ, who definitely got on the wrong side of both the religious and secular authorities - but particularly the religious ones. He defied culture big time. Rosa Parks and others who defied the Jim Crow laws. William Wilberforce who opposed slavery before it was popular. Harriet Tubman, who attained the freedom of the enslaved in defiance of laws to the contrary.
And one of my favorites, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who paid for his opposition to the Nazi regime and culture with his life. He took spoke out against the religious establishment of his time, who went along with culture and hatred of the “other,” eventually writing from prison of his vision of a Christianity divorced from religion and railing against the moral stupidity in evidence within a culture and religion that lacked the moral awareness to stand against one of the greatest evils of the modern age.
He stood nearly alone against a culture who did not recognize the face of evil, but embraced a slogan-slinging tyrant who promised to make Germany great again at the expense of Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities, gays, and the disabled. And he paid with his life.
This is the hardest thing to do for two reasons. First, it requires the ability to recognize evil. Too often, evil hides well, and speaks familiar language, and leads us gently into places we never thought we would end up. But likewise, many, many people have stood up for causes that they honestly believed were noble, but who were mistaken. The late Fred Phelps, for example, devoted his life to antagonizing people to proclaim that God Hates Fags™. No doubt, he stood against culture, but I would hardly call it a stand for good against evil. More like hate directed against people who didn’t share his beliefs. Likewise, modern cultural warriors believe they are for good against evil by opposing immigration, promoting Social Darwinism, and so on. So first, being this kind of hero requires good judgment. And it requires a commentment to following the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” - the one commandment cultural warriors are most eager to avoid obeying.
Second, the true hero must be willing to sacrifice himself for his ideals. One sign that cultural warriors are not in this category is that they propose to sacrifice others to their ideals. If some refugees die, not a big deal, right? If the poor suffer from malnutrition or lack of medical treatment, it’s okay, right? If women have to stay in abusive marriages, well, God intended it. Look at who will suffer - it is never the cultural warrior. It’s always someone else. And often someone else’s children. True heroes sacrifice themselves, not others.
#4 Standing in opposition to the good in culture
If #1 represents those who lacked some degree of discernment or courage but were not true villains, #2 represents those who do right in the easy things, and #3 is where true heroes are found, #4 is where the truly evil reside.
And the problem is, this is where many cultural warriors can be found today. Certainly the Doug Wilsons of the world, who are determined to stand against every attempt to right the injustices of the past. Those who defend slavery, demean women, bully the weak, and so on. The Trumps of the world, who do likewise in their personal and not just their professional lives.
But also those who continue to oppose those who fight against racism. Those who proudly give the Nazi salute, or praise neo-Nazi novel The Camp of the Saints and stir up hatred against non-whites. Those who buck “modern” beliefs in the inherent equality of humankind. Those who seek to exclude those who do not look like them - particularly if they are poor. Those who defy the 20th Century’s attempts to keep the poor from starving and dying from lack of medical care - insisting that they are lazy despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Those who continue to fight against the social, political, and economic equality of women (aka Feminism) - and suggest that patriarchal obedience is more important that women’s safety.
Again, look at that list. Does any of that seem to be remotely related to the commands of Christ? Do any of the above seem in any way consistent with “Love your neighbor as yourself?” I’m not seeing it. Instead, these are attempts to defy the Greatest Commandment and embrace the injustices of the past, tribalism, and selfishness. And they are indeed in opposition to the best in modern culture.
The point here is that these particular people - and political movements - are not just ordinary evil. They are the worst kind of evil. The intentionally choose to go against culture - and not to do good, but to harm others.
My problem with Evangelicalism over the last decade has been that, rather than purge evil people and evil ideas from the church, they have embraced - and protected - these people. There is nowhere that Doug Wilson can be accepted rather than rejected other than Evangelicalism. There is no group in this country who really supports Steve King - except White Supremacists...and white Evangelicals. Tucker Carlson can spew the rhetoric of the KKK (literally), and Evangelicals will continue to watch his show and repost his hate toward brown skinned people.
The problem isn’t that ALL Evangelicals embrace this. Clearly they do not. I know too many decent people who (for various reasons) remain in Evangelical churches to believe that.
The problem is that the one place where people who stand against the good in our culture, embracing the evil of the past, can feel most comfortable and supported is within the Religious Right. That a known hate group like the AFA can be promoted in church, and people just yawn when you point out the horrible things they stand for. That propaganda from open white supremacists can be re-posted and nobody is willing to say anything.
To paraphrase Saint Paul: It is actually reported that there is evil - racism, tribalism, hate, domestic violence - among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate…
THAT is the problem.
Note on celebrating evil in the past:
As I mentioned above, there seems to be confusion about the difference between honoring flawed people of the past for the good they did, and celebrating the evil that they did because it was “of its time.”
Case in point: Confederate statues.
First of all, these monuments and statues were not put in place right after the Civil War. Rather, the first boom just happened to coincide with the rise of the 2nd KKK in the 1910s and 1920s. And the speeches given at the time were pretty clear: these were intended to remind non-whites that they were not considered fully human and would not have equal rights. This isn’t a mystery - it’s the clear history.
But more than that, what are these statues and monuments honoring? Service in the cause of the Confederacy. Which was formed to defend the right of white people to own black people. It wasn’t until there was a perceived need to “whitewash” this history that the whole “Lost Cause Myth” was invented - to give a false air of nobility to an evil cause. Seriously, read the quotes by the Confederate leaders - they were clear the war was to preserve - and extend - slavery. And even if slavery was (arguably) culturally acceptable, why celebrate evil actions?
Let me give some further examples of the difference.
Richard Wagner was a rather amazing composer of operas. His composing techniques (particularly chromaticism and the use of leitmotifs) can be seen today in movie music from Star Wars on down. We can justly celebrate the beauty of his art, which is his contribution to our world.
However, Wagner was a pretty horrible person in other ways. He was a notorious womanizer, stole his best friend’s wife, left a trail of debts wherever he went, and was an anti-Semite. So we don’t celebrate that, to say the least. We acknowledge he was deeply flawed and celebrate the good he did.
What we do not do is erect a statue to celebrate his adultery. Or hold him up as example of how to treat Jewish people.
Or how about this one: Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most influential presidents when it came to the environment. Many beautiful places - including Yosemite National Park - were preserved through his efforts. He also was an early progressive, and worked to break up monopolies and prevent the accumulation of power by large companies. These were good things! And we celebrate them.
TR was also a real racist when it came to Native Americans. We don’t celebrate that. And we certainly do not hold him out as a positive example of policy toward Native Americans.
Celebrate the good. Acknowledge the bad - even if it was “normal by the standards of the times.” And certainly do not celebrate the evil.
Or how about one more: Martin Luther. We Protestants celebrate him because he challenged the evil in the Roman Catholic Church, and essentially started the Reformation. I believe that this was actually a positive thing for the Catholic Church as well, as it forced needed reforms, and began to separate it from politics. Without the Reformation, the Enlightenment probably wouldn’t happen, and we may never have gained either representative government or a separation of church and state. These were good things!
But, as I laid out in a previous post, Luther was also strongly anti-Semitic, and proposed pogroms against Jews. It was his screed that was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust as a Christian act. Was this “of its time”? Yes. Was it evil? Also yes. And that’s before we get into Luther’s views on women…
So, we celebrate the good that Luther did. But we don’t put up a statue to him in Jewish neighborhoods.
And this brings us back to the point. Celebrating Confederates like Robert E. Lee - or KKK founders like Nathan Bedford Forrest - is by definition celebrating the evil they did. Without the Civil War or the KKK, would anyone care who they were? Probably not. Their entire claim to fame was because of the evil they did. We need to acknowledge that, and stop celebrating their evil.
WOULD you have supported Civil Rights?
When I was a kid (and after as well) plenty of the adults in my life made the claim that had they been around (or old enough) during the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, they would have done the right thing. Really?
Well guess what? We are in another civil rights era. A revealing light has been directed on our policing, on our immigration policies, our voting laws, and on our prejudices.
I am seeing that quite a few of those who boldly claimed that they would fight for civil rights are, well, opposing civil rights now.
And I don’t want to hear the excuses. When our fellow Americans (and often fellow Christians) say there is a problem, why are we so allergic to listening and trying to make things better?