Saturday, 22 December 2012

More culture war reflections

In my last post I reflected on the question of whether or not the UK is now entering as culture war (as Fraser Nelson thinks), precipitated by the issue of same-sex ‘marriage’.  I noted that

Very many people who carry political weight no longer even pretend that they would rather persuade their opponents than simply write them off as basically evil.

This is in tune with how Nelson defines a culture war:

The practice of […] dividing a nation into warring tribes and then exploiting that division

As a window on this hardening of attitudes and rhetoric, the following snippets of Times editorials are instructive.  Just under six years ago I reported an editorial in which the newspaper wondered aloud about

the best way to change the attitudes of those few who remain convinced that the practice of homosexuality is a sin

Fast forward to this year, and the tone of voice has changed markedly.  ‘Those few who remain’ are now regarded as being engaged in

a demeaning, unconscionable and ultimately futile defence of injustice

I confess that my gut reaction to this kind of remark, the likes of which I read or hear nearly every day in the media or in person, is to want to blast back twice as hard.  That would be the sinful nature talking, though.

And when his [Jesus’] disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54-55)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)

Somehow, politically, we orthodox Christians in this country have to find a way to audibly dissent from (what appears to be) the prevailing cultural mindset on this kind of issue without repaying aggression for aggression.  While in some ways it seems like it would be comforting to have a culture war in this country of the kind that Nelson describes as existing in the USA – because at least then it would feel like I was part of a side in a battle rather than a member of a beleaguered group being stepped on – there are many reasons to want to avoid it.  Here are a few, based on what I perceive happening across the Atlantic.  American readers are are invited to contest, discuss and/or confirm my impressions.  After certain points I make a caveat in <chevrons>.

  • It seems that often, Christians are led to unreflectively take a particular stance on political issues simply because that’s what ‘our side’ does, and the ‘other side’ is opposed to it.  Should Christians automatically be in favour of a maximally free market?  The death penalty?  Legal firearms?  Krish Kandiah makes this point repeatedly in his review of Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible (and Grudem is a theologian whom I admire a great deal).
    <Of course, this works both ways, and to an extent exists in this country too. Mehdi Hassan, much to his own chagrin, has had to take great pains to explain how it’s possible to be both a socialist and pro-life (as if those two things are incompatible).>
  • Relatedly, just because someone’s on the right side in the culture war doesn’t mean that they’re a genuine Christian.  No wise pastor would make that mistake, of course, but I still feel the need to highlight the issue because it seems that the culture war phenomenon has a tendency to cause political and theological views to become conflated.
    <In this country, this was probably more of an issue fifty years ago than it is now.  You can’t read C.S. Lewis without the impression that very often his target audience is the upstanding Church of England person who is nominally Christian but in reality utterly unsaved.  According to the latest census figures, nominal Christianity in this country is plummeting (which may well be a good thing).>
  • Without wanting to take sides here on the extremely thorny issue(s) of predestination, it’s wrong to regard anyone as beyond the reach of God’s saving power.  Behind my instinct to blast back at the secular ideologues is an impulse to write them off as hopeless cases.  But there are no living hopeless cases, at least as far as we can know.  We certainly have political opponents; however, our enemies are not flesh and blood but principalities and powers.

This last issue reaches inside the church, too.  You only have to read Vaughan Roberts’ recent moving interview with Evangelicals Now to realise that the pastoral implications of the way we talk about political issues are potentially huge.

The problem is largely caused by the fact that most of our comments on homosexuality are prompted, not primarily by a pastoral concern for struggling Christians, but by political debates in the world and the church. We do need to engage in these debates, but it’s vital that we’re alert to the messages that some of our brothers and sisters may be hearing.

As a concluding thought, I want to repeat a point that I’ve made before.  The present cultural and intellectual climate in this country is not forever.  In the light of eternity it’s puny, of course, but even in the light of recorded history it’s really not that impressive.  Yes, secular liberalism seems like an overwhelming force now, and may well remain dominant in Europe for the rest of my lifetime.  But that’s not really that long of a time, all things considered.


Paul Wright said...

I recently read the entire Metafilter thread on the recent shootings in the USA (it was pretty enlightening: Mefi gets higher quality conversations than many places online). Somewhere in the middle of those 2810 comments was the point that the people who want change need to carry the middle, not the extremes, which in this case means that both the people who want to ban all guns and the people who think they should be able to own any gun have left themselves out of the debate, which will move on without them because they're incapable of compromise. I hope so: I don't live in the US, but no man is an island, and all that.

So, to gay marriage. The parts of the church which don't want it to be legal at all have reasons which aren't persuasive to people outside those parts. The change that's apparently happened is that the debate doesn't need to carry those people any more: there's an obvious compromise (let the churches/temples/whatever which want it have it, let those which don't carry on not having it without the threat of lawsuits) where nobody needs to get nailed to anything. I hope this is what we get, not a culture war. It is hard to see it as persecution when you're being allowed to carry on doing just what you want (or rather, not being compelled to do something you don't want).

As I argued with the mysterious "S." in that post of mine you linked to, this isn't the end of the world (that was yesterday) or the Decline and Fall, it is people who have moral values which differ from your own.

mattghg said...

Right, I should have been clearer with the 'persecution' quotation. What I meant was, if you should bless (and not curse) those who percecute you, a fortiori you should bless those who merely call you names.

Well, who does the debate 'need to carry' in this country? The C4M petition now has over 600000 signatures, about 100 Conservative MPs have threatened to rebel (and the situation is even stronger in the Lords), polling on this issue seems basically even overall.

Perhaps your point is that all but the most extreme of these people will be won over by the 'obvious compromise'? But there's no sign of that happening. Furthermore, just read the original text of Clegg's speech. Read a Guardian editorial instead of a Times one. The rhetoric isn't limited to 'parts of the church' but all opposition to the proposed change in the law. A culture war is what it looks like already.

let the churches/temples/whatever which want it have it, let those which don't carry on not having it without the threat of lawsuits

Do you honestly believe that this will last? After what happened to the adoption agencies?

mattghg said...

The elitist nature of the gay-marriage campaign can also be seen in the way it is treated as something that shouldn’t be publicly debated, an issue on which no dissent can be brooked. As a Guardian editorial put it yesterday, gay marriage is ‘beyond argument’. There is no ‘countervailing argument’, it said, echoing other observers who have decreed that ‘there are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgement of subtleties and cultural differences - same-sex marriage is not one of them’.


Ilíon said...

"Yes, secular liberalism seems like an overwhelming force now, and may well remain dominant in Europe for the rest of my lifetime."

Well, of course, it won't last forever -- it eats its own seedcorn, and plants no new.

Ilíon said...

"... this isn't the end of the world (that was yesterday) or the Decline and Fall, it is people who have moral values which differ from your own."

You can keep telling yourself that Hell! even after they've graduated from calling us names to killing us, you can keep telling youself that this is just "people who have moral values which differ from your own".