When a Culture Unravels

According to a recent American Psychiatric Association poll, 62 percent of Americans feel more anxious than they did a year ago—a figure nearly double the anxiety levels of the previous three years. Factors driving rising anxiety include fears about personal safety, COVID-19, politics, climate change, and gun violence.

Some of these concerns have been around a while, but they’ve recently become even more volatile. Anxiety about climate change has risen recently because of freak climate events, like February’s freeze-sparked power crisis in Texas or June’s record-setting heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. Concerns about gun violence have grown due to mass shootings.

Political volatility has also increased. A New York Times analysis of voting records found that nearly 140,000 Republicans and 79,000 Democrats left their parties in the first month of this year. Making the volatility worse is a deep spirit of divisiveness so palpable that some, like David French, predict possible state secessions that will further destabilize the nation.

Regardless of whether any states secede, the deep divisions in our culture are creating relational exits everywhere. You’ve probably experienced it. Lifelong friendships crumbling under the weight of political views. Grown children no longer speaking with their parents. Churches being ripped apart as politically polarized members leave.

But these departures are the result of a deeper unraveling.

Webbing’s Antithesis

Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes shalom as “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” It’s an alluring description of the world we all want. But embittered, sustained division leads to an unraveling of creation—a fragmentation and disruption so deep that creation groans (Rom. 8:22). 

J. R. R. Tolkien captures this unraveling in The Two Towers when Saruman says:

Together, my Lord Sauron, we shall rule this Middle-earth. The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machinery of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist of the Orc. We have only to remove those who oppose us.

A new order is required for success—an order that “removes those who oppose us.” Such zero-sum sentiments are at the heart of the unraveling we’re seeing. 

A new order is required for success—an order that ‘removes those who oppose us.’ Such zero-sum sentiments are at the heart of the unraveling we’re seeing.

The notion of a “new order” is fueled by a presentism that privileges the present moment over wisdom from the past. In Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs explains how presentism distorts reading. You pick up a classic and come across a racially offensive sentence. A presentist puts down the book, refusing to read another page.

But if we choose to reject authors who do not share our contemporary moral postures and language, should we not throw out Aristotle for his sexism, Kant for his racism, and Jesus for his exclusivism? The presentist engages in chronological snobbery by reading all history through the lens of modern ideas, which leads to a very narrow and reactionary view of the world.

Instead of being formed by the wisdom of the past (including the biblical wisdom to be quick to listen and slow to speak), we react as if all that matters is an intense, underinformed, unreflective now. Fully immersed in the trending debates and rage cycles of the moment—and unwilling to let the past give us perspective or pause—we contribute to the rapid unraveling of society. 

This presentism is extra deadly when combined with a “remove those who oppose us” tendency to silence, mute, cancel, or unfollow any person or idea we deem threatening. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff describe a culture of safetyism on college campuses in which provocative guest lecturers are disinvited and outspoken professors are fired because students find their ideas harmful.

This idea—that the best response to a “threatening” idea is to shut it down or ignore it—is counterproductive to education and contributes to cultural division. How will we ever make progress in debate if we can’t even let an opposing view be uttered? How will we ever make peace if we insist on the removal of “those who oppose us” in order to achieve our preferred “new order”?

Making War to Find Peace

Disruptions in shalom are not ultimately the result of presentism or safteyism, however. They are spiritual provocations. 

To make peace in this age of anxiety and division, we must recognize our true enemy. 

In his apocalypse, John describes the conquest of a red horse, whose rider was “permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Rev. 6:4). The red steed is an emblem of Satan, and he removes peace so people will slay one another.

When we succumb to safteyism, presentism, and bitter division, we do the Devil’s work. Tolkien and John reveal that our true foe is not one another. It is Satan and his fire-red hordes. Paul reminds us our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12).

How, then, do we make peace? By taking up the weapons made for the war we’re in. Against them our true enemy cannot stand. When tempted to outrage, armored Christians move toward one another in shoes of peace. When doubting our leaders, we appeal to the belt of truth to unite us. When encountering disagreeable ideas, we appeal to the sword that first judges the thoughts and intentions of our heart.

And perhaps most profound, we pray for those with different views. It is difficult to hate those we carry to the Lord of love in prayer. Small groups would do well to scrap their plans, on occasion, and spend the evening praying for peace. 

When the church takes up the weapons of God, not the weaponry of the world, we will weave shalom back into society. We will reflect our future hope—the Rider on a white horse who will, one day, secure never-ending shalom. Anxiety will be no more. Division will be done.

Is this the long way round to peace? Yes. But without it, no one will enjoy a creation without groans. 

J. Dobson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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