Over the past few weeks I spent a good deal of time studying the life of General Stonewall Jackson. He is one of the more complex individuals I’ve studied–a man who had a strong sense of God’s sovereignty yet was something of a hypochondriac, a man who exhibited a great deal of Christian character who nevertheless also owned slaves. The tension between these things is what makes him so interesting to me. He was by no means a perfect man and this makes him all the more fascinating.
As I was reading about Jackson I also read a new book by John Stott–one I reviewed yesterday. In this book Stott points out eight areas in which he thinks Christians need to rediscover obedience if they are to be radical disciples of Jesus Christ. In Jackson I was looking to the past through twenty-first century lenses and in Stott’s book I was looking forward through those same lenses. One book showed what Christians have been, the other book suggests what one man says they ought to become.
Between these two books I have been given a lot to think about. One thing I found myself pondering is the areas in which Christians of the future will judge the Christians of today. You and I look to the southern Christians of the mid-1800’s and marvel that they could somehow believe that slavery was anything less than abhorrent. We look even to those who disliked slavery and wonder how they could have been so complacent, so passive in the face of such evil. “I am against slavery but feel we should let it die a natural death” does not impress us. But only outright arrogance could lead us to believe that we have no blind spots, no areas in which future generations of Christians will shake their heads and marvel that we could have been so blind.
So I spent some time thinking about those things, wondering where our blind spots may lie. And here are three possibilities, three suggestions.
Christians hate abortion. We believe that God is the creator of life and believe that life begins at the very moment of conception. We believe that each life is a gift, whether it is a life that is wanted or unwanted by the mother, whether it is a life that will be “normal” or one that will be marked by profound disability. All humans are created in the image of God and, therefore, all life has intrinsic value. And if all of this is true, then of course we despise abortion and long to see it abolished. We hate it so much that we do…well…what do we do? If we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that most of us do not do much of anything.
What have you done in the past week, the past month, the past year to actively combat abortion? If you are like me, you’ve done very little. You may have prayed that God will change hearts and change the laws of the land. And this is good, of course. If there is to be any change, prayer will be instrumental. You may have spoken to some friends or neighbors or family members, trying to convince them of the value of life. But very few of us have done anything substantial, anything that could possibly one day appear in a history text. Few of us move beyond the “I hate it” stage into some form of active combat.
If we imagine Christians a century in the future, or perhaps two centuries, how will this kind of action, or inaction, appear to them? What will the verdict of history be? How will we be able to explain our complacency? They will read our words, all perfectly preserved in digital media, and they will know that we wrote and spoke about our hatred for abortion and our desire to see it abolished. But will they see actions to go along with all of those words? Maybe we are just waiting for it to die a natural death.
I am no environmentalist. I have stated on this blog that I am very skeptical when it comes to man-made climate change or what used to be known as global warming. I believe the science used to “prove” that humans are causing the earth’s climate to change in any noticeable way is largely bunk. I do not think we are facing issues of immediate over-population and have never once chained myself to a tree or, like a celebrity once did, demanded that my children use only one square of toilet paper per wipe.
Having said all of that, there is little doubt that humans are having a very noticeable and often detrimental effect on the earth. Massive amounts of land are being deforested and areas of the earth are becoming uninhabitable. We produce vast amounts of waste and live in ways that are entirely unsustainable over the long-run. The average North American throws out something like 1,500 pounds of garbage per year. It all has to go somewhere! I was recently in a town in the US where they’ve had to institute twice-weekly trash pickup. That boggles my mind.
And while I will again insist that I am no environmentalist and do not buy into the doom and gloom prognostications of that guy who wanted to be President, I do wonder how future generations will judge Christians today. As we live as God’s envoys in God’s world, as we seek to carry out God’s Creation Mandate, are we caring for this earth and expressing dominion over it for God’s glory? Or are we damaging it through sheer greed, sheer exploitation? As Christians, those who have the best understanding of our purpose in this world and of our relationship to the earth, we should be the ones leading the way in caring for God’s creation, in modeling care for it. And yet Christians are followers more than leaders. We consume just as much and we consume the very same stuff. We are remarkably complacent. And I wonder how that will look to those who follow in our footsteps a century or two from today.
We look to the Robert E Lee’s, the Stonewall Jackson’s, the R.L. Dabney’s of days past and wonder how they could have been complicit in the enslavement of a race. We wonder how they could have lived in and among a race of human beings and still regard them as property. Sure they disliked slavery, but that almost seems to make it worse. If they disliked it and felt it was morally reprehensible, why didn’t they do more to combat it?
Yet our culture is one in which the need to consume has led us to demand ever more and ever cheaper. The products we demand in such quantity are largely produced in the third world by labor that is somewhere between cheap and slave. Now I will grant that this is a difficult issue and one that is multifaceted. We know that in some cases the clothes we wear, the electronics we buy, are manufactured by mere children. And yet we know that these jobs are life-giving and that if the children were not doing this, they might well be doing something far worse. We know that the wage we pay a grown man for doing a full day’s labor in a foreign factory is about the same as we tip the girl at Starbucks. And yet even that is a better wage than he might receive elsewhere. And any job is better than no job. The issues are complicated, easy to caricature, but difficult to reconcile.
Yet the issues are very real. Our culture of consumption, our sheer greed seems to fly in the face of God’s commands that we live free from the captivity of possessions. How will history judge us when they see the homes of North American Christians bursting at the seams with stuff–with clothes and electronics and furniture–manufactured by impoverished brothers and sisters a continent or two away?
I don’t know that history will necessarily judge us by any of these standards. Perhaps as Christians we really are doing all we can to combat abortion; perhaps we are caring for the world and the problems are overblown; perhaps we really are doing a service in buying these items that feed and clothe people in impoverished nations on the other side of the world. But I suspect we’re not and I suspect Christians in a generation or two or three will marvel at our complacency and judge us by what I hope is a better standard.
I’d love to hear from you. What are the issues for which you think history may judge the Christians of the twenty-first century?