Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Navigating the Culture War

 A few years ago I wrote about some of my anxieties about the concept of 'culture war'.  At that time, it seemed like the culture war was a uniquely American conflict.  It seemed broadly good to me that we weren't fighting a culture war.  It seemed particularly good that the church wasn't implicated on one side of a culture war as it tends to be in the US.

Well, time moves on.  The culture war has reached the UK.  Perhaps it has been brewing for a long time, but now it seems much more out in the open.  Increasingly, 'normal' politics has been suspended in favour of a battle over what British culture is and what it ought to be.  We have almost reached the point where remaining a non-combatant is only possible by not engaging at all in public life.  That is the way I see it, anyway.

Here are a few 'thinking out loud' pointers on how to navigate the culture war:

1.  Remember that in the UK, the church is not a major player in the culture war.  In the USA there are enough evangelical Christians that their opinion matters to politicians.  Leaders in the culture war want the church on their side; either because they think the church supports their values, or just because they need the church's votes.  Nobody in the UK very much cares what we think.  It would be a mistake, then, to read the UK version of the culture war through an American lens which makes the role of religion and the church look much larger than it really is.  The war between 'conservatives' and 'liberals' over UK culture is only tangentially related (via history) to Christianity.

2.  Keeping that in mind, we should refuse to allow the culture war to become absolute.  We should refuse to identify one side or the other with the kingdom of God.  We should not speak or act as if one side or the other embodied 'Christian' values.

3.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't engage.  Human culture is a natural - which is to say, a created - good.  We should be concerned about our culture.  We should endeavour to influence our culture, with whatever little influence each of us has individually, in ways that we deem to be good.  We should not sit secure in our knowledge that the real Kingdom endures no matter what goes on in the world (which is true), and therefore not care about what happens in the world.  We should aim to do good.

4.  When we engage, we should resist picking a side.  We need to think through each individual issue and avoid seeing things as a slate, where we are forced to accept everything that is said by one side or the other.  Because you agree with one side on the value on life does not mean you have to agree with them on economics.  Because you agree with one side on refugees does not mean you have to toe their particular line on sexuality and gender.  One thing this will mean is that we will probably end up looking like the baddies to everyone.  Such is the Christian life.

5.  We need to be careful to distinguish Kingdom issues from culture issues.  Sometimes this is easy.  Whether patriotic songs should be sung at the Proms is a culture issue.  Whether people should be allowed to kill other people in utero is a Kingdom issue.  This does not mean the Kingdom has nothing to say about the Proms, or that issues of abortion aren't influenced by culture; it is simply to say that some things are clearly and directly related to a Christian ethic, and others are much more open to disagreement.  Sometimes it is more complex: on gender issues, I think there is a Kingdom issue at the heart of things - the created difference between men and women - but a cultural issue around how this is expressed.  We need to think this through because some issues will be a matter of repentance and discipleship, and others of agreeing to disagree, within the church.  If someone in your church thinks abortion is okay, it is a matter of Christian discipleship to set them right and call them to repentance; if someone in your church wants to sing Land of Hope and Glory, fine - whether that is to your taste and consonant with your politics or not.

6.  How we engage is as important as the substantive issues.  We can be enthusiastic exponents of left or right wing politics, but we can't let those things trump the Gospel.  We can witness to the reality of the other Kingdom, the true Kingdom, by caring as much about our culture as anyone else, but expressing ourselves with a godly gentleness born out of a confidence that God is in control whatever happens.  In particular, we witness to the reality of the Kingdom by committing to a church community where not everyone will agree with our stance on cultural issues.

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