There Is No Christian Argument Against Overturning Roe v Wade

The reversal of Roe is not less of a mandate for Christians merely because of Donald Trump

The news that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy will retire next month has immediately conjured up images of a pro-life judge’s taking his place and becoming the crucial fifth piece to strike down Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 affirmation of a universal right to abortion. For pro-life activists and observers, this is a historic opportunity to challenge the bloodiest injustice in America for the past 50 years. While overturning Roe would not itself criminalize abortion, it would blow away the barrier against state-based laws and almost certainly result in at least 20 states outlawing abortion in most circumstances. All it takes is five justices to intervene on behalf of the lives of millions of unborn Americans. It is very close.

It is close because Donald Trump won an astonishing election the same year that Justice Antonin Scalia astonishingly died, denying the Democratic Party an opportunity to solidify Roe via President Hillary Clinton. It is close because then-candidate Trump said onstage during a presidential debate that he would seek to overturn Roe if given the opportunity to appoint justices. It is because of the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, a relationship crafted by the men on our dollars and coins, that this opportunity has come. And it is also because of Donald Trump.

This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?

In our current age, we are given to making value judgments by association. Because Donald Trump is a man of vice whose administration has pursued some cruel policies (and whose rhetoric tends to exult in such cruelty), some evangelicals will struggle with feeling joy at this vacant Court seat. “I’m personally pro-life,” they might say, “but I just don’t trust Trump, and I don’t like it that people who voted for him seem happy about this.” Thus, they might try to reason themselves into the belief that Roe ought not be overturned, that a pro-life justice ought not be appointed, all because Donald Trump ought not be president and evangelicals ought not be feeling victorious right now.

The frustration is understandable, but the logic is not. Evangelicals don’t have to set aside their convictions about race, immigrants, women, or the Religious Right in order to perceive a moral mandate when it comes to abortion. There is no Christian case against overturning Roe. None.

Once upon what seems now like a lifetime ago, pro-life evangelicals were united in horror and imprecatory prayer at the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood released by the Center for Medical Progress. Those videos have been legally prosecuted and forgotten, but they have not been unmade. There are many of us who vividly remember where we were when we watched a physician “harvest” the tiny anatomy of an aborted boy (yes, “it’s a boy”), or when we listened to Planned Parenthood reps talk about the money and humor in the trafficking of babies. While these videos were being released, there was no question amongst most evangelicals whether abortion was a cause worth engaging at the highest possible level. There was no Donald Trump and no morally compromised Religious Right to complicate things.

Three years later, the producers of those videos are fighting litigation, and many of us who watched and cried and prayed are fighting ourselves. The illusion of virtue in our tribe was dismantled by 2016, by #MeToo, by the children of refugees in prison-like holding cells. It has been terrible. But evangelicals cannot allow the hypocrisy of their elders to blind them to the innocence of their infants. It is not remotely unreasonable or incoherent to stand as far away as possible from the rot of God and country Republicanism while charging alongside it against Roe v. Wade. In fact, it is the only option we have.

In a now-deleted tweet, a prominent progressive evangelical writer said though she was “convictionally pro-life” (those slippery adverbs!), she could not support the overturning of Roe v Wade due to all the “effects” it would have. After deleting the tweet, she said that Twitter was obviously not the right place to talk about abortion. Nothing more than a 2 minute perusal of her Twitter account reveals dozens of impassioned threads about everything from gun control to immigration to policing. This sort of double dealing has become rampant among younger, socially conscious evangelicals in the aftermath of Trump’s election. While abortion is a “complex conversation” that requires nuance instead of activism, the issues that the Republican Party morally fails on are apparently no-brainers.

I don’t think this attitude necessarily comes from apathy about unborn babies or rank partisanship. I think it mostly comes from fear—fear of becoming the wrong kind of person in the wrong kind of tribe. Again, the fear is understandable, but the rationalization seen above is not. To act as if morally upright Christians cannot support President Trump’s appointment of a justice who would tip the scales against Roe is to prioritize political consistency and tribal identity over human life itself. It is the literal opposite of a Christ-honoring public theology.

Martin Luther King famously said that laws could not make white people love black people, but they could keep white people from lynching black people. In other words, a law that doesn’t address the deepest problems but still preserves life is a worthy law. Evangelicals who say that overturning Roe would not destroy back alley abortions need to ponder the truth in King’s statement. The possibility that a law will be broken and that people will suffer is not an argument against a moral law. It’s an argument against us sinful people.  The overturning of Roe would allow states to codify the sanctity of unborn life, and laws do teach. We may not be able to change hearts, but we can shape them as they grow…but only if they’re allowed to beat.

Roe v. Wade is a legal catastrophe. It is Constitutional soothsaying. It’s a decision based on discredited scientific claims and cartoon philosophy. Worst of all, it has been the death sentence of over 60 million Americans. Worrying about whether its reversal will register as a win for a president who is unworthy of it is not a competing interest to its destruction. This should not, must not, and cannot be a “white Republican Christian” issue. It’s everyone’s issue. There is no Christian case for keeping Roe. None.

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Civility, Privilege, and the Public Square

Civility isn’t merely a way to protect the powerful and privileged. It’s the normal burden common people must bear.

A few years ago I was working in the marketing department of a regional mortgage lender. My office was staffed predominantly with progressive Catholics, and my desire for most of my time there was to find a different job as quickly as possible, so it didn’t take long to learn the benefits of tuning out political and ethical conversations.

One day, though, our graphic designer and I were chatting, and somehow the subject turned to parenting (he was a father of two; I was soon to be married at this point). His exact phrasing escapes my memory, but the essence of his comment—which I am positive he did not expect any resistance to—was that spanking, all spanking, was definitely child abuse.

I raised my eyebrows slightly and said, trying my best for an air of impersonal objectivity, that my problem with hearing those kinds of comments was that my parents had spanked me growing up. Hence, to tell me that spanking is always child abuse is to directly accuse my Mom and Dad of being unrepentant abusers. He looked at me as if I had just whipped out and shown him a heretofore secret Ph.D. in ethics. He mumbled something about not having thought about that before, and went back to his office. The topic never came up again.

This story has come back to mind in recent days as the conversation in my corner of the blogosphere/Twitterverse has turned to civility, and the lack thereof in our contemporary public square. Several writers, including many conservatives, have bemoaned how uncivil our cultural discourse has become, seen especially in Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ being refused service as a Virginia restaurant. While some on the Left agree, many have criticized calls for civility as a tone-deaf response to genuine political and social evil.

At Vox, Nicole Hemmer points out that conservatives once accused Martin Luther King Jr. of incivility, which makes their contemporary concerns suspect. The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn is more explicit, arguing that civility is a red herring where this president is concerned: “Sorry, no, I won’t suffer lectures about civility from members of a party led by a swaggering, unrepentant bully.”

In other words, whereas conservatives like myself think the loss of civility in American life is worth mourning and trying to correct right now, #TheResistance quadrant of young, socially active Americans is more interested in being effective opponents of (in their view) wicked authority.

Hemmer’s piece seems especially representative of a line of thinking that I’m seeing among anti-Trump friends and colleagues. She writes that calls for civility and consensus “have historically worked to protect the powerful and sustain the status quo,” which is another way of saying what CNN’s Symone Sanders said: “The folks calling for civility [toward Sarah Huckabee Sanders] might need to check their privilege.” In other words, all this hand wringing we see about the loss of good faith in American culture is really a pretense for annoyance that historically marginalized voices now have the microphone. Civility is privilege.

This is a revealing argument. Not only does it illustrate some of the slipperiness of privilege language (some of the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people you meet are the most kind), it shows just how rootless and social media-centered our conception of public good is.

The notion that civility protects the privileged is true on Twitter and false everywhere else. On the contrary, the vast majority of Americans work every day under a vast and powerful architecture of enforced civility called Human Resources. Refusing to cooperate with a coworker because she voted for a politician you dislike is, for most of us, a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. Most Americans do not have the job, the social capital, or the personal network to empower them to live revolutionary attitudes toward the people and institutions they personally oppose. Instead, we live and work and play with written and unwritten codes of neighborliness and cooperation. Disregarding these codes is a serious risk, and though whether the power of such codes is a good or bad thing is debatable, their existence is not.

There are few things that exhibit a person’s privilege more than their eager willingness to offend and alienate others. There is a reason that some of the more destructive and noxious exhibitions of incivility have come from campus protests. College students at elite universities, living off their parents’ tuition payments, have very little to lose. Likewise, the media economy has created an elite class of “professional sayers,” whose remuneration depends on getting clicks and shares and who, consequently, have wide latitude to say whatever they want to whomever they want as long as their sponsors see traffic. Their heated rhetoric and angry othering are not challenges to privilege, but blatant expressions of it.

If I had expressed offense at my coworker’s statement and informed my boss that I refused to work with him, my boss would have given me an ultimatum, not him. This doesn’t mean that my coworker was somehow privileged. It means that the normal social contract demands a certain level of coexistence and good faith, and that those who want/need the benefits of public life—employment, community, even health—must be willing to live a certain way.

Now, some will read that last sentence and immediately remember Justice Kennedy’s ominous phrase “the cost of citizenship.” Let me stop you right there. Ideological conformity is not the cost of citizenship, nor is violation of one’s conscience. Civility is not the cost of citizenship but the expression of it. While being rude and uncharitable and mean spirited does not make one less of an American (in fact, it might make them the most powerful American), it does make one less of a person.

This is what is missing in our contemporary political culture: a definition of virtue that goes beyond policy initiatives and speaks to personal formation. The debate around civility will go nowhere fruitful as long as it is framed as a question of political effectiveness. Civility matters because political effectiveness is not the most important thing in the world. Far from this being a “privileged” point of view, it’s an attitude that most un-privileged in our society, who tend simultaneously to be the most religious, often understand well. Civility doesn’t seem useful to an economically privileged upper middle class that treats politics as a de facto religion. For those who don’t see politics this way, the “usefulness” of civility is not the point. Love of neighbor, especially as an outflow of love for God, is the point.

Our public square is in bad shape right now. Incivility is not the only problem, but it is a problem. The only solution is to rethink our entire moral framework and arrive at a fundamentally different conclusion about the purpose of living and working with people not like us. Until that happens, civility will continue to be a burden that the common people bear, while envying the media class that can afford to merely talk about it.


photo credit (licensed under CC 2.0)

Chris Pratt Pre-Evangelizes the MTV Awards

Last night, actor Chris Pratt accepted a “generational award” from MTV. He used his acceptance speech to give “Chris Pratt’s 9 Rules.” (erm, that sounds familiar) At the end of the speech, which was part serious and part funny, Pratt pointed his millions of viewers to grace, grace that was “paid for with someone else’s blood.”

8. Learn to pray. It’s easy and it’s so good for your soul.
9. Finally, nobody is perfect. People will tell you you’re prefect just the way you are. You’re not. You’re imperfect. You will always be. But there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you’re willing to accept that, you will have grace, and grace is a gift. And like the freedom we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody’s else blood. Do not forget it, don’t take it for granted.

My Latte, Your Chicken Sandwich, and Our Neighbors

The idol of politics must come down if we are to love our neighbors

Starbucks donates money to many causes with which I, a conservative Christian, strongly disagree. It supports Planned Parenthood. It supports various LGBT initiatives, the majority of which involve definitions of marriage and human flourishing that are incompatible with my faith. Based on public comments from Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, it’s highly unlikely someone with my religious and political convictions could ascend high up their corporate ladder. I could probably become a barista, maybe even a manager (if I played my HR cards just right). But if words mean anything, I could not represent the company at a significant level.

None of this has convinced me to stop buying coffee there. Why not? Don’t I care about where my money goes? Yes, I do. But a public marketplace is populated by people, people who have free consciences and who will, in many cases, oppose my deepest beliefs. Making opposing beliefs the basis for severing a marketplace relationship only makes sense if the purpose of a marketplace is to match people with others just like them. But that’s not the point of a marketplace. None less than the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthian believers to have a free and open conscience about purchasing meat sold to them in a pagan storefront. Either Paul didn’t care about idolatry (he did), he didn’t think conscience mattered at all (he did), or else, he is working from a vision of civic life that is deeper than simply making sure Christians only do business with other Christians. It’s a vision that is deeply theological: The people of God do not belong outside the world, but in the world, representing a kingdom not of the world that will nonetheless come to the world.

What I’m beginning to realize is that religious architecture for seeing the world is crucial for having a functional vision of the public square. Americans who don’t have this theology increasingly fail to grasp any compelling reason why people with opposing political or religious views should interact at all.

Writing at Huffington Post, Noah Michelson rails against Chick-Fil-A, specifically decrying his fellow LGBT Americans who continue to patronize the restaurant. The problem is that CFA is owned by conservative evangelical Christians who have traditional beliefs about sexuality. Further, the owners give money to organizations that share these religious beliefs. For Michelson, CFA’s corporate partnership with traditionally evangelical organizations makes them unacceptable for right-thinking people:

Yeah, I know, I know ― it sucks that we can’t have waffle fries. But you know what sucks even more? Not having equal rights and contributing to the profits of a company that wants to ensure you never do because it believes you’re fundamentally disordered or unnatural or sinful or some delightful combination of all three.

Am I saying Chick-fil-A and everyone who works for it is evil? Of course not. The corporation has done a lot of good and even donated food to volunteers giving blood in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre (though, ironically, most gay men weren’t allowed to participate in that charitable effort).  But none of its generosity changes the fact that the chain has taken and continues to take an anti-queer stance and still donates large sums of money to anti-queer groups.

Note the careful wording. Michelson says that LGBT Americans ought not buy food from a company that “believes you’re fundamentally…sinful.” The problem for Michelson is not political activism or lobbyists. It’s the worldview of Chick-Fil-A’s ownership, which believes that homosexual sex is sinful. It’s their theology that makes them boycott-able to decent Americans.

It’s important to see that this is essentially an argument against people who disagree with each other interacting in the public marketplace. Buying a chicken sandwich is hardly a political donation, and the religious beliefs of CFA’s ownership does not mean that when Michelson enters the restaurant, he’s going to encounter direct hostility (he acknowledges as much). Since a fast-food transaction is impersonal, what’s the problem here? The problem is that Michelson doesn’t want to have anything to do with people who believe he is a sinner—and there’s no reason to think this standard begins and ends with owners of fast food chains.

How does this mentality lead us anywhere but a radically dysfunctional public square? It doesn’t, but for those who lack a vision of human dignity and human fate—for those without a transcendent moral framework of human relationships—political purity must play the role of divine judgment. “Come out from among them and be separate” isn’t just a parochial mantra; it’s human nature, an expression of our incurably religious sense of ourselves.

I pay for my Starbucks latte (too much) and drink it as an evangelical Christian because I do not believe that Starbucks’ political and social views have the last word. Like a Corinthian, I eat what’s sold in the market because I reject the idols that “blessed” my purchase. The idol of politics is a strong cult, and refusing to bow down puts one at risk of attack from many of the faithful, both Left and Right. But the idol must come down if we are to love our neighbors.

Jesus plainly taught that neighbor-love means nothing if by “neighbor” you always mean people whom you like and who like you. Neighbor-love according to Jesus is love of enemies, even enemies that would not hire you or buy your coffee or nuggets or vote for you. Neighbor love goes beyond political categorization…and that’s why only those who have a category beyond politics can love like this.

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Is #MeToo an Indictment of Complementarianism?

Should we now disown “masculine Christianity”?

Dale Coulter’s argument that evangelicals should repudiate “masculine Christianity” begins with an important omission. His opening paragraph recounts the turmoil swirling in the Southern Baptist Convention over indefensible comments and behavior from (former) Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson. He submits both Patterson and “the authoritarian leadership structure” that supported him as exhibits A and A1 as to why evangelicalism must throw off the noxious, fundamentalist idea that only men should be teaching pastors in the church. At surface glance, this feels like a logical move. Wouldn’t opening the pulpit to women graft them more fully into the fabric of the church, thereby cutting off sinful attitudes like the one Patterson expressed?

But has professor Coulter already forgotten about Bill Hybels? Hybels was, until recently, the founding pastor of Willow Creek church in Chicago, one of the biggest and most influential evangelical churches in the entire world. Hybels resigned from his pastorate amidst a growing chorus of accusations of sexual harassment, including accusations from women whom Hybels had empowered in roles of leadership in his ministry (he has denied most of the allegations, though he did confess to being in “situations that would have been far wiser to avoid”). Hybels is an outspoken gender egalitarian, and Willow Creek quickly named Heather Larson as their new senior pastor.

I understand why professor Coulter would not incorporate Hybels’ scandal into his analysis. For one thing, the coverage of and conversation about the Willow Creek accusations has paled in comparison to the ink that’s been spilled about Paige Patterson. For another, the evangelical response to the two situations has been notably different. Even before evidence emerged that Patterson had tried to conceal a rape at Southeastern Seminary from police, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals used controversy over his pastoral counsel to a victim of domestic abuse as an opportunity for soul-searching. Patterson’s troubling comments warranted some hard self-examination among conservative evangelicals about gender dynamics and whether our churches and institutions were more concerned about waging a culture war than protecting and cherishing women. Because Patterson is a traditionalist on gender, many evangelicals—rightly—took his seemingly cavalier attitude toward abuse as an indication that something was deeply broken in their wider traditionalist culture.

Interestingly, the allegations around Bill Hybels didn’t seem to provoke an analogous self-examination for those on the other side of the theological fence. In fact, it almost did the opposite. In the wake of the Hybels story, both Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren and evangelical writer Aimee Byrd published pieces, at Christianity Today and First Things, respectively, rebuking not Hybels but conservative evangelicals who were practicing “the Billy Graham rule” of not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. On May 23, before Patterson was ultimately fired by the seminary’s trustee board, the evangelical magazine Relevant published an essay by Tyler Hucakbee titled “Paige Patterson’s Non-Punishment Shows the Church Is Not Prepared for True Repentance.” A search on their archives for “Bill Hybels” shows several news items reporting on the allegations, but not a single piece of analysis similar to the Patterson one.

My point is not that a pinch of hypocrisy proves anything. It doesn’t. Nor is my point that the Patterson and Hybels situations are totally equivalent. They aren’t. My point is rather that the straight line that many seem to want to draw from Patterson’s Southern Baptist convictions on gender to his apparent low regard for vulnerable women is a far more complicated matter than they assume. If our national #MeToo moment has proved anything, it’s that no one ideological camp has a monopoly on destructiveness. Whether it’s the self-described feminist and progressive Harvey Weinstein, the elder conservative culture critic Bill Cosby, or two ministers on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, sin, selfishness, and abuse are equal opportunity forces. Healthy change in any of these represented subcultures must begin with a penitent acknowledgment that no one is inherently better than their opposing tribe. All have sinned and fallen short.

With this acknowledgment in hand, evangelicals would do well to heed some of professor Coulter’s admonishment. He’s right that many evangelicals have little to no coherent vision for the role women should play in the life of the church. Coulter’s counsel is to fix this by heading straightway to church history and appropriating the perspectives especially of the Pentecostal movement. But while church history and tradition are certainly vital for evangelicalism, Scripture matters more. Grounding our doctrine of gender and polity in the Bible should take priority over picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of theological movements to assuage our #MeToo guilt.

Of course, this brings us back to very old debates about the meaning of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”) and wider theological questions such as the parallelism between the church and family, among many others. These are arguments worth having, and worth having well. But evangelicals cannot assume that their institutions will be magically reformed when it comes to hearing and protecting women simply by yelling “Fundamentalist!” and running as fast as possible the other direction. Without grounding our theology of gender firmly in Scripture, we are not merely being unfaithful; we are setting the stage for future exposures.

While urging evangelicals to throw off “masculine Christianity” may feel reasonable in the cultural moment, this kind of mantra does more harm than good. It conflates masculinity with misogyny (something that’s difficult if we take 1 Corinthians 16:13 as inspired Scripture). It obscures the beautifully gendered worldview of Scripture, which, far from flattening sexual distinctiveness, exults in it. And it inadvertently relieves men of their moral responsibility toward others and puts it on depersonalized systems and populism.

For theological conservatives, holding a dogmatic line on female pastors while equivocating on domestic abuse and sexual harassment has proven to be a catastrophic formula. Coulter is absolutely right to call us to sincere repentance. But he’s wrong to frame the choice as one between complementarian practice and Christian compassion. Coulter strangely suggests that recovering a tradition of female preachers and teachers would not “require complementarians to violate their consciences with respect to the Word of God.” Well, yes, it would. But complementarian consciences are not in the end that important. What’s far more important is the church of Jesus Christ, built upon the foundation of the life-changing, culture-transforming Scriptures.

We don’t have to ignore the hard, counter-cultural sayings of the Bible in order to hold the line against any and all forms of sexual abuse. The same apostle who wrote that he didn’t permit women to be pastors also commanded Timothy to see the women of the church as mothers and sisters, and to treat them “in all purity:” not as objects to be used, or temptresses to be fled, or strangers to be ignored, but as family.

Lord, make it so.

Saving Private Ryan and the Moral Calculus of Human Life

Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year. It still offers insight and wisdom for our cultural moment.

[Note: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year.]

Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are two sides of the same Spielbergian coin. Both films are about the moral calculus of human life, and how a few ordinary, flawed people responded to an extraordinary moment when this calculus turned deadly. List is the greater film, but Ryan is the more philosophical. Both movies put the same question to its characters: How much is one person worth? The answers in Schindler’s List are definitive; the answers in Saving Private Ryan are complex.

Ryan has been criticized as a pro-war film. Particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, there seemed to me a shift in critical opinion toward the film. It’s popular today to argue that the first 30 minutes of the movie—the astonishing and excruciatingly violent D-Day beach sequence—are truly great, but the rest is replaceable. I’m not so sure. What Spielberg accomplishes in Ryan is a spiritual biography of the American soldier. It’s not a pro-war film (no movie that sought to be pro-war would film anything close to that beach sequence), but it’s not an anti-war film either. As a documentary of war, Ryan dismantles the John Wayne/Golden Age of Hollywood delusion, and as a reflection on the value of human life in a world set to destroy it, it likewise challenges the cynicism and utilitarianism of the post-Vietnam mind. It is a great movie because it makes the audience small and the questions big.

The key moment in the movie is not the beach landing, but the scene in which Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) company nearly begins to kill itself, literally, out of fury and frustration at not having found Ryan. The company sergeant pulls a gun on a private who says he’s “done with this mission” and will not go further. Most of the men want to execute a German prisoner; the cowardly translator Upham wants to spare him. Miller angers the group by releasing the prisoner, forcing something to give. At the last moment Miller reveals something the soldiers say he’s never told them: where he’s from and what he does. The line “I’m a schoolteacher” breaks over the tension like water on a parched battlefield. It’s the film’s pivotal moment, wherein Miller permanently wins his men’s loyalty by revealing his inner conflict and family-ward sense of duty. That the stoic and courageous Captain is an English teacher from rural Pennsylvania is a beautifully poetic irony. It epitomizes Spielberg’s big idea. In this moment, Miller is not just a captain, he is America itself—killing and being killed, exercising his duty and yet feeling (as he puts it) further and further away from home with every successful shot.

Miller’s confession that he personally doesn’t care about Ryan is poignant. It de-romanticizes both him and his mission. He’s not Captain America; he’s just trying to return home to his wife. This is a brilliant portrayal of how ordinary people calculate the value of human life. Real human beings are not bottomless wells of altruism. We make moral evaluations based on what matters to us, what helps us, so to speak, get home.

This is a good lesson for the pro-life movement. Much pro-life rhetoric is far too stoic and hollow, as if the personhood of the unborn or the immigrant are mere intellectual exercises that people should “agree” with. Human lives, though, are not the point in and of themselves. Losing the religious edge to our pro-life worldview may briefly open doors for co-belligerency, but it risks veering into an inchoate “body-ism” that ignores the fundamentally spiritual character of human life. Often the American effort in WWII is mythologized as a group of utterly selfless men running heedless into battle merely for the sake of flag and country. This misrepresentation fails to take into account how wives, children, fathers, mothers, churches, and friends sturdy the soul in the face of catastrophe. This is also the formula for a dangerous mutation of “patriotism:” A nationalism made up of nothing but symbols and gestures, and utterly insensitive to the real people who make up one’s country (this is the “patriotism” of far too many conservatives right now).

In other words, one of the reasons Saving Private Ryan is so effective is that it strips muddy generalizations away from our moral calculus of human life, and reminds us that real people lay themselves down for others only when there is a love in the soul for something greater than life itself. Secular culture desires a directionless human love, an endlessly general affection for everything and everyone and nothing in particular. This isn’t the love of real people, or of real soldiers, or of real Christians. We are all trying to get back home. The question is how much we want to get back there, and what our path toward home goes through.

Christian Repentance in a Callout Culture

The online shame culture is an opportunity for Christians to hold forth the gracious and healing practice of Christian repentance

Our culture is increasingly a shame culture. “Callout” refers to the common practice of using one’s social media account to name and shame, often with the intended goal of inspiring those who follow your posts to likewise pile-on the other party. As many are discovering, these kinds of shaming campaigns can have real power, especially if the offending party is supported by a corporate brand which fears the effect of such negative publicity.

This shame culture has interesting depth. For one thing, it seems to serve a very ancient function that has been lost to liberal society for a long time—namely, community-driven enforcement of moral norms. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Roger Scruton have long commented on the displacement of community by the political state as the chief arbiter of public moral behavior. When a person is shamed online, it’s not hard to conceive that, at least in one sense, what’s happening to them is an expression of cultural nostalgia for a time in which human beings were not (as they are now) totally isolated, atomized, and mobile.

The flip side of this, however, is that social media is not a community. This may sound strange or even offensive to some, but social media cannot be a community because it requires depersonalization in order to function. Human beings must be reduced to accounts. Beliefs must be reduced to words. Behavior must be reduced to what’s published on a commercial platform. If this is a community, it’s a community in the same way that the characters on a scripted TV sitcom are a “community.” They do not exist independent of our watching them.

Because social media is not a real community, the fact that it seeks to behave as if it were a community leads to a host of complications, and perhaps none of those is so complicated as the Christian practice of repentance.

Repentance in our Western culture is already complicated by the fact that our sense of bondedness is incredibly liquid and loose. We are a fanatically voluntaristic society, and most Americans demand that virtually experience in their daily life be voluntaristic to the core. Contemporary society cherishes breakable bonds. Few words are more attractive to the modern consumer than “no-contract,” and this attitude has spilled into our social fabric. Alan Jacobs considered this dynamic in a 2016 essay for The American Conservative titled “The Trade-In Culture.” Jacobs observes the tendency in American culture to blow up whatever aspects of life aren’t working the way we’d like them to at the moment. Instead of laying anchor and remaining committed to improving a bad situation, it’s become common for us to “trade-in” jobs, relationships, and affiliations as soon as they become hard. “We are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can,” Jacobs writes. “Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over.”

The trade-in culture is a spectre hovering over all of liberal society’s institutions and relationships. Everyone goes to the altar knowing what divorce is. Everyone joins a church knowing they could switch for any reason. Everyone knows they have a choice between parenting and alimony. And everyone feels shame knowing the easier and more political thing to do would be to disappear instead of repent, to reconcile with obscurity rather than with the sinned against. In the liquid, shame-ridden trade-in culture, the relationship between sinner and sin is political rather than personal. The best thing a person being targeted by a social media campaign can do is stop posting [i.e., disappear]. This “call” for “repentance” is entirely about removing the blight from the online experience of the community, just as no-fault divorce is entirely about removing the difficult marriage or church-hopping is entirely about removing the awkwardness of corporate worship.

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So what does this have to do with repentance? For one thing, the Christian practice of repentance is not political. It is not an act that seeks to mitigate harm to the brand or satisfy all the desires of those who might be persuaded to support the penitent one day. The Christian practice of repentance carries with two biblical commands that are equally devastating to our contemporary mindset: “Confess your sins one to another” and “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” These are not mantras of the trade-in society. They are not handy slogans for political morality. On the one hand, we are commanded to confess our sins, to relinquish the fantasy of autonomy over our lives and to invite shame rather than flee it. On the other hand, we are commanded to forgive the offenses of others; commanded, even, on the basis that failure to do so might jeopardize our own standing before God. In contemporary society, the motivations for forgiveness are almost always therapeutic; even a popular pastor once remarked that failing to forgive others was bad because it allowed the offender to live “rent-free in your head.”

We might even go so far as to suggest that callout culture and the ruthless personal shaming of social media is a response to our civilization’s hollowing out of sin and shame. It is fascinating to observe how much online shaming utilizes the language of political oppression. It’s as if the soul of modern liberalism cries out for a justice—an atonement—that it doesn’t believe in and cannot bring itself to conceive, and in this absence, “re-stories” the world as a black and white narrative of oppressor and oppressed, of bias and biased against. In a stunning essay titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Wilifred McClay summarizes the trauma of an age which refuses to come to terms with moral guilt and substitutes political guilt in its place:

The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

In other words, in the absence of a truly moral sense of sin and guilt, modern people simulate these fundamental human senses through rituals. This fact alone should make recovering and inhabiting the Christian practice of repentance a priority for believers. The worldly liturgy is simultaneously apathetic and merciless, loving the sin and hating the sinner. A major part of being the church in the days ahead will be ministering to those who have been catechized both to make peace with their inner sense of moral guilt and to feel worthless and abandoned because of their sin. This is part of what Russell Moore calls the “sexual revolution’s refugee crisis:” A generation of people fleeing from the broken promises of secularism but unsure where to go. The Christian church must be ready for them.

Christian repentance is a balm to the wounded soul of sinners. In 1 Samuel 12, the prophet demonstrates the counter-intuitive nature of grace in responding to his nation’s sin in asking for a king. They realize they have rejected God and cry out to Samuel to intercede for them. Samuel’s astonishing next two words could be the anthem of the church to a callout culture: “Do not be afraid. You have done all this evil.” In other words, yes, your shame is valid, and yes, your failure is real. But do not be afraid. Come to Jesus. He will take your failure upon himself. Repent to a loving Savior, not a bloodthirsty mob. He is waiting…but so are they.