Thoughtful Americans-including those from just about every segment of the ideological spectrum-find themselves whipsawed these days. The nation we criticize so roundly is, of course, so much better than any of us deserve. Yet the nation we want to justify and defend is so much worse in many ways than we like to admit. How can the same society be both at the same time?
"Don't worry," an insightful pastor friend reminded me last week. "Jesus couldn't have made it clearer that the tares and the wheat would be growing side by side right up until the end of the age."
Even for an optimist like me, the tares seem so visible. My own informal dictionary says "tares" are a member of the kudzu family, tending to dominate the landscape. Here are the ones looming on my horizon:
Major media. Cynics about everything, they trivialize the important and exalt the trivial. They treasure nothing except their own freedoms, which they regularly transform into licentiousness. When you find conservatives cheering a network like Fox, you know you're in trouble.
Educational elite. They gobble up staggering proportions of the public resource, and still complain that they don't have enough. Yet, they still fail to produce even passable results with respect to the basics that the public expects from the educational establishment.
American justice. Four times in my lifetime, I've sat through an American court case. Four times I've been bitterly disappointed in the results. It's not that I think the system is either rigged or crooked. But the worldview of those in charge-mostly because of the influence of the educational elite-now has a totally secular starting point.
American politics. Especially when a national election is just around the corner, it's hard to remember the proverbial warning not to put our trust in princes. There's no time we need the warning more. Yes, the choices within our political system make a difference; but no, the difference they make isn't much more than marginal. When even the good guys equivocate on an issue like partial-birth abortion; when even the good guys gorge themselves on pork-barrel spending; when even the good guys are overly beholden to their political donors-then we're a long way from being able to call ourselves a nation adorned by righteousness.
Collapsing family. No civilization in human history has demonstrated that it can mount the assaults on the traditional family that we have permitted in America, and still survive. Even for non-Christians, there should be profound concerns about casual tinkering with the genetic building blocks of society. By anybody's standard, there has been no time in history when so high a proportion of a nation's children were denied the privilege of living with both parents. It is a scary experiment.
But while the tares tower, the amber waves of grain also remind us that in God's scheme of things, the wheat is not going to be choked out. Here are some of the promises of a healthy harvest:
Freedom. We come and go, pretty much as we please. Checkpoints at airports, courthouses, and other sites have become a nuisance, but not much more. We are embarrassingly free to say and print what we think. Tax burdens keep creeping upward, but for the most part we are economically free to implement all our other freedoms.
Security. Backed by America's unparalleled military might, we sleep well at night. Osama bin Laden rattled our cage, but we don't really worry he's going to defeat us. Even in our conduct of war, awful as that reality is, we hold to a framework of honor. For that, we can still be thankful.
Gospel's progress. Think of almost any city in America, and picture its flagship churches. For the most part, they're bigger, stronger, and more influential than a generation ago. So are most parachurch organizations. Christian schools, and Christian higher education, are powerful forces compared to a half century ago. Homeschooling, virtually unknown 30 years ago, now involves perhaps 1.5 million children-most of them in Christian families.
Gospel's fruit. Christian truth is making a difference-certainly among God's people, but also in the culture at large. I know pollster George Barna argues that evangelical Christians aren't behaviorally all that different from unbelievers. But he isn't doing his studies in the churches I know. We have our warts and blemishes, but little by little, God is growing and maturing His people.
The wheat and the tares-side by side. God didn't tell us to ignore the differences. He did tell us to be patient for what He is going to do.