Jesus was born into a world dominated by Rome. There were benefits: Pax Romana, "all roads," law and order. But Roman law was often cruel, and Roman order barely a step above savagery. Women, children, and slaves were disposable. Periodic bad harvests drove peasants to the city, where they crowded into apartments and were pacified by free food, obscene plays, and bloody "games."
In other words, Jesus had His work cut out for Him.
But His work was not to reform society or any of its institutions. His work was to redeem people: to die their death, so they could have His life. Over the passing of many centuries, society would be reformed because the individual hearts of Christians were reformed. Christians would start the hospitals, educate the rabble, feed the hungry, and preach good news to the poor, generation after generation. As Jesus promised, a little leaven would work its way through the whole lump, and culture would rise.
The late 20th century was probably as good as it gets for comfort, opportunity, benevolence, and freedom. Having enjoyed the benefits, we now face the challenge of what to do when culture appears to be falling. Previous generations have thought the country was going to the dogs, so things might not be as bad as they seem. But entropy teaches that nature tends toward disarray unless some force pushes back. For the last 50 years or so, we have felt culture pushing harder against us, and our natural response is to push back by any lawful means.
A couple of weeks ago I posted a polemic on the WORLD website about a book offered for sale by Amazon.com: A Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure. According to reports, the content lived up to the title, and Amazon had issued a statement about free speech and censorship. What's wrong with these people? I fulminated. Why can't they see that removing a pro-pedophile book isn't censorship but common decency?
After posting, I learned that Amazon had already removed A Pedophile's Guide and the anti-censorship statement was a standard response to all challenges of controversial books, whether by Saul Alinsky or Sarah Palin. Mea culpa, for not pursuing the story a little further, and thanks to the million-volume bookseller for taking down a title that may have slipped past quality control.
But it made me think about when and how to push back. There are times to take a stand, to draw the line, to get angry. Before rushing to the barricades, however, Christians should take a deep breath and remember that the grace we've received is beyond human reason. The grace we extend should be the same, even, or especially, in our thoughts.
I catch myself thinking, Yes, I have an evil heart, but I can't imagine being like that . . . that liberal broadcaster, or that scheming politician, or that smut peddler. But God says I broke the whole law. Jesus says that even a lustful thought is the same as adultery, and an angry word is akin to murder. "Be holy, as I am holy." To protest that nobody's perfect misses the point. We were made perfect, and turned our backs on perfection. We owe God everything, and give Him almost nothing. If you are easily provoked-not by offenses to God, but by offenses to you-you're forgetting something.
Freely we have received, freely we give. It's not just goods and money; it's also patience when we're overcharged, and forbearance when pulled aside in the airport security line, and charity when we don't know all the facts. Who are we, to think we should never be doubted or delayed? Who are we, to be above insult? Knowing Christ gives us the security to know our evil hearts, and confront others as gently as we would ourselves.
Rightly or wrongly, Christians are known today for what they're against. God help us also to make known what we're for: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control.
Email Janie B. Cheaney