Pastor’s Perspective – February 2019
Outrage has become the life blood of our media-centric world. It is our prime mover. Our motivation and purpose. It can move even a world-weary activist into action. In an age in which every news story is breathlessly communicated with a red banner, theme music, and a special news alert our allegiance to outrage has caused us to become louder and bolder in our activisms and proclamation.
As the volume has increased two things have occurred: the American people have become addicted to outrage and we have become numb to the outrageous. We have become both hyper-vigilant to perceived offenses and increasingly numb to real danger.
Take the recent news concerning the Governor of Virginia. On January 30, Gov. Ralph Northam gave a disastrous interview in which, while defending a state bill that would legalize abortion on demand for a baby being delivered by her mother, he seemed (and I am being charitable here) to support infanticide. Over the next 48 hours advocates for both sides took turns attacking and defending Gov. Northam; often to the point of accepting and supporting heretofore radical opinions concerning the nature of human life and its legal rights and privileges.
Then within 48 hours another story broke concerning the Governor of Virginia. A medical school yearbook photo from 35 years ago surfaced that may (or may not) have pictured the current Governor dressed in what could only be considered a racially insensitive costume. His own party immediately demanded his resignation.
While the story is still unfolding this point remains true regardless of the political future of Gov. Northam; a politician that advocates for infanticide in the present is considered less dangerous to the body politic than one who in his distant past once wore an insensitive Halloween costume.
Think about that. Gov. Northam was able to mount a more vigorous defense for infanticide than he did when it was discovered that in his past, he had been a racially insensitive jerk.
This is the product of an out of control and mistaken outrage. There are things that should offend us (racially insensitive yearbook photos) and there are things that should outrage us (infanticide). There are reasons for Christians to be outraged today, but our current crisis is that we are outraged by things that personally offend us and not by things that offend God. Our outrage is a product of our own sensitivities and not connected to God’s eternal values and law. “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” (Proverbs 8: 13 ESV)
Most post-modernist view evil as a relative concept, but the Bible sees evil as objective. Evil has a definition, which the biblical writers (through narratives, prophetic oracles, direct commandments, and poetry) describe in painful detail. These definitions come with a divine imprimatur and they create the boundaries of a society and a culture. Without understanding what evil is, where the boundaries are, we are hard pressed to know what should outrage us. The danger we face today is that we have rejected long standing principles of morality for self-serving and emotional reasons. We have redefined morality so frequently that our citizenry no longer can agree on what is good and what is evil. We are living in the dangerous days spoken of in the book of Judges, where each did what they considered to be right in their own eyes.
This is the principle problem that we face in this moment in history and the foundations of our rage-based culture. In our prideful arrogance we are seeking to redefine our morality to fit our own needs. The scriptures see the desire to reshape morality for ourselves as the reason that we were removed from the Garden of Eden. The Fall narrative found in the book of Genesis explains that when we ate from the mythic tree of the knowledge of good and evil our eyes were opened, and we became like God. Ironically the ability to determine what is right and good for ourselves is a core tenet of freedom, yet it is also the fatal flaw that moves us beyond permissiveness and toward the culture of decadence and death.
This is the precarious balance that society attempts to navigate whilst balancing freedoms with responsibilities. Every freedom has a reasonable limit. Who then is righteous enough to determine where the line is drawn? This is where society demands a common code of established laws and why changing these laws must be dealt with soberly. When we place our own values above the laws of God, it becomes easy to establish a self-serving morality that punishes our enemies and forgives our friends. It removes morality from the province of God and places it into the hands of the most powerful or the one with the loudest voice. It turns morality into a partisan battle of will.
The outrage machine was in full throated voice in the month of January when a brief video clip of a Catholic high school student dominated the news cycle in a weekend otherwise filled with perfectly newsworthy stories. On a weekend that celebrated the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; in the middle a tense partisan stand-off that had left the government partially shuttered over the better part of a month; and while Washington, DC was descended upon by protests from both sides of the political aisle, social media was dominated by “smirkgate.”
It all began when a short video clip, posted on twitter, purported to show a young man smirking at a Native American tribal elder who was chanting and beating a hand drum inches away from the young man’s face. The original furor asserted that the young man (who wore a red MAGA hat) blocked the path of the Native and that he and his friends had surrounded him while chanting “build the wall!” The narrative surrounding the story included all that was necessary to stoke outrage; MAGA hats, political slogans, and a white kid disrespecting an older minority man (and a Vietnam vet to boot!).
It was open season on the kids. The problem was that almost none of the back story was true. When the fog cleared, the story that emerged was dramatically different from the one initially told. The only vice that endured beyond an informed study of the event was the hat that the young man wore. People were triggered not by the evidence found in the video but by the words attached to it. Outrage triggers our bias and allows it to cloud the facts. It turns real people into caricatures. It judges people by the color of their hat and not the content of their character.
So many of us fall victim to these outrages because they ‘prove’ what we already believe to be true. This is the way of our world, but the Church should never mimic worldly trends. Instead we should find our inspiration and purpose in the agape love as shown to us in the life and work of Jesus Christ. We should never seek to attack, but instead defend. We should always be motivated by love and never become prisoners of hate.
There are many reasons for us to be deeply offended, but we are not offended by what offends God. Instead we get mad when someone wears the wrong hat, or listens to the wrong music, or uses the wrong word, or votes for the wrong party, or mingles with the wrong people. We judge people by appearance and our own interests. We have adopted a tribal instinct that removes dignity from those whom we view as the other and offers grace only to those who are like us. We live without agape love and in doing so we discredit the love of God evidenced by Jesus Christ.
This is not the way of Jesus. His way is a more excellent way. It is the way of the Cross. The way of agape love: a love that can both defend a new born and forgive a racist. A love that defends the weak on both sides of a political debate. A love that doesn’t passively split the middle but actively defends the good. A love that seeks the truth, offers grace to the wicked, and hope for the lost. A love that lives to serve God and our neighbor in how we live and what we do. A love that sets us free from the cycles of hatred, sin and death; in this world and for eternity.
What do you think? Is this my truth or is it God’s? If it is my truth then I hope that my rant was at least an enjoyable read, but what if this is God’s truth? How shall we respond? Will this outrage you or will you dare to love?
The answer, as always, is in your hands.