“Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil,” wrote the late Eric Hoffer.
Though his 1951 book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, was written in part to explain the success of totalitarian governments and has been controversial, Hoffer hit on a piercing truth in this statement.
What he means, as I understand him, is that most groups and movements find motivation and momentum in having something or someone to be against. Get people together around hatred of a common boogie man or something being done to them that they don’t want, and you’re well on your way to a movement (and good fundraising opportunities).
The trouble is, as Hoffer suggests, passionately railing against something too often accompanies a deficiency in clarity on who we are and what we’re for.
Two hot button issues here in the U.S. can serve as an example of the problem with only focusing on what we’re against.
As the Supreme Court handed down their June 26 decisions on California Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, Christians and other detractors upped the ante on previous patterns of preaching and legislating against gay marriage. But while we’ve been preoccupied with locking the gates on couples without complementary genitalia, we’ve totally neglected our public witness to the things that actually make a stable, healthy family. Family life in the U.S. is in shambles and started down that road long before any gay couple started asking for marriage rights. Is an opposite set of sexual organs the only prerequisite to a healthy, godly marriage? Roughly half of all heterosexual marriages end in a courtroom, Christian or not. What makes a marriage or family healthy? What do couples in premarital counseling talk about? Marriage is sustained by commitment, communication, mutual submission, and other deep spiritual values, not physical prerequisites. Yet how often do you hear such substantive values affirmed by Christians in the public square these days? It turns out we haven’t been “defending marriage” at all. By what skewed moral standard do we shun committed gay couples but reelect politicians who have had an affair?
The situation looks similar with the other hot button issue of abortion, an active debate in several state legislatures. The desire to ban or discourage abortions is well known, and this time around it has come with an exceptional level of desperation and trickery (the North Carolina abortion restrictions were tacked onto a motorcycle safety bill). This leaves a big empty space on important questions of what Christian family planning looks like, how to decrease unintended pregnancies, and what the message of Christ is to young women facing a difficult decision (other than, “Don’t choose this option”). In fact, if current legislative efforts are successful in making abortions harder to get, we may actually see the problem get worse and more complicated. As blogger Libby Anne pointed out in a provocative post, our best evidence says that abortion bans do not stop abortions but simply drive them underground.
One could point to many other social issues for which this pattern holds true: immigration, healthcare, terrorism, etc. Knowing what we stand for requires more than a simple rabble rousing movement against something. To the chagrin of his disciples, Jesus had higher aspirations than simply sticking it to the opponents (Luke 9:53-55). Loudly saying, “We are against you,” does not further the cause of Christ.
Knowing what we’re for requires a careful process of discernment that doesn’t allow us to immediately jump onto the polarized bandwagons. It requires having a leg to stand on and being able to “give an account” of exactly how that which we advocate has produced good and beauty in our own lives. Maybe that’s what we’re afraid of. Putting our own convictions to the test. We do not seem content to heed Paul’s advice in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12: “You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” Knowing what we’re for requires the kind of humility of which Jesus spoke when he said, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:5). Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently posted a great piece that calls Christians to task for the vices we choose to single out for rebuke (they’re usually not our own). The uncomfortable truth is that “the rest of us” haven’t been much better ourselves, and proclaiming what we stand for opens us up to accusations of hypocrisy and the realization that we have spent time and money trying to make people conform to an ideal that we don’t exemplify either. As Eric Hoffer wrote, “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for…his holy cause.”
An author whose name and book title I can’t recall once contrasted two models for Christian engagement with the world. One was the “exterminator” model. Some Christians approach sin in the world as exterminators; that is, we seek to pinpoint and drive out all people and things that we find objectionable. The other is the “light bearer” model, the way in which Jesus taught us to act (Matt 5:14-16). We are called to show the way, illumine the dark places, and “let our light so shine.” Any spotlight we shine on sin is only the light of Christ that we have allowed to shine through us.
It’s time to know and say what we stand for. Better yet, it’s time to live out what we stand for. As Richard Rohr once suggested, the best way to critique something you think is wrong is to live out what is right.