When things are going from bad to worse

I don’t have survey data on this, but recently I’ve noticed more people speaking in pessimistic terms about the future. Maybe nothing has changed, and I’ve just become more aware of it, but I doubt it. With so much in social media and political rhetoric designed to deepen division and whip up anger, it takes real courage not to be fearful when things seem to be going from bad to worse.

Some have pointed to violent protests and mass shootings as the source of their fear. As Adrienne LaFrance argues in her well researched and thoughtful essay, “The New Anarchy,” (The Atlantic, April 2023), “America faces a type of extremist violence it does not know how to stop.” () So, there are good reasons to be concerned.

The conditions that make a society vulnerable to political violence are complex but well established: highly visible wealth disparity, declining trust in democratic institutions, a perceived sense of victimhood, intense partisan estrangement based on identity, rapid demographic change, flourishing conspiracy theories, violent and dehumanizing rhetoric against the “other,” a sharply divided electorate, and a belief among those who flirt with violence that they can get away with it…
            …dealing seriously with society’s underlying pathologies is part of the answer to political violence in the long term. But so, too, is something we have not had and perhaps can barely imagine anymore: leaders from all parts of the political constellation, and at all levels of government, and from all segments of society, who name the problem of political violence for what it is, explain how it will overwhelm us, and point a finger at those who foment it… But violence must also be confronted where it first takes root, in the minds of citizens.
            Ending political violence means facing down those who use the language of democracy to weaken democratic systems. It means rebuking the conspiracy theorist who uses the rhetoric of truth-seeking to obscure what’s real; the billionaire who describes his privately owned social platform as a democratic town square; the seditionist who proclaims himself a patriot; the authoritarian who claims to love freedom. Someday, historians will look back at this moment and tell one of two stories: The first is a story of how democracy and reason prevailed. The second is a story of how minds grew fevered and blood was spilled in the twilight of a great experiment that did not have to end the way it did. [p. 16, 37]

People of hope take political stewardship seriously, and so will lean faithfully against the anarchy that animates political violence in America. Our Lord has stated that the children of God are to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and we will have to figure out how to be that in our moment of history. In many churches that conversation hasn’t even begun.

Others identify the source of their fear about the future in terms of a binary political divide: Left vs. Right, a pluralistic, multiethnic society vs. a white Christian nation, socialism vs. authoritarianism. Recently, Margie and I had a conversation with a friend, a grandfather and elder in his local church. We asked what he and his wife were planning for next year, and his expression and posture changed. “With the way things are going, there may not be a future,” he said. “This country is headed in the wrong direction, and everything is going from bad to worse. I’m worried about the kind of world my grandchildren will inherit.” He was looking at current events and trends and when projected into the future, was pessimistic about how things will turn out in a world ideologically torn in half.

I reject this binarism as limited and idolatrous; biblical Christianity provides a Third Way which reforms, critiques, and deepens our political, cultural, and economic perspective. But even if America is headed in a tragic direction in a broken and fallen world, I have no reason to be fearful or pessimistic. I can remain a person of hope. The reason is that the tomb remains empty and Jesus Christ, my Lord, remains King. Which means that no matter how I see things now, history is not spiraling out of control. Besides to think and speak of such issues in apocalyptic rather than tragic terms merely feeds pessimism. And pessimism undermines hope.

More important, we see only in part, and as if through a window streaked with scratches and smears and layers of cobwebs and dust. Being pessimistic is not merely a failure to trust the sovereignty of a good God, it is an exercise in hubris. To assume my view of life and reality is somehow an accurate and complete perspective to project into the future is to think too highly of myself. A good biblical reminder of this is in Genesis 13-14. Read the story and observe how easy it must have been for Abram to be pessimistic: far from home, a dreadful famine, a dustup with Pharoah serious enough for soldiers to escort them out of Egypt, a foreigner in Canaan, warfare with multiple kings, a kidnapped nephew requiring an armed response. Things were going from bad to worse, a pessimist would have insisted. But then, seemingly out of nowhere the king of Salem, “priest of God Most High” brings out bread and wine to meet him. Was Abram—was anyone expecting that? I wasn’t. Did anyone know what God was doing outside their line of sight? Notice: Melchizedek is not merely a believer, but a priest of God. The point is that Abram could not see all that God’s grace was accomplishing at that moment of history, just as we cannot see it in our moment. Pessimism is always a mistake for the follower of Jesus. (Optimism is too, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Every daughter of Eve and son of Adam, in every generation, over all of time lives moment by moment at the Interface between the visible and invisible aspects of creation. Unlike the pagan gods, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus is never distracted, or busy with his own concerns, or withdrawn for a while from the creatures made in his image. And although she does not use this theological terminology, in For the Time Being (1999, Vintage), Annie Dillard speaks eloquently of the same reality:

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never less.
            There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said “Maid, arise” to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.
            Purity’s time is always now. Purity is no social phenomenon, a cultural thing whose time we have missed, whose generations are dead, so we can only buy Shaker furniture. “Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,” says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, “If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.” [p. 88-89]

We live in a fallen, broken world as fallen, broken creatures who bear God’s likeness. Still, there is no need to be pessimistic even when things look to us to go from bad to worse, because our view of things is so limited and incomplete and fractured, and because God’s grace is so expansive, and because Christ is Lord of all—of the creation, the new creation and everything in between.

But still, as Dillard reminds us, there is the blunt horizon at the opposite end of life from birth, called death. So sadly real, so abnormal, so horrible. Yet even here the perspective of the followers of Jesus is transformed by our Lord. Not by removing the grief and horror, but with a real measure of hope in the midst of real mourning.

Margie and I have several friends who are in hospital as I write this, horribly ill. One has been given only days to live, and we have begun mourning her loss. She is a dear friend who always brought a ray of light and cheerfulness to every person she met and every room she entered. All these friends are availing themselves of the very latest developments in medical technology and each time we pray for them we give thanks they are available—some are even experimental at this stage. May the medical professionals have skill beyond their learning.

In his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, St. Paul said the followers of Jesus do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [4:13-18] We grieve, but not as those who believe life ends at death, or are unsure of an afterlife, or define death within the narrow and gloomy boundaries of matter and energy alone. In this view, death is simply the end of existence. There are some esoteric theories hanging around the edges of science about the persistence of consciousness, but it’s nothing you can pin any hope on. We live in a world where such reductionistic views predominate. It permeates the social air in which we live and move and have our being. In contrast, a Christian looks at death and sees a conundrum that is beyond human reason to sort out. It is abnormal and grievous, and it is also the gracious portal into God’s presence where there is healing and joy forever more.

I thought of this when I read Malcolm Guite’s lovely essay on smoking his pipe in Ordinary Saints. As I read the chapter I wondered if he would bother to address the medical issue, namely, whether pipe smoking is acceptable for a follower of Jesus because of the health dangers. It was so satisfying to discover that he did not bother to mention it, exactly what I expected from an Anglican priest/poet living within the biblical story. I have no insight into his thinking, but his failure to provide a justification strikes me as normative for someone who believes everyone is inexorably moving towards death, even those who do not smoke a pipe and sin by judging those that do. As Guite demonstrates, smoking a pipe needs no justification, especially since its benefits are so numerous, precious, and rare in our modern world.

Because death is abnormal, we can always be supportive of life-saving technologies. And for our friends and neighbors that utilize them. There is an ethical principle we should not forget, however, namely, that just because medical technology can do something, that doesn’t mean it should or must be utilized. There are other things worth considering. I am choosing at this point in my life not to take all the tests my physician recommends. My reasons are found in a Christian view of death. Abnormal and grievous, yes, but simultaneously my portal to glory, which I anticipate with joy. As I approach death I look ahead and see my Savior passing through a door, looking back with a smile, and saying, “It’s ok. Follow me through. I’ve gone ahead, you know, and prepared the way. I know your loved ones will grieve but they grieve with hope, and that is a grace. And it’s so wonderful on the other side, you will wish you had been called here sooner.”

Which means I want to eschew pessimism and be a person of hope right through to the end.

Photo credit: Photo by Mo Eid (https://www.pexels.com/photo/silhouette-of-person-standing-near-a-doorway-with-bright-light-8347499/)