A New Shame and Honor Culture

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The second influence impoverishing the modern practice of forgiveness is a rising shame and honour culture that some have called a new secular religion.

According to Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, the therapeutic culture has converted us into a collection of “self-actualizers,” whose primary concern is to get respect and affirmation of one’s own identity. But the therapeutic culture also taught us to think of ourselves as individuals needing protection from society and from various groups with power who oppress us. So, ironically, we have developed “a shame and honor culture of victimhood.” Greater honour and moral virtue are assigned to people the more they have been victimized and oppressed by society or others in power. So the further down the existing social ladder one is, the greater the possibilities for honour.

In the new culture, companies, institutions, and governing agencies are now tasked not with treating all individuals equally, but with the moral obligation to defend victims—those who have been oppressed by the powerful. This provides a second ring of honour in the emerging culture. While highest honour comes to victims, it secondarily comes to defenders of victims. So now there is no better way for a business, school, or government to gain honour (and, frankly, to divert attention from their own wealth and power) than to mercilessly punish anyone seen as a victimizer.

Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short-circuiting the ability of victims to gain honour and virtue as others rise to defend them.

Campbell and Manning’s critique is that this new honour society—also called “cancel culture”—ends up valuing fragility over strength, creating a society of constant, good-versus-evil conflict over the smallest issues as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of the victim. It atrophies our ability to lovingly overlook slights (cf. 1 Peter 4:8: “Love covers a multitude of sins”). But most of all, it sweeps away the very concept of forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short-circuiting the ability of victims to gain honour and virtue as others rise to defend them.

It’s no wonder that this culture quickly becomes littered with enormous numbers of broken and now irreparable relationships. Politics itself becomes a new kind of religion, one without any means of acquiring redemption or forgiveness. Rather then seeing some people as right and others as mistaken, they are now regarded as the good and the evil, as true believers or heretics.

Timothy J. Keller, “The Fading of Forgiveness,” writing at Comment

Keller’s analysis is worth reading in full.

I happened to be on a walk recently, and as Hondo and I made our way around the neighborhood I listened to Keller’s 1991 sermon “The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.” Keller remarked then that forgiveness was falling out of fashion because it was seen as making a person too vulnerable–those asking for forgiveness feared being exposed as weak; those willing to grant forgiveness were thought open to being taken advantage of by the person committing the wrong.

I hold the conviction that the Christian message has the hope of forgiveness and reconciliation at its center, first between God and human beings, made possible through Jesus and his atoning work, completed in his life, death, and resurrection. I also hold the conviction that that message works itself out in communities of forgiveness and reconciliation. The church is a place where enemies can become friends, a work that often begins within families, who, on the basis of proximity, inevitably wound one another.

A culture without atonement, without forgiveness, without a means of reconciliation will inevitably become one of violence. That’s why Keller’s analysis is so important. We need to understand why forgiveness is fading, why Christians are formed to forgive in light of core beliefs and doctrines, and why the Christian witness is so critical–it provides an alternative vision for how human beings can live in community with God and one another.

Their Concern

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“The way someone else perceives what you do is a result of their own experiences (which you can’t control), their own preferences (which you can’t predict), and their own expectations (which you don’t set).

If your choices don’t match their expectations that is their concern, not yours.”

James Clear, 3-2-1 Newsletter, May 13, 2021

Easy to say. Harder to do. But it can be done. With practice.

As a Christian, Romans 8:31-39 has helped me tremendously in this respect. Why? Because I know that God perceives me fully (no one else does), that God’s preferences are eternally good and just (distinct from any other being), and that God’s expectations for me rest in the calling I have in Jesus Christ, who has redeemed me and called me his own.

I’m called to be steward of his grace and to live my life for him. When I do what is expected of me, I give thanks for the good work God has done in me. When I fail to do what is expected of me, I find mercy in the power of his forgiveness.

In Jesus, I have the approval of God, who is the one person who ultimately matters. Therefore, I can live free from the fear of judgment of any person, and rest in God’s eternal grace.

What Does it Say?

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Rob Walker, in The Art of Noticing newsletter issue No. 70 (“Play Attention”), recorded this anecdote from podcaster Stephen Dubner:

[Dubner] described how his father used to play a game with him called Powers of Observation. One day when Dubner was 7 or 8 years old, they went to a diner, where they took a seat and his father said:

“All right, Stevie, I want you to just sit and look around you and really take everything in. Just pay attention. Really see what you’re looking at, and listen. … I’m gonna give you five minutes. Just take it all in.”

After five minutes, he told Dubner to close his eyes, and started asking questions: “What did the lady sitting right behind us order?” And so on.

“He’d grill me on these facts, large and small,” Dubner says. “And when we first started this game, I was terrible. I had zero powers of observation! But within a few times of playing it, I figured it out. And I got persuaded that, whether it’s the mind, or the brain, or the memory, or my observational senses — they really are like a muscle. I’ve been trying, ever since that day, to flex that muscle. So maybe I’ve been practicing my own form of mindfulness all this time.”

When I was a seminarian, I took a class with Professor Howard Hendricks called “Bible Study Methods.”

After laying groundwork and establishing how we’d approach the Bible, we were assigned one verse: Acts 1:8.

…but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and as far as the remotest part of the earth.”

Acts 1:8, NASB

What were we supposed to do with these thirty eight words? Record twenty five observations.

When we turned in our twenty five observations?

We were told, “Thank you very much. For your next assignment, I would like twenty five more observations.”

Before asking what something means, or how something works, or what to do next, ask, “What is it? What does it say? What is going on?”

Make some observations. Then work with the facts.

Addressing Your Tribe, and Addressing Everyone Else

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Back on March 16, 2021 in his newsletter The Tuesday, Kevin Williamson of National Review made the observation that among conservative political activists and commentators, there are two fundamental audiences: conservatives and everyone else. Most of the well known pundits address their tribe principally and primarily. After all, that is where the money is most easily made, the clicks most easily obtained, the views most easily secured.

But there is a great deal of good that can come about by writing and speaking to everyone else. Williamson writes:

[T]he everyone else approach…is directed not at rallying one’s own partisans but at persuading people who are not already self-conscious conservatives, engaging with people as they are and with mainstream institutions. This irritates and enrages tribal conservatives, especially if you’re any good at it. I quote the New York Times fairly often, because it is one of the newspapers to which I subscribe, and I write from time to time for mainstream publications such as the Washington Post. And I hear from my fellow conservatives: “Why would you want to read the New York Times? Why would you want to write in the Washington Post?”

[ . . . ]

The answer to the silly question, of course, is that I read the New York Times because I live in the United States of America, not in the People’s Republic of Konservistan, and if you want to effect change in the United States and in the world, it matters what other people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post think. It even matters, a little bit, what the people who write for them think.

The value of this used to be obvious: William F. Buckley (who lived and worked “a long time ago,” I am informed) criticized what he called “the Playboy philosophy,” but he also wrote for Playboy. Rush Limbaugh wrote for the New York Times. (His byline was “Rush H. Limbaugh 3d.”) Ronald Reagan didn’t change the country because conservatives supported him — he changed the country because he ran a sensible conservative administration on big-tent principles and won 49 states in his reelection campaign.

Stated differently, not everyone is a partisan. Some people are not a member of either tribe. And they can be persuaded, even convinced.

The principle translates to the Christian world fairly easily. You can preach and teach and write in order to connect with your own tribe, to fortify your constituency, to secure your place in a certain ideological ecosystem. You can do this by pitting yourself against heretics and nonbelievers. The lines are drawn pretty clearly, and are easy enough to discern. I’ve seen people do this on left and right and everywhere in between.

Or, you can preach and teach and write in order to address those outside of your tribe while firmly remaining within one. To do so, you’ll need to read broadly, and listen. You’ll need to sharpen your arguments while maintaining epistemic humility. Charity will be high among the virtues. You’ll need to concede the strength of another person’s position. You’ll need to engage in nuanced, boring conversations. You’ll need to actively seek out others who are different than you; you’ll also need to strengthen bonds with those of like mind, those who can bear burdens alongside you. Those who bridge divides take arrows from all sides. Go ahead and concede that some will declare you an enemy because you refuse to deal in polemics.

Lastly, you’ll need to leave the realm of theory from time to time and get down to the level of practice. You’ll need to try out your ideas in the “real world,” and see if they actually do anything.

I think there is a lot of ground to be won by addressing people with words that match their lived experiences and then helping them see how the claims of Christianity address those experiences and then guide them in ways resulting in a life that works, not because Christianity is relevant and practical, but because it is true.

Jordan Peterson: Why Hasn’t He Been Cancelled?

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In the end, Mr. Peterson hasn’t been successfully canceled. He retains his academic post; his YouTube lectures and podcasts have not been scrubbed from the internet; and his publishers stuck with his books, which are available for purchase. This is true for basically two reasons. The first is that he has tried to understand his would-be cancelers and thinks of them almost as outpatients.

[ . . . ]

The second reason follows from the first. The cancelers’ strange fixations mean that apologizing to them is folly. Mr. Peterson hasn’t apologized or disavowed any previous statement. Now there’s a rule for his next book: Don’t apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong.

Barton Swaim, The Wall Street Journal, “The Man They Couldn’t Cancel

I have my disagreements with Jordan Peterson. I also think efforts to cancel him have been silly. The last line is the clincher. If you’re leading, if you’re making a difference, you’ll have critics. You’ll have enemies. Some criticisms will have validity. Others should be brushed aside. When you’ve made a critical error, a mistake that has caused harm, you should apologize.

But when the matter is one of disagreement about ideas, carry on. Don’t cave to the mob.

The Church: Critic of the Prevailing Political Order

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A genuinely penetrating critique of liberalism must start from the universal Christian confession of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The church isn’t merely another social institution, but the family of the heavenly Father, the body and bride of the incarnate Son, the temple of the Spirit. Through the word, the Spirit gathers and knits us together. In the waters of baptism, we’re made members of Christ and of one another. At the table, we become one body because we all partake of the one loaf that is the body of Christ. For paedobaptists at least, membership in Christ and one another is inter-generational. To the naked eye, the ties that bind members of the church across time and space look fragile. Word, water, bread, and wine are surely no match for blood, flag, and soil. But the Spirit of the living God works in and through the fragile things of earth to form a communal body like no other, a solidarity in the Spirit.

The sheer existence of the church challenges liberalism’s claim to monopolize social order. Here is a differently constituted community of men, women, and children. Consent is real, but the will that makes the church isn’t the will of man or the flesh, but the will of God. Here is a sacramentally and spiritually formed body, living divine life in the flesh and manifesting the spiritual unity of the Father and Son (cf. John 17:20–21). If she does nothing else, the church stands as a witness against the imperialistic hubris of liberalism.

Paul says the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ form “one new man,” a new humanity, the fulfilled humanity (Eph. 2:15). As the body of the Last Adam, the church provides a glimpse of the final destiny of human society. She is the most human of human communities, and, precisely because of her utter uniqueness, she serves as a model and aspiration for other communities. The church has a distinctive rationale for popular participation, grounded not in a common human nature but in every member’s share of the common Spirit. That unique ecclesial form of “democracy” inspires experiments in participatory politics. As a catholic communion, the church embodies the hope for an international peace that embraces every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. International networks, nations, local communities, and families can become false churches, rivals to the body of Christ. When leavened by the church, such groupings can become shadows and images of the divine communion of the church.

Peter J. Leithart, First Things, “The Ecclesiology of Liberalism

Leithart’s essay is worth reading in full, and while I think the applications will be most clearly apparent to Catholics, there is something here all Christians can glean from: the church is not “merely another social institution” but the body of Christ. In its fullest sense, church is categorically unique, a challenge to all ideologies and political philosophies. And as such, participation in church radically changes our engagement with and degree of participation in any and all other spheres.

It might be helpful to make sure you grasp what Leithart is addressing here when he writes about “liberalism,” a term that means many things, but here refers to the dominant political philosophy in the Western world.

So why do I think this important?

I think we participate in the life of the church for any number of reasons while missing out on many of the larger claims that participation in such a body might make upon our lives. If you are a member of a congregation, you are now linked with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in an extended kinship that is not depended on common biological ancestry. You have received adoption into God’s family. You have been conferred status as a co-heir with Christ. You are deemed an “ambassador” of God’s kingdom, and a citizen of the heavenly realms.

Those are political realities that not only have implications for eternity, but for the here and now.

One way of looking at it

I happen to like memes, so I collect them. I’ll share one with a group of students while leading a class, often to raise a question that we will address that day, or to make a connection with our cultural moment. I text the weirder ones to a good friend.

This one struck a chord with me. There’s a lot going on here. I have no idea why Jesus is flashing the horns. But he does have a kindly gaze. He’s blasting light from his sacred heart. He even has a message: “Good morning, sinners.”

I think that’s a message many of us have internalized. It’s a dominant narrative. Jesus is up with the dawn. He’s a morning person. He rose early on the third day. He raises us up every day. He shines blinding light in our eyes. That’s who he is. He speaks. And the sound of his voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing.

We might think of ourselves foremost as sinners. Who isn’t a sinner? Who doesn’t “drop the ball?” We all mess up. We leave things undone. We commit wrongs. Sometimes we do so intentionally. Sometimes, we’re clumsy, and we break things.

We’re sinners. So every morning, we could wake up and imagine hearing this message from Jesus. But maybe there’s another way of looking at it. Maybe there are other names that might stir us awake more than our first cup of coffee, words Christ may say to us that enliven our hearts.

Hebrews 12:1-2 says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Maybe Jesus says, “Good morning, my joy.”

And maybe then, knowing that we are the beloved of God, we cast off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

What a Wonderful Invitation

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When I undertake all my activities, I am not doing them on my own, I am doing them in confidence, vision, and expectation in the spirit and character of Christ. If I am writing a paper or preparing for a conference or outlining a course, I don’t just do that looking to myself, I do that in expectation that God will act with me.

The gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus preached, ​“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is precisely the good news that, in everything I am and do, God invites me to invite him to be my co-worker. He invites me to look to him, to act and move in tangible ways no matter what it is.

[ . . . ]

You have now heard the gospel that you are accepted by God where you are, that he put you there. You’re in your world to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth — and it is God who makes that possible. You accept the fact that you are finite, that you make mistakes, that you’re not perfect. And in so doing you get on with the work that God has appointed to flow through your life as you become the person he intended you to be.

You see, God has very high aims for you and me. His aim is that each one of us becomes the kind of person he can empower to do what we want. I am going to say that again. You and I are being trained and cultivated and grown to the point where God can empower us to do what we want. Now you recognize that a lot of work has to be done on our ​“wanter” before that can happen. But that is what life is about. And that’s what we are learning to do as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dallas Willard, “Acknowledging God in All We Do

What struck me most was Willard’s remark about our mistakes and how liberating that is, but all of this is gold.