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WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE? -- Confidence in a time of crisis

WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE? -- Confidence in a time of crisis

By Dr. Os Guinness
Special to Virtueonline
September 8, 2020

If ever there was a time for Evangelicals to be evangelical, it is now. "Protestant" is not enough. More than protest is needed. 2020 is another "year of the black swans," a re-run of 1968, and a year that is sorting out the strongest of us. Quite literally as well as metaphorically, many people are dying for good news -- for someone to trust who is stronger and surer than our leadership, for a faith to face up even to death, for a reconciliation to resolve centuries old conflicts, and a sense of calling to inspire and sustain when the tunnel seems unending. Yet at this very moment, Evangelicals are not known as "people of the good news." We are more widely disdained than we have ever been in America. The weakness, confusion, and scandals within Evangelicalism are plain for all to see.

May a visitor speak? I deeply respect our fellow-believers in other Christian traditions, but for all the scorn and confusion, I am unashamed to be an Evangelical. The cultural disdain holds no fears. Nor does the pandemic. I was born in China during the civil war, grew up in a famine in which five million died in three months, witnessed the climax of the revolution, and lived under Mao for two years during the reign of terror. Denunciations, trumped up charges, show trials, persecution, imprisonment and execution were rife. The terror that stalked the city was not only a response to the violence that happened, but to the silent menace of what might be next. And of course, the growth of the Chinese church under such conditions was historic.

I came to faith under Evangelical leaders such as John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer. To be evangelical was defined theologically, not politically or culturally, and these were people of deep devotion and absolute integrity. Previous generations of my family were friends of John Wesley, William Wilberforce, the Earl of Shaftesbury, William and Catherine Booth, Hudson Taylor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, D.L. Moody, Oswald Chambers, Amy Carmichael, and Eric Liddell, so my confidence in Evangelicalism and my gratitude for all that it stands for is unshakable. However, our challenge today is to seek for a powerful awakening from God in our present spiritual poverty, and at the same time to respond faithfully to America's present crisis.

A key requirement in any crisis is to define the crisis. There is wide agreement that America is as deeply divided today as at any moment since just before the Civil War, and these divisions have been torn open savagely by the protest and violence after the horrific killing of George Floyd. But the question is, what is the root of the crisis and the polarization? And why is there no Lincoln-like voice addressing the problems in light of what he called the "better angel" of the American character?

Various factors have been cited as the cause of the divisions -- the effect of social media, the clash between the "coastals" and the "heartlanders,"or the "populists" and "globalists," as well as divergent responses to the 2016 election and the president himself. But these are reinforcements of the polarization, not its root. The deepest division has been widening for fifty years -- between those who view the Republic and freedom from the perspective of 1776 and the American Revolution (which, through the Reformation, owed much to the rediscovery of Exodus, covenant, and the "Hebrew Republic"), versus those who view the republic and freedom from the perspective of 1789 and the French revolution and its heirs.

Contemporary ideas such as political correctness, postmodernism, multiculturalism, identity politics, tribal politics, the sexual revolution, critical theory, and the rage for socialism are all ideas that have come down from the French revolution. They have nothing to do with the American Revolution, and they carry titanic consequences for the future of freedom. As historian and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has described, three different streams of revolutionary faith flowed out like lava from the volcanic explosion of the French revolution: revolutionary nationalism in the nineteenth century, revolutionary socialism in the twentieth century, and revolutionary neo-Marxism (or "cultural Marxism") in our own time.

The assault on the original understanding of the American Republic has gathered force since the late-1960s through the so-called "Long march through the institutions." Inspired by Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s and the Frankfurt school writing between the 1930s and the 1960s, its stated agenda was to win "hegemony," or dominance, in the worlds of the American colleges and universities, the press and media, Hollywood and entertainment, and crucial elements of political leadership. This they have done to an astonishing degree as recent protests and debates have demonstrated. America now has "one-party faculties" in many universities, "one-party newsrooms" in many networks and newspapers, and even a "one-party state" in California. For America to become a "one-party nation" would spell the end of the Republic as the world has known America.

The need for a Lincoln-like American voice and a prophetic Christian voice is now critical. It is essential that Americans go beyond the call to "make America great again" to analyze and debate what made America great in the first place, including an unsparing acknowledgment of America's failings regarding slavery and racism. Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular must speak up, for the differences between "1776" and "1789" are decisive and all-important.

This is no time to be naïve about Marxism or neo-Marxism. As one who has lived under communism in China and witnessed it in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, I am often saddened by the lack of Evangelical understanding of history and other cultures. We are paying for this ignorance. We can be sure that any defense of America will be controversial and dismissed as "Christian nationalism," "white privilege," or worse. There are certainly pitfalls in notions such as "American exceptionalism" and "Christian America," but it would be wrong to confuse patriotism with nationalism, and to regard any defense of the Republic as "idolatry" or "privilege." I am not American, but I for one would make the case for the genius of America's vision of "ordered freedom." It is history's best vision of freedom so far, and an indispensable key to the human future.

At point after point, there are major differences between"1776" and "1789" that are foundational and consequential -- their different sources, their conflicting views of human nature, their contrasting understanding of freedom, and so on. There are immense stakes for the Gospel in these differences and the choices they offer. The differences are nowhere greater than over freedom itself. But the turmoil of 2020 highlights yet another key difference: how to address injustice and wrongs. Both sides are right to face the unresolved evil of American racism, but is it to be addressed according to the Jewish and Christian prophetic understanding, as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did? Or is it to be addressed according to neo-Marxist "critical theory" as the progressive left and Black Lives Matter are doing today? Both approaches challenge the evil head-on, but they lead to dramatically different outcomes, with immense consequences for freedom. There is no justice like the prophetic justice of the Bible, but there is a yawning chasm between the justice of the Bible and the justice of the progressive left. Christians who leap up and salute at the mere mention of the word "justice" without understanding this difference are candidates to become "useful idiots" for Marxism.

The coming months represent a critical time for America, and for American Evangelicals. No one has greater stakes in the outcome than Christians. The Western church must face the fact that we have helped to raise up our own greatest enemy, for Western secularism represents not only a parasite on our best beliefs but a protest against our worst behavior. Both Marxism and neo-Marxism are fueled by an implacable hatred for God and the church, and they can only be confronted with the fullest account of the Gospel. Are we confident that we are living that full account today? It is time to recover and live out the Bible's deep views of human dignity, freedom, justice, forgiveness, and peace. Not to recognize the threat we face is naïve, but not to appreciate what we need to fight it with is reckless.

One thing is beyond question: What Lincoln insisted on, quoting Jesus, is still inescapable -- "A house divided against itself cannot stand." America cannot endure half "1776" and half "1789." As with Moses and the choice between "life and death," and Elijah over "YHWH and Baal," America must now choose between "1776" and "1789." Christians who love the Bible and the Gospel have no choice but to stand up and speak out. The crisis of a Kairos moment is pregnant with opportunity and disaster, life and death. This is no time for sitting on the fence. "For freedom Christ has set us free," St Paul wrote. The "people of the good news" must stand boldly for life and freedom -- while there is still time.

Os Guinness, an Englishman and an author, lives in McLean, Virginia. The first of his more than thirty books is The Dust of Death: A critique of the Sixties Counterculture. It has been reissued by InterVarsity Press in September, with a new Introduction that explains the crucial significance of the 1960s for understanding the present crisis.>

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