May 31, 2022
The news has been relentless for a while now, but especially these past two weeks. After multiple mass shootings, the nation is grieving. People are angry that nothing seems to change.
According to the FBI, there’s been a 50% uptick in “active shooting incidents” since last year, and that’s not counting the shooting that left 21 dead in Uvalde, Texas. “The two attacks (in Buffalo and Uvalde) are not outliers,” announced National Public Radio. “Mass shootings happen in the U.S. with depressing regularity.” According to their count, 213 so far this year.
A variety of things and people are being blamed: access to guns, social isolation, politicians, talk show hosts, authorities, harmful ideas, and more. Behind any event this tragic will be a number of contributing factors. At the same time, we can no longer think of mass shootings as isolated incidents. They must be understood as indications of social breakdown, along with spiking rates of addiction, overdoses, violent crime, suicide, sexual confusion, and even airplane incidents.
Last week, a friend reminded me of Chuck’s words. One can easily imagine Chuck Colson extending that analysis to today’s issues, “The problem is not gun control, poverty, talk-show hosts, or race. The problem is the breakdown of moral values in American life, and our culture simply cannot respond.”
In fact, Chuck Colson is not the only thinker to have pointed to the inevitabilities of cultural breakdown. “Great civilizations are not murdered,” writes historian Arnold Toynbee. “They commit suicide.” In other words, civilizations do not last forever, and there are rules that determine whether or not they have a future.
At the recent Wilberforce Weekend, author and social critic Os Guinness stated that we are living in “a civilizational moment”:
“All the great civilizations reach a moment when they’re out of touch with the inspiration that made them. And there’s a critical transition moment when they either go towards renewal or down to decline.
We are at such a moment, if not already past it. For example, a civilization cannot survive if it is not able to prepare for the future. The dual modern realities of debt, both individually and nationally, and demographics, especially the collapse of birth rates below replacement levels, indicate that as a people we live more for immediate gratification than a strong tomorrow.
Of course, in an ultimately meaningless world, there is no sense of tomorrow. Increasingly, studies reveal that our culture suffers from a catastrophic loss of meaning. This only makes sense in a culture already detached from ultimate categories of truth and identity, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live here.
At the same time, life, even at a time of cultural collapse, does not come to an end. People are born and die. They gather and meet, buy and sell, create and invent. Civilizational collapse is never sudden, but almost always extends over decades and even centuries.
What can we do when our civilization is disintegrating around us?
First, we must remember that although the challenges of this cultural moment are real, they are never the whole story. The whole story is, instead, the story centered on the person and work of Christ, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the cosmos. The ending of that story is sure, despite the chaos of the moment.
Second, rather than withdraw from the challenges around us, we give whatever good we can to the world. William Wilberforce, for example, not only lobbied against the slave trade but also fought to advance moral values in a corrupt nation. Our best efforts may not succeed, but that’s not why we do it. We do it out of love for God and neighbor.
Third, we must reject small compromises. Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil,” how in certain cultural moments, evil advances in mundane and seemingly harmless ways. Solomon is an example of this. The last half of 1 Kings 10 reads like a ledger of his remarkable success: extravagant wealth, imported horses and chariots from Egypt, and 700 wives (with accompanying military alliances and treaties).
However, Deuteronomy 17 records that, years before, Moses had instructed the Israelites about what their king should not do:
He must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You shall never return that way again.” And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
The author of the Book of Kings knows exactly what he is doing here... He is telling the exploits of Solomon in a way the Israelite readers would understand.
Now, whether we’re in a time of decline or a time of amazing success like Solomon, the same response is required from God’s people. We must be faithful to what He asks us to do, to what He asks us to believe, and to how He instructs us to live.
In all of these things, we take this moment as part of our calling. We are here because it is where He wanted us to be. And so we move forward, keeping our eyes on the One who perfects and finishes our faith, Who will bring history to its final culmination.