A truce for the culture wars?

I recently re-watched the classic movie “Chariots of Fire.” Scottish missionary-to-be Eric Liddell is chosen to run in the 1924 summer Olympics. When he discovered that he must run a qualifying heat on Sunday, he refused. His religious belief was that running on Sunday would violate the commandment to “honor the Sabbath.” Even in 1924, Liddell’s decision and his beliefs were met with disbelief, criticism and confusion. What’s the big deal about running a race on Sunday? How quaint to have such an old-fashioned religious restriction.

Many readers will remember that it was not so many years ago that going to a movie on Sunday was forbidden to the faithful. Stores closed on Sunday. Professional sports teams played on Sundays, but most good folks would have been horrified at the thought of kids having organized sporting events on a Sunday. How quaint those days were. Now we have Walmart and Kroger and CVS and countless other stores so routinely open on Sunday that we barely remember a time when it was not so. Tournaments and traveling sports teams for kids also routinely schedule events on Sunday. Many still go to a worship service, but otherwise Sunday is just another day.

I was raised in a church where the accepted belief was that dancing was a sin. (I still have bungling feet if I attempt to dance because of my teenage taboo). When we went to church camp in the summer, boys and girls could not swim at the same time because “mixed bathing” was a sin. Given the two-piece suits and the amount of skin displayed at pools and beaches, I think I can safely assume that even the most conservative believers have accepted the culture and abandoned the war and the old ideas I was taught about faithfulness and the swimming pool. 

At a far more destructive level, a culture war that too many believers fought and lost is that of slavery and racism. The history of slavery is a terrible stain on our national and spiritual soul. Yet in its day there was widespread justification of slavery based on random texts distorted from the Bible. Sermons were preached about the curse of Ham and white superiority was defended as being God’s order of creation. The KKK used a cross, the most central symbol of Christian faith, to make a fiery statement of hatred and intimidation. Though black churches were in the forefront of civil rights activism, white churches were all too often in opposition or guiltily silent. Today only the most radical racists would openly promote slavery, but we still struggle with racism. We have far to go indeed to make a reality of the song “Jesus loves… all the children of the world.”

I write, not to complain about the way Sundays are spent, nor to bemoan swim practices or attire. I write recognizing both the progress made and the great distance yet to go regarding racism in our culture. I write, not to air the dirty laundry of the faithful, nor to make fun of “quaint beliefs.” I gladly celebrate the positive cultural changes that have come about because people of faith have worked to make a better world.

I write because so many of my evangelical brothers and sisters have enlisted as soldiers in the culture wars. My belief is that culture warriors with short memories have a history of fighting battles in the name of God that have far more to do with defending tradition than defending the faith. 

As nearly as I can tell, the culture wars of today swirl largely around the issues of abortion, gay rights, and the role of religion in public life. In fighting the wars, conservative religion and conservative political theory have become inseparable allies. People of faith may well draw conclusions from their reading of the scriptures that they find consistent with their political stance, but these are conclusions and interpretations. Others of good faith and of no faith at all may come to different conclusions. As much as warriors would like the issues to be simple, they are not simple. As much as the warriors may see themselves as taking a faith-based stand, their fierceness is too often an invitation to an extreme posture. In the posture of extremism, they risk the trap Jesus recognized when he warned against trying to remove the speck in another’s eye when one has a 2 x 4 in one’s own eye.

Frank Stagg was my New Testament seminary professor. His stated belief was that “there is so much of the Bible we understand very clearly and do nothing about that we have no business wasting time arguing about the things we don’t understand.” What I believe to be lost in the culture wars are Biblical teachings that are absolutely clear. Teachings about compassion, God’s love for all people, humility, love your neighbor as yourself; faith/hope/love — these are the heart of Jesus’ teachings. They are lost when fear, anger, prejudice and self-righteousness rage in the form of culture warriors. People of faith must live out that faith in a culture that is rapidly changing — but they must constantly seek the wisdom to know whether they are living their faith or merely following their culture.

The Rev. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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