There’s a story about a building manager who once asked his architect to meet him on the 42nd floor. A set of cracks had suddenly appeared and he couldn’t figure out why. After waiting several hours, the manager found the architect in the basement. He had been there all along and had discovered material deficiencies in the building’s foundation, the source for the formation of cracks in the upper floor. Further investigation revealed that over the course of several years, one of the security staff had been removing the foundation’s bricks, taking them home to build a garage. The constant weakening of the foundation eventually became visible to the building’s occupants, but in an area far removed from its source. For those cracks in the upper floors were just symptoms of a critical weakness that had developed in the building’s foundation.
“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
Those words, penned by the Psalmist long ago, spoke of the foundational importance of truth, justice, and character — things which underpin a society’s moral order. Those foundations were the guardrails which kept society safe, protecting society from existential harm.
Public surveys back up what Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico, recently said: “we no longer have societal pillars able to hold up the rest of the building when the floor starts caving in.” Justice is situational, character has been devalued, and truth has been set adrift from its traditional moorings. Confidence in essential institutions — the ballot box, government at all levels, media, law enforcement, public education, and organized religion — is at a historic low. And a common understanding and loyalty to these institutions is long gone.
The recent report entitled “Democracy in Dark Times,” concluded that our public culture is not defined by the things we hold in common, but by the absence of shared understandings. It’s a sobering perspective with the logical outcome, according to David French: “for Americans to wake up to a fundamental reality, the continued unity of the United States of America cannot be guaranteed.”
“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
Lest we be quick to speak and slow to listen, consider the following. America’s growing divide is nowhere more pronounced than within the community of the “righteous,” with discordant sensibilities nowhere more visible than during the current election and pandemic crisis. Evangelicals who voted for Trump are either the leading or second leading group across America to distrust the 2020 election, believe the coronavirus threat is blown out of proportion, reject an offer of vaccination, participate in large gatherings, and believe the government has provided enough economic relief during this crisis. And the higher the density of evangelicals, the greater the partisan difference in social distancing, especially when covid cases are on the increase.
For many, however, the sharpness of that divide just confirms the truth about their convictions. When you’re not “of the world,” shouldn’t we expect a “biblically-based” community to have beliefs different from the “secular” world?
Yet, as I’ve said before, the election claims are easily found and verifiable through court decisions — if you’re not stuck in an echo chamber. You don’t pick and choose aerospace engineering claims when boarding an aircraft so why pick and choose coronavirus scientific findings when our community’s health is at stake. And, more importantly, shouldn’t any coronavirus response, as with any of our actions, be subjected to the law of love? Live free or die is not a biblical verity and precautionary covid-related behavior is a WWJD move — a love your neighbor second commandment act of obedience that’s like unto the first.
Yes, those sharp differences have nothing to do with our faith. They are a product of cultural, political, and ideological sensibilities that have hijacked our identity and displaced our Kingdom ethics.
What should the righteous do, especially when their own foundations are crumbling too?
Haggai 1:7 “consider your ways” followed by 1 Tim 3:18 “be sober be alert” is our starting point for change. We focus on the heart as its “those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart…defile a man” (Matt 15:18). We then humble ourselves, recognizing God’s call to repentance literally means to change our minds. It changes our direction too as we are restored to God’s plan for us to be His image bearers, to reflect His glory and his rescuing nature to the world around us. Our work is cut out for us knowing that this change requires a “putting off” before the “putting on” can begin.
Let us therefore put off…
Of all the things to “put off,” or, as the writer of Hebrews writes, “[to] throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,” few cultural sensibilities are more divisive — more missing the mark — than a populism amplified through non-intersecting media echo chambers.
Populism is a binary worldview which pits “the people” against a corrupt and self-serving “elite.” Its simplifying ethic of “we the good,” and “they the enemy” creates a highly divisive lens through which the world is seen, judged, and convicted. It opens the door to conspiracy theories and extreme motivated reasoning through a play on people’s fears. And when historic institutions of societal truth, like experts, the media, or judiciary, become the enemy of “the good,” our societal foundations get picked apart as the traditional guardrails of truth are removed.
Challenging the main street media (MSN) is one of populism’s noble causes with exposing MSM fake news as today’s marquee battle. Of course, the MSM is not without fault and their power deserves to be challenged. By monetizing the sensational, the MSM distorts our perception of the mean. And despite their best intentions, human nature is just too strong and institutional truth guardrails too weak to indemnify the news against all personal and editorial bias.
Yet people with a populist worldview cannot provide MSM’s much-needed honest critique. You just can’t be even handed when you split the world into two hostile sides. Especially when our echo chambers supersize our enemies as we dig our trenches even deeper with a new resolve for the battle.
So we divide. And divide and divide. Nearly all Republicans (80%) and Fox News viewers (83%) believe the MSM exaggerated the coronavirus to take down Trump. Only 9% of either Democrats or PBS viewers find that claim to be true. Ninety percent of right-wing media consumers say the U.S. has done all it can to control the coronavirus; only three percent of MSM media consumers say yes.
Of Motes and Beams
Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the legendary Reagan Ambassador to the UN once said: “to destroy society, it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions.”
She goes on: “If practices are measured by abstract, absolute standards, practices are always found wanting. The communists who criticize liberal democratic societies measure our practices by our standards and deny the relevance of their practices to judgments concerning the moral worth of our own society.” In sum: “Our flaws are exaggerated, theirs are simply denied.”
Populism’s delegitimization of societal institutions follows the same Soviet playbook: it puts a microscope on “they the enemy” whilst “we the good” get a pass. It’s a pervasive phenomenon where no group is immune, from the left to the right, and especially with my evangelical tradition — the most populist and hence most divisive of any demographic group in America.
With their sights set on the MSM, they’re on a holy mission to expose MSM’s bias and fake news. Yet none of their “truth” posts address conservative icons like Rush Limbaugh of “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks” fame or Sean Hannity of the Seth Rich conspiracy fame. Nor do they address right wing media influencers like Fox News, or any other likeminded publications outside of the MSM realm. Even a few of their posts about MSM falsehoods have themselves even been fake news! And, of course, they’ve never called out any of Trumps 23,000 lies, or pushed back against conservative media’s election conspiracy theories and misinformation which have been thoroughly debunked by over 56 court opinions.
I know they want to do the right thing and I’m sure they think they’re on the right course. But the “beam” of a one-sided tribal perspective prevents them from fairly evaluating the missteps of “the other side.” Their use of two disparate standards, selectively applied, adds to the partisan divide. With their unbalanced pursuit of fake news, they delegitimize, brick by brick, the very institutions needed to underpin a society’s moral order. And although called to “correctly handle the word of truth,” their binary worldview weakens truth’s guardrails as they contribute to the post-truth spirit of the age.
Repairers of Broken Walls
I’m reminded of the passage in Isaiah 58 where God takes issue with the children of Israel. The Israelites thought they were doing the right thing through their desire to seek God, know His ways, and faithfully fast. Yet God calls them out for their practice of oppression and strife. True worship, God says, means loving your neighbor, undoing the thongs of their yoke, and removing the pointing finger. True worship will unleash God’s hand of blessing with the promise that: “they will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
Populism’s fruit of partisan finger pointing is like an oppressive yoke around our nation’s neck as the divide between we the good and they the enemy gets deeper each day. Our response — a Christian response — must begin with a clear theological anthropology: human beings are made in the image of God. The populist assignment of “we the good” lacks an awareness of our sinful human nature. Its scapegoating tendency — assigning blame to those who are different from them — rejects Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. The creation of a “they the enemy” class of people goes against the gospel mandate of “love thy neighbor.” Since there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave or free, nor male or female, populism’s requirement for categorization is not a Christian value.
Repairers of broken walls are brick builders who bring Godly values into the public square. They show through their worship they are a community set apart as they show through word and deed a different way to be human. Their spiritual formation introduces a kingdom ethic which shows off God’s workmanship and gives “glory to Him who is heaven.
Repairers of broken walls refuse to fight the wrong battles, avoiding imaginary or second-order issues that divert our focus from the first order issues of Christ’s two greatest commandments and mission.
Repairers of broken walls choose hope instead of fear, resisting those who offer simplistic answers to life’s complex questions.
Repairers of the broken walls wear the lens of imago dei, seeing others as the Creator’s image bearers instead of through categories labeled as good and bad.
Repairers of broken walls heed the call of the Psalmist as they work to constructively rebuild broken down walls of truth, justice, and character by being, in the words of Tim Keller, “a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole.”
Repairers of the broken walls “put off” division as they “put on” Christ. The only type of bricks they remove are divisive attitudes like populism and the truth-distorting bondage of echo chambers, each holding remarkable power to infect the body of Christ just like the leaven of the Pharisees of old.