What Can the Righteous Do?
Or not do, as the case may be.
Here at Greatheart's Table, we are especially grateful for those of you who are NOT pastors. I write for pastors and those who love them, as the tag line says. But many of you are not pastors. You are those who love Christ and his church and are enjoying finding kindred spirits with whom to live this Christian life together. Your presence here is an encouragement to me.
This post is the first installment of two in which we explore the unsettledness we feel in the face of a broken world. Our impulse is to do something, to take action, to respond. The question that plagues us is, “What Can the Righteous Do?” Let’s think about that.
UPDATE: Due to an overeager ring finger on my left hand, Psalm 11:3 became Psalm 111:3 in the initial post. As far as I am able, I've repaired the damage. Thanks to those who pointed this out!
The Idealist’s Dilemma
I am an idealist. Some find that endearing about me. I find it exhausting.
Idealism breeds a naïve hopefulness that fares poorly against the reality of our broken world. Most of us can navigate the challenges of the local church with our hope reasonably intact. But looking across the landscape of contemporary culture and seeing the church’s stumbling inadequacy and weakness can so eat away at our idealism as to dissolve it altogether.
My friends in theater remind me that their world is populated by homosexual men deeply wounded by the evangelical church. Another friend argues persuasively that the church is failing to attract young adult males. Another reports that what unites the churches of our denomination is not our doctrine but our whiteness. Meanwhile, climate change continues apace for some and does not exist for others, Afghanistan falls to pieces, Haiti endures a new natural disaster, and our smart devices upend our social lives. Our idealism can settle into cynicism and our hope become fear.
Such realities make the question of Psalm 11 starkly relevant.
“. . . if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”1
We feel the earth moving under us, and we feel like we need to do something.
What we do in response does matter.
But so does what we don’t do.
What We Don’t Do
And the first thing we should not do is to subscribe to the Calamity of the Month Club. We are surrounded by those lobbying to see this or that as the thing that will upend Christianity as we know it if we do not act now!2 The arguments are bleak and oddly persuasive. But we’d be better off going for a run. The church we should note has survived worse.
As well we should screen out those presentations of an ideal past as the model for contemporary culture. For some in my circles the ideal era was the ante-bellum American South. Others have fixated on the suburban America of the 1950s. Clearly my circles are monochrome. Others urge us to look further back to recreate the “ideal” Christian culture of 16th century Geneva or 18th century New England or, of course, the church of the New Testament. None of these are embraced in their fulness and none can or ought to be recreated. There never was an ideal past and to seek to recreate it as a response to modern angst is pointless.
Others of course deal with the instability and challenge of the modern world with a strange gladness, because it means, to them, that the end is near. I long for Christ’s return, as we all should. And yet such a misinformed sensitivity to so-called “signs” of the end creates an unhealthy delight in the world’s decay.
Avoiding these things, we might still be persuaded to take up a cause. The doers, visionaries, and world changers among us answer the psalmist’s question with stirring works of cultural change. Such activists organize marches, start schools, create art, and build radical new visions for the church’s role in the world. I’m sympathetic and perhaps there are causes here into which our energy should be poured. But we need to be careful. I for one lack the kind of singular focus that activism requires. We often climb on board an activist train moved by guilt. Soon, another train arrives at the station, and we climb on that one, and then the next one, and the next one. All is thrown at us with a “sky is falling” urgency. Eventually most of us grow numb looking up at a sky that has not yet fallen, or that continues to fall, and we burn out.
Turning the World Upside Down
So the question remains: “What can the righteous do?” How do we lead the church with hopeful enthusiasm in the face of the difficulties and uncertainties mentioned earlier? I want to make a stab at answering that next time. My answer, though, lies along the lines expressed so carefully by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World. He suggests that we can’t change the world, and that that’s okay.
. . . any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God's command to love our neighbor.3
Yes, Jesus’s handful of disciples turned the world upside down.
They changed the world.
But they did so because doing so was not their aim.
Such “acting” usually involves the buying of a book or a DVD series. In saying so, I reveal that my idealism does have a cynical tinge.
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (United States: Oxford University Press, USA, 2020), p. 234.