Christians Can’t Win Unless They Lose
COMMENTARY: The relationship between the city of God and the city of man is never simple.
Christianity is a faith for losers. Its founder was deemed a criminal and executed at the demand of his own people. They wanted a winner. He didn’t seem up to snuff.
Shortly after that, his immediate followers spread his teachings across the ancient world. They were under the impression that he would soon return to them, trailing clouds of glory and renewing the face of the earth. Their enemies would be vanquished, and righteousness and peace would rein.
That was 2,000 years ago. We’re still waiting.
In the interim, Jesus’ immediate associates mostly died horrible deaths. So did many of the others who heeded their “good news.” Christians in the Middle East, North Korea and elsewhere are still continuing this long-and-proud losing tradition — which may help to explain why Christ’s Church can survive, even against the gates of hell.
Losing is still hard, though. We’re only human, and most of us really prefer winning. This turbulent election season has given us cause to reflect on the difficulty of losing. American society is drifting away from the Protestant Christian influences that have historically been so close to its cultural core. Instead, we have a more libertine, secular culture, sometimes softened by “spiritual but not religious” exploration. But there is very little room for the older orthodoxies.
Christianity used to be part of our mainstream culture; now it is being rejected in ways that can have a frightening impact on people’s daily lives.
For many mainline and evangelical Protestants, the loss of our mainstream culture is almost synonymous with the collapse of America itself. In many people’s minds, America has for centuries been a Christian (but mostly Protestant) nation. It is their city on a hill. The American experiment is closely conjoined with their sense of Christian history and eschatology. Their forbears built Jerusalem in America’s green and pleasant lands. Now, watching it crumble, they are susceptible to despair.
This helps to explain why so many Southern evangelicals have been prepared to chase after a candidate who seems so obviously inappropriate, given their beliefs and values. Political strategists who thought they understood evangelical voting patterns have been amazed to see Southern states, one after another, hand significant majorities to Donald Trump. It’s confusing. Why would evangelicals vote for someone who has spent his life supporting pro-abortion politicians, who threatens to torture innocent people and whose crude speech and squalid personal life make even his debate appearances unfit viewing material for children? It’s hard to understand.
It’s worth noting that Trump’s support is strongest among less devout Christians: lapsed “cultural Christians” like him. Regular churchgoers aren’t so impressed. They are more likely to deem him unacceptable in light of his character, and they’re less impressed by his bravado. It’s an interesting clue when we’re considering Trump’s appeal for Protestants. Devout Christians mostly view him as a phony. People with a more nominal, cultural attachment to Christianity see it differently. They are looking to hire a political mercenary, hoping that he will beat back the secular, progressive culture that has edged them out of the mainstream. Trump is, as Ben Domenech recently argued, the heathen they need.
Regrettably, more and more people have been giving up on regular church attendance and moving into the “nominally cultural” category of Christianity. This also helps to explain why Trump has been so successful at capturing the Deep South.
It would be easy to blame our Protestant brethren, not only for their decline in religiosity, but also for the politicizing of their faith. But even if we were in a position to point fingers, we ought to recognize that the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man is never simple. Like it or not, we are members of both, so long as this life endures. There is inevitably some relationship between them, which is why Christians have been trying to build Jerusalem all across the globe, from Constantine’s day to our own.
In good times, that effort has certainly been fruitful. Christendom has had innumerable proud moments, producing a wealth of art and architecture, as well as music, literature and philosophy.
Spanning the centuries, we see Christians exemplifying every imaginable kind of excellence. The richest fruits can generally be found in cultures where the cities of God and man have forged some harmonious relationship, enabling creative genius to find a fitting outlet.
We yearn for those eras of greatness. We’d all prefer to witness the flowering of Florence and not the sack of Rome. Nevertheless, in professing our faith, we accept Christ for both good times and bad. The bad times are plentiful too, looking over the historical landscape. Jerusalem rises, and she falls. If we are destined to witness a period of decline, we need to remember that proud tradition of losing — and try to lose in the world without losing our souls.
Putting things in perspective, U.S. Christians have comparatively little to fear, even on an earthly plane. Unlike Christians in the Middle East, North Korea and elsewhere, we likely aren’t in danger of being tortured or killed for our faith. Our cultural and temporal losses are real, but fairly mild in historical terms.
In the coming years, we may need to choose our careers more carefully, to avoid being fired or sued for our beliefs. We will have to work harder to instill the faith in our children, teaching them how to navigate the world without compromising their Christian commitments. We will need to stand witness to the truth in the face of grave evils like abortion. “Hard” persecution is still rare here, but soft pressures are ubiquitous, and Christians today must grow used to the idea that they will frequently be marginalized or scorned for refusing to bend to the wisdom of the world. This is a genuine cross, but it should not be too much for us to bear.
Through everything, we must still do our best to “be salty,” preaching the Good News in whatever ways we can, to anyone willing to hear. We must be God’s servants first and the king’s second, as St. Thomas More, great defender and martyr for the faith, is famous for saying. As far as possible, our communities should be a refuge to anyone seeking to escape from the lies and artifice of the world.
Many Christians also recognize the necessity of building up a robust counterculture in our increasingly secularized society. Catholics in particular have an opportunity here to cooperate with our Protestant compatriots and also to assist them by offering insights from our lengthy historical experience with countercultural American life. For many, the decline of our American Jerusalem seems like an unmitigated catastrophe. We have a longer institutional memory and far more experience in forging a robust counterculture on this soil. U.S. Catholics have been part of an unloved minority for most of this country’s history. We kept the faith alive and still managed to make important social contributions across three centuries in which anti-papist sentiment was commonplace in mainstream American culture.
We can do it again. Perhaps we can also pass on some tips, to help our Protestant brethren adjust to life in a countercultural minority.
Considering the state of the world today, we may sometimes wonder whether, perhaps, the Apocalypse is at hand. It’s always possible. Then again, Christians have waxed apocalyptic time and again in periods of temporal decline.
Christ’s apostles thought they might live to see the Return. Christians living through the last stages of the Roman Empire were convinced that the fall of their society would literally be the end of the world. The rise of modernity and collapse of the Papal States seemed to some like an obvious cue that the apocalypse was at hand. We’re still here.
Perhaps our culture will find its way back to health, or maybe not. If our American Jerusalem does fall into disrepair, and the world does not end, we can be confident that Christendom will rise again.
In the meanwhile, our job is to keep our lamps filled with oil, so that we can honorably stand our posts. Don’t chase false messiahs, and don’t despair. Remember, Christians are world-class losers. And it is precisely through losing that we find the path to eternal life.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the
University of St. Thomas in
St. Paul, Minnesota.