Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cultural Revolution

On May 16, 1966, Chairman Mao set into motion a movement of youth and peasants who would work untiringly for nearly a decade to rid China of all "foreign," "elitist," and "bureaucratic" elements. He called for the masses to unleash their frustration against the educated classes.

We call Mao's movement "the cultural revolution."

In that decade of ideological madness, the Chinese people learned to think and speak in clichés. Sentences often began with "as the Chairman says, …"

In the movie, The Red Violin, a woman who loves music has to hide her records and instrument from the young punks who roam the streets in search of people like her, people who care about culture. She has to sit in silence while sarcastic "no-nothings" publicly ridicule an old music teacher because the man had taught Bach and Beethoven instead of popular Chinese music. It was a time to hide one's love of learning, culture and refinement. For the moment, the mob was in control.

I believe that we are in a sort of "cultural revolution" like that in our own country. One can detect, in the political speeches from both the right and the left, an appeal to resentment, to class alienation and the economic anxieties of the populace.

On the left, this cultural war sounds something like: "wealthy people have made your lives miserable long enough. They make their money while you suffer. They get their health insurance while your children go sick. Aren't you tired of it? Don't you want a change? If we don't stop the right wing from controlling everything, some Hitler is going to take over soon and destroy the last freedoms we have left!"

On the right, the cultural war sounds something like: "Aren't you tired of how the people in the arugula and wine crowd keeps looking down their long noses at you? Well, that's who controls the media! That's who keeps trying to destroy your faith in God and the American constitution. If you let them get their way, you can say goodbye to your churches, your hunting parties and to any business opportunities that are still left in this increasingly socialistic nation of ours!"

This cultural divide deeply affects the church. It has become difficult to have a conversation about literature, art and culture from a Christian standpoint. It is even more difficult to talk about discoveries made in the last few decades in fields such as physics and paleontology. There are, to be sure, orthodox Christians in these fields and some of them write and speak, but one wonders how many believers have the patience or the capability now to actually listen to them.

I have lived long enough to see even biblical studies become a secondary concern of most churches and of most Christians. We seem to keep dumbing down and the more we do, the more shrill our voices become agaist those with whom we disagree.

To be sure, the intellectuals have brought some of this on themselves, including many theologians. Academia has become ever more detached from day-to-day reality. That is why people trained in our universities often display an alarming lack of common sense. They do often seem to mock the ideas and practices that bring comfort and meaning to millions of their fellow citizens. So it is tempting to mock them back – the pointy headed, good-for-nothing privileged class of lazy bums. However, if in the process of mocking the intellectuals we dismantle the culture and social graces that has made our civilized life possible, we may open the doors to the same barbarism that ruined Rome and brought a thousand years of a dark, illiterate, cruel and base existence to the peoples of Europe.

Our corporate leaders have also brought some of their woes on themselves. President Reagan convinced us that a rising tide would lift all boats. "If we would stop restraining business, we would create an economic machine that would make us the envy of the world. Health care would be better managed by the people who know how to make creative business decisions than by government bureaucrats. Our companies would make health care benefits a part of our pay."

Well, all of that worked for many years. Then, or so it seems to many of us, our corporate leaders learned that they could make even more money if they could break their unspoken contract with the American workers. They learned that they could employ the workers of other nations, people whose standard of living did not require the same salaries as Americans. They could buy and sell, merge, and dismantle their own companies. And, by the way, health care had now become too expensive for the companies to offer. So the workers, who were now making less pay relative to the current economic realities, were on their own. Of course, the ones who were actually sick would have a difficult time getting health insurance, but that was just the cruel reality of the global marketplace.

Regan was right, I think. However, he did not anticipate the effect of fallen human nature upon those who make corporate decisions. He was right to think that the "invisible hand of market will force a person to be prudent or to fail"; he did not seem to realize that the invisible hand of market forces will not force a man to be just or even mindful of the suffering of those who get crushed in the gears of our global economic machine. I am not saying that it is a business leader's responsibility to shoulder this reality, but by the turn if the century, we have convinced ourselves that it was nobody's concern. We had become social Darwinists – even many of us who oppose biological Darwinism!

So many of us have become dismayed and angry. Someone, or something has taken away our culture, our borders and our sense of national identity. Who is it? Who do we blame? What questions do we ask?

But where do we begin? Do we join the hatred of the left against business and thus destroy the structures that create our jobs? Or, do we join the hatred of the right against artists and intellectuals, who create the communication and dialogue that gives us meaning an purpose for our lives and culture? Which Cultural Revolution do we join? Which pied piper do we heed – the ones on the left or the ones on the right? How can we escape the sound-bite and cliche-ridden talk that passes for conversation, so we can figure out where we are and where we need to go?

My answer may sound self-righteous (and it may actually be self-righteous), but Christianity refuses to join either of these crusades against humanity. Christianity rebukes arrogant intellectuals and calls them to serve and to teach those who do not know. However, Christianity calls the person with financial gifts to serve others and not to forget the stranger, the sick, the elderly, the widow, the orphan and the other folks who get left behind.

I have been thinking about these things as all my friends push me to commit myself in this election. I am not ready to empower the rage of either side against the other. I am not holding myself aloof because I have no opinions. I am refusing to commit because I have not yet found a way to have a conversation about the issues of this campaign that is not an endless flow of clichés and repetitions of fear-based pandering.

I would like to consider the issues of this election in the light of the Lord's message in Matthew 5, 6, & 7. Senator Obama says that the Sermon on the Mount would wreck our Department of Defense. But isn't that the point? We are proclaiming a kingdom that will ultimately wreck every nation's Department of Defense. In the meantime, we tolerate the need for national defense; but we do not glory in it. We realize that even the Lord told us that we would always have the poor with us, but we don't forget them.

We take our civic responsibilities as serious as we can; but we never forget that no person and no human ideology can have our ultimate loyalty. Our kingdom hasn't come yet, but we judge all issues facing our present kingdom in the light of the values of our ultimate kingdom.

That's what makes a Chairman Mao and all his ilk so angry at us. We can't join their cultural revolution. We have another king and another country. So we make our decisions the best way we can, realizing that "here we see through a glass darkly and only then face to face".

And one thing more – some of the people on the other side of the aisle from me share my higher loyalties to the kingdom not made with hands. So I refuse to allow my transitory, provincial and limited understanding about political and cultural matters, to separate me from people with whom I intend to share eternity.

I have joined the real Revolution – the one that will soon overturn all the nations of this world. That's why I can't join the other ones -- at least with the deepest part of my heart. I am a citizen of this nation and a patriot. I believe that my allegiance to the kingdom of God has real consequences in this world in our time. I am not sitting around singing, “this world is not my home; I’m just a passin’ through. The decision to be a follower of Christ does not excuse us from the obligations that all mature people must accept, including those related to citizenship. It does force us to deal with life and with people very differently than unbelievers. It also helps us put political life in its place, as important but not ultimately so.

No comments: