In case you haven’t heard, the Sexual Front in the Great American Culture War is closing down. Conservative Christians lost the Battle For America’s Soul (AKA gay marriage) and we’re now retreating to our church and university fortresses where we hope that the Enemy won’t lob any anti-discrimination mortars our way. It was an ugly fight, and many Monday morning quarterbacks are suggesting that firing blindly into the air was not a winning strategy. However, we have to move on one way or another.
It has been suggested by David Brooks that, having gotten our self-righteous Balaam-bearers handed to us by the forces of Progress, Conservative Christians should focus on other things. Things like Loving The Poor. Brooks’ argument is not a new one, but the key points (as far as I can tell) are that the current Culture War made the Church look bad while not really doing old-fashioned marriage-between-a-man-and-a-woman any favors, thus we should do things that are good for marriage while silmutaneously making the Church look good.
Our obsession with Winning The Culture For Christ has morphed into Winning The Propaganda War For Christ. Cultural engagement has always been inseparable from propaganda wars, but what’s new this time around is that assigning some social value to Loving The Poor might actually result in fewer Poor People Loved.The problem with this argument is that it supposes the “private” works Christians already do are not “public” (though quite frequently they are, they are just not publicized). Furthermore, it is difficult to tell by tweets and op-eds alone, but there appears to be a difference of opinion about whether or not you can defend a traditional sexual ethic and also Love The Poor simultaneously. It is generally accepted that both might be possible, but suggesting that one has anything to do with the other may be a bridge too far.
Fortunately, The Internet has taken a great deal of the hard work out of social justice activism, including but not limited to listening to and standing with people who like different music than you do. You can figuratively #StandWith a great number of people. And posting memes, going to rallies, sharing articles, and shaming people for not doing the previous three things seems to have overtaken the tenuous labor of community meetings or in-person conversations. This strategy is useful regardless of your political or religious orientation and has the added benefit of apparently being quite profitable for people who know just where to huff and puff to keep the outrage fires burning.
David Brooks’ Pics Or It Didn’t Happen school of cultural engagement has serious ramifications. During some recent protests in Baltimore, a friend of mine described watching people drive up to a rally, take selfies, and then drive away. I’m fairly sure that this isn’t what Brooks wants, but it’s easy to take this attitude toward cultural engagement as another way of saying Jesus Needs New PR and judge how we are being perceived as Christians as more valuable than what we are actually doing as Christians. Our obsession with Winning The Culture For Christ has morphed into Winning The Propaganda War For Christ. Cultural engagement has always been inseparable from propaganda wars, but what’s new this time around is that assigning some social value to Loving The Poor might actually result in fewer Poor People Loved. Any benefit we’ve gained from handing out trophies to all white people who “do the right thing” is outweighed by the existence of privilege-checking as performance art and social justice activism as a status indicator.
Another recent Culture War Skirmish comes to mind; President Obama and Robert Putnam insinuated that churches would rather meddle in your bedroom affairs than lift a finger to Love The Poor. These statements confirmed many preconceived biases because, as far as I can tell, Obama and Putnam were talking about Loving the Poor as political advocacy and lobbying per se while everyone else thought they were talking about all of the other ways that churches Love The Poor (like all the soup kitchens, bill payments, and subsidized private school scholarships that happen in churches every day and don’t make the news). Thus, Obama and Putnam were partially right and everyone else partially wrong because Conservative Christians do spend enormous amounts of time and money to Love The Poor but (with a few exceptions) seem to think that the best political advocacy for America’s downtrodden is more free markets and less gay marriage.
Jesus helpfully opined about this, noting — in first-century fashion — that the folks who took selfies at the protest and drove away probably got all the Likes they’re gonna get. His caution to us about not giving for the praise of men seems to cut against Brooks’ line of argument and right to the hearts of everyone who has ever genuinely Loved The Poor, for we recognize how easily “I love you” means “I love how loving you makes me feel” and turns into “I love how loving you makes me look.” It’s the opposite of this feeling we get when we see Conservative Christians being jerks and tacking Inspirational Bible Verses onto half-baked right-wing dogma. The good feelings that come with helping others and the bad feelings when exegesis gets short shrift are both real things and neither are inherently bad, but framing our discourse around such perceptions is putting the cultural cart before the theological horse.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to smile for the cameras; Jesus also noted that our good works were supposed to be noticed. I’m also not saying that Conservative Christians shouldn’t speak up when we’re getting maligned publicly, as (contra Putnam) there really are some compassionate policy fights based in personal experiences and (contra Brooks) there really are some Conservative Christians trying to shore up families. I agree with Brooks and the aforementioned Monday Morning Quarterbacks that we should aim at Actual Marriages in our Next Culture War Battle, but I am expressing concern that folks — and I don’t necessarily mean Brooks and Putnam here, but the rest of us — are still a little too obsessed with the size and sound of the explosion and not concerned enough that we’re actually hitting our target.
Understanding this sort of hairsplitting is valuable because Loving The Poor is hard work. It takes a long time. Building mutual, loving relationships with people who are different from you and then using your power and privilege to advocate on their behalf is frequently full of setbacks, and rarely lends itself well to Twitter and Facebook.
If you Love the Poor for the sake of the Favs and RTs, it will destroy you. Even doing it for the love of others can tear you apart, constantly peeling the onion of intersectionality until you’re a crying mess. Loving the Poor for the praise of Our Father In Heaven, as Jesus told us to do, might involve just as much crying, but it at least gives you something beyond yourself that you can hold on to when you have no idea whether or not you’re actually loving people or loving the thing you’re building for them or loving the way they make you feel.
This is particularly relevant because creating and sustaining institutions that redistribute power to the (currently) powerless is of the utmost importance in securing justice and peace. Institutions that are governed and owned by The Poor We’re (Supposed To Be) Loving are doing great work, but these institutions take time, money, and energy to build up. By keeping social media and symbolic warfare at the forefront of our cultural consciousness, we can sometimes help them by raising awareness of what they’re doing which is then used to help get more funding. More often, though, their siege warfare against the powers of darkness are undermined when everyone is busy chasing the outrage flavor of the week.
Reorienting our efforts around the glory of God allows us to honor every effort, no matter how small or obscure. Real potential for advocacy on social media exists, but I know tireless advocates for the poor and oppressed who have never used a hashtag. Every culture contains elements that resonate with the Gospel’s claims and others that bristle against the Gospel’s requirements. The thrill of social media acclaim, if not rightly ordered, gives us a false sense of what activism feels like and means that can cripple our perseverance for the lengthy struggle needed to love others and build institutions that distribute power more fairly. Choosing a glory-based ethic over a perception-based one also helps us to put first things first, as it seems that the most meaningful changes still happen when people meet Jesus through His friends.
Conservative Christians should combat the fragmentation that feeds inequality and bring the rich resources of the Church to bear on how marriage and sexuality affect this fragmentation. This may bring about broader cultural change and roll back the public denigration that we’ve earned by sinning against sexual minorities and idolizing the family, but then again, it might not. Either way, The Revolution Will Not Be Livestreamed– not because livestreaming is evil, but because it is so limited. The world of mutuality and community transformation will require more than tweets, feature articles, memes, and selfies because it is so much bigger and better than those things. And it is so much bigger and better because it reflects the grace and glory of God.