There’s no need to fight a culture war if your worldview is in the ascendency. Christians in the Middle Ages didn’t go on crusades to lands full of churches. Upper-class men didn’t fight for the right to vote because they already had it.
So why does it feel like, in every sphere of society right now, a culture war is being fought by both sides? Why does literally everyone feel as if they are the victim?
In an inter-connected society, it is to be expected that profound impacts for some will create ripples for others. For people whose existence was previously comfortable, the solid ground they thought they understood has shifted; their footing is a bit more uneven. And this is experienced as loss.
At times, this is turned into a political weapon that is based upon a lie. When the dominant political party wages a culture war that pits those with power, connections and money against the ‘establishment elite,’ you have to ask: What’s going on here?
For those in power, suggesting that they’re somehow ‘losing’ plays into a useful phenomenon. In this playbook, admitting – ever – that you are in a position of power is out of the question. Your underdog status is your ultimate trump card.
But what about followers of Jesus?
Let’s take it back 2,000 years. There’s no doubt, by any definition, that Jesus was … a loser. His country was ruled by a foreign force. His view of religion wasn’t adopted by those in power. And yet, at the end of his story, it’s those in power who seem discombobulated, killing the new man to preserve their own positions.
Despite the power balance being perfectly clear and obvious, Jesus’ status as a ‘victim’ on the wrong side of the culture war does not seem to concern him – or at least be something he considers important enough to leverage. He’s not trying to ‘win’ in any conventional way. When arguments come to him, he asks more questions than he answers. His movement isn’t focused on grasping political or religious power.
Often within the Christian world, our culture war paradigm is diluted down to biblical truth vs inclusivity. And the fascinating thing is that both sides see their approach as reflecting the ministry of Jesus.
Campaigning groups such as Christian Concern and CARE argue that, in the face of cultural norms slipping towards increasing liberalism, they and their supporters are standing for biblical truth – in much the same way as Jesus stood for truth as the religious world around him sunk into obsession over money and power.
Meanwhile, those on the more liberal wing see in Jesus someone whose ministry was defined by reaching out to those on the margins, left out by religion and society, and offering them a place to belong and thrive, irrespective of who they were and what they’d done.
The ministry of Jesus shows us the importance of balancing both of these two, seemingly opposite outcomes and motivations. Obviously, everyone thinks that the way they approach things is balanced. Perhaps, in eternity, we’ll discover that some people were right and others were wrong, but perhaps we won’t.
As a sports fan, I spend a disproportionate amount of time playing and watching sport. I love the simplicity of there being a clear winner and loser. Many of us see life through the same lens: we see politics as sport and want to see our ‘team’ win.
We see cultural and moral issues, such as sexuality and gender, as sport and are dedicated to ensuring the ‘other team’ loses. But in life – and certainly within many of today’s culture wars – there often aren’t clear cut winners and losers.
Battles may be won (the introduction of equal marriage legislation for some, the overturning of Roe v Wade for others) but the war of hearts and minds, attitudes and institutions, is much less clear.
Perhaps the balance between truth and inclusion (to use lazy shorthand) that Jesus struck is too much for any of us to truly hold. Should we, instead, be grateful that the breadth of the Church allows space for both to flourish?
Perhaps the answer to this paradigm relies not on individuals, but within Christ’s collective body. And while all of us engaged in ministry believe we are modelling ourselves on Jesus, it is important to remember that, ultimately, he was killed. In being prepared to lay down his life, he wasn’t concerned with ‘winning’, he was concerned with doing what he was called to do.
The challenge of Jesus’ ministry might look less like worrying about who is ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ the latest culture war and more like following the invitation of Jesus to do whatever we are called to do. “Take up [your cross] and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) hardly sounds like the start of a victory parade, after all.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Dick Craft
Jamie Cutteridge is the director of With, a UK-based Christian community and retreat center dedicated to praying for and with young people.