Is the American empire over? Os Guinness seems to think so.
“I have a daily passionate sense that we are rather like Augustine in a transition period,” Guinness tells Christianity Today’s Mark Galli. “He had the privilege and weighty responsibility to live at the end of 800 years of Roman dominance; he gave an analysis and a vision of the church that was a bridge into the Dark Ages. So we're seeing the division and decline of the West. We're seeing the relative or maybe absolute decline of American power. And we're seeing the deep captivity of the church in the Western world.”
The parallels are unsettling. Rome faced economic collapse, a failure of religion, and barbaric foes literally knocking at the gates. Like Rome, America faces its own barbarians: Islamic terror, cultural rot, and a debt crisis among them. Yet these barbarians, both ancient and modern, don’t determine the empire’s fate as much as reveal it.
“All crises are judgments of history that call into question an existing state of affairs,” Guinness writes in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. “They sift and sort the character and condition of a nation and its capacity to respond. The deeper the crisis, the more serious the sifting and the deeper the questions it raises.”
Guinness, an Irishman, says the questions for America range from the more shallow — “What shall we do?” to the deeper ones of meaning — “Who are we?” and “What kind of society do we want to be?” We are being forced to answer the deeper questions right now.
“Another time of testing has come,” Guinness says. “Another day of reckoning is here. This is a testing and a reckoning — let me say it carefully — that could prove more decisive than earlier trials such as the Civil War, the Depression and the cultural cataclysm that was the 1960s. As citizens of the world’s lead society and leaders of Western civilization, you Americans owe yourselves and the world a clear answer at this momentous juncture.”
Guinness helpfully suggests that America can reform and endure only if it lives out a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating “golden triangle” of freedom, virtue and faith. All three elements are required for national renewal.
What of the church? Guinness says we must not harbor the illusion that America is a Christian nation and all we need to do is get right with God. “I believe strongly that this is a time rather like Augustine's, when he broke the identification of the church with the Roman Empire,” Guinness told Galli; “so we need to break any suggestion that the kingdom is bound up with Britain or Europe or America.”
Indeed it isn’t. The kingdom of this world has not yet become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Yet Guinness notes that in America’s early years, echoing Alexis de Tocqueville, the churches were the nation’s “first institution,” preaching and the Word and inculcating the values that enabled the Republic to succeed. He says the pastors of the era were apolitical and suggests we ought to do likewise: “The heavy politicization of the pulpit in the last 30 years is actually a sign of weakness of the church, not a sign of strength.”
No one could argue about the need for a stronger emphasis on the Word in our churches today. Churches are involved in many good things, but sometimes only one thing is necessary.
And, yes, political partisanship can kill our witness — but probably no more quickly than political passivity. After all, politics, according to Aristotle, is ultimately about the pursuit of justice and the good life. To fail to pursue them with and for our fellow citizens is to present a truncated view of the kingdom — and of our God, who repeatedly calls his people to work for justice.
We face momentous moral and social issues, some of which can best be addressed via the political process — that is, the pursuit of common justice. The Manhattan Declaration points to three crucial issues today that ought to be first among equals for Christians, no matter our political self-identification: the dignity of human life, religious liberty, and marriage. In a Republic governed “by the people and for the people,” not to speak up through the political process is akin to refusing to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
No, we must not sell out to one party or another, but we must not keep our mouths shut out of a false sense of piety, either. When Hitler rose to power and began persecuting the Jews, many Christians remained silent, some because they didn’t believe it was the church’s role to speak up about “politics.” Others, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, realized that some issues transcended partisanship and demanded a response from Christians — who, after all, are called to be salt and light.
Seeking the peace of a city, or an empire, can be a dangerous business, however. “There is no way to peace along the way of safety,” Bonhoeffer said. “For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe” (Bonhoeffer, p. 241).
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: July 11, 2012