The Moral Clarity of a Dissident

Almost two years into a worldwide pandemic, amidst at least a decade of bitter partisanship in society, and increased confrontations over race and what to do about it, the American evangelical church is extremely divided. While Christians work hard to stay unified and respect each others’ consciences throughout the turmoil, the lack of any Christian consensus on how to approach the prevailing issues of the day is stark. What explains it? 

One important explanation is that it stems from a lack of Christian shrewdness. Matthew 10:16 says, “Behold, I am sending you as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Perhaps no verse in the Bible presents so simply the duties for Christians living in the modern age. It recognizes that the world around us is fallen and opposed to God’s truth, and that discernment is therefore paramount if we are to understand and properly respond to events.

Many Christian elites skip this call for shrewdness and suffer from profound naivety. The fall did not just result in a world marked by evil—it created massive confusion and disorder. Humanity is left searching for some foundation beneath its feet. For Christians, that bedrock is the word of God, providing the mind of God to filter all of reality. But this is difficult because we often accept and bring the world’s categories of understanding to the process. Our posture is not appropriately and biblically oppositional, and therefore we lack the moral clarity of, for instance, a dissident. A dissident is one who is opposed to what an evil regime stands for because he understands its true nature. That critical assessment creates clarity that must then be matched with shrewdness. 

One of the great challenges to answering our intuitive question—“what is actually going on in our world?”—is that our culture’s categories have become utterly confused . Take the example of a ladder. A ladder’s purpose is to be  a series of connected steps that allow one to climb up or down. But at some point, a ladder may lose all connection to its purpose, and to continue to speak of it as such has no meaning. Of course, one can still climb a ladder if the first rung is broken. But what if all the rungs are broken? It’s now just wood—some hardware may still be on it, but the wood has been robbed of its purpose. We can think of other, more serious examples in this vein as well: marriages, homes, communities.

Now consider some of the categories of our modern policy debates: the role of experts, the media or even the government itself.

Take the experts. We think of experts as dispassionate individuals with great knowledge in a field of study, with years of experience. They look at data, deal in facts, and speak truth to inform. But what if some are instead experts in perpetuating their own failed bureaucratic paradigm or, instead of looking at data afresh, merely consume and then regurgitate the accepted “expert” narrative of the day? What if experts have the “will to disbelieve” truth, as Jeanne Kirkpatrick memorably put it? One would then conclude that they are not owed our trust—but rather our skepticism. The changing positions and overall record of individuals such as NIH’s Anthony Fauci and institutions such as the CDC throughout the COVID pandemic come immediately to mind. Expertise itself is not the issue. The problem lies, rather, in a naive acceptance of whatever anyone with the label “expert” says. “Expertise” comes laden with any number of unstated presuppositions, their “unstatedness” meant to convince us that they are the only rational conclusions to which an intelligent and moral person could arrive. 

What about the news media? The media’s purpose is to report the facts and fearlessly inform the body politic. Its purpose is noble and necessitated by human fallibility, given that public actors often shun transparency. But what if the media no longer intends to report the truth but a partisan or secular line? What if, in every debate, the vast majority of news anchors, producers, and reporters aim to protect the regime’s governing consensus? We would then liken them to the propagandists of state media in totalitarian systems. We would not expect to discover the truth, because it is not in this kind of media’s interests to report it. Christians in China, for example, do not expect to read accurate reports about their own persecution. This is the nature increasingly of the U.S. news media. 

The reader may have noticed a continued reference to “the regime.” This terminology is important if we are to avoid the category confusion that comes along with an inadequate view of government. It is also necessary if we are to foster a Christian realism for our times. A regime is the institutions, bureaucracies, and people who rule us—it is not just our government. It includes a class of people, often elites educated at the same schools and in the same assumptions, who view the world through the same lenses. A regime is the vast cultural apparatus that enables a select group of people to act in concert in many different institutions and roles. It often includes the cultural heights of media, higher education, and entertainment. And a regime’s purposes and interests may force Christians to assume the posture of dissidents so as not to compromise their fidelity to God. Thinking in terms of the “regime” provides a paradigm that offers some hope of accurately assessing the cultural forces in play around us, knowing that all regimes fall short of biblical principles in some way.

In practice, this might look like a Christian government official recognizing early that a purportedly well-running agency is still incentivized to protect its power and endeavoring instead to align it toward the pursuit of truth and justice. It might look like a pastor recognizing the absence of a Christian worldview in his flock and planning sermons over time to achieve a greater consensus in that local congregation to encourage its members to act courageously, especially in those areas most likely to attract the modern world’s hostility. And it might look like ordinary lay believers, perhaps outranked in academic degree, courageously speaking at school board meetings in opposition to government, education, or healthcare experts.

Life is confounding. Faithfulness requires us to seek truth and to pray constantly for shrewdness in approaching the world around us. To do so, we must gain the moral clarity of a dissident. And when we do, we will be able to reason toward a consensus with our fellow Christians on how we should then live.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons