It is true, but we are forbidden to say it. It is the teaching of Christ, but we are forbidden to remember it. Instead, we say what we feel compelled to say, and by our compliance, we compel others to do the same.
What we are now compelled to say is true, so far as it goes. Jesus and his followers have been saying it for hundreds of dusty centuries, but Jesus will not receive credit for the discovery. Not even from his followers. No, this is a moment of cultural, and not religious, crescendo. We are witnessing the birth of an ethical development, and all must pay tribute or risk great offense.
The offense is real because our culture’s ethical developments are born of passion, not humility. Reaction, not reflection. They enlist our rage, not our repentance. They borrow from the ethic of Christ, which is written on our hearts, but are presented as new inventions.
And in a dangerous sense, they are new inventions. They borrow from Christ, not to honor him, but because there is no one else to borrow from. They borrow but distort, exaggerating one idea and cutting off another, creating an imbalance that suits their purposes.
There is nothing new in this and every year brings new examples. A moment ago, it was virtuous to stay in one’s home and trust the government. Today, it is virtuous to leave home and confront the government. Last year, we were to believe every accuser of the correct gender. This year, we want due process and distrust the concept of gender.
There is often truth at the heart of a new ethic – the bit that was borrowed from Christ and which resonates in our conscience – and this creates great confusion. How can one honor what is true, yet recognize and reject the distortions attached to it?
There are three answers for those who would honor Christ. The first is to tell the whole truth about ideas in our culture, remembering that every movement has its looters, seen and unseen. Praise what is true and popular (“Black lives matter”) while also declaring what is true and forbidden (“Every life matters”). Protest the evil that culture hates (e.g., brutality) and also protest the evil it ignores (e.g., kids being torn to bits).
The second is for us to follow Christ alone and resist those who would add to his message. There is no human movement that completes or improves the ethic of Jesus, whether feminism or socialism or racism/anti-racism. The promise of “Jesus plus ____” always becomes “Jesus minus” in practice.
Third, we should refer our neighbors back to the brilliance of Jesus. Every ethical movement borrows from him and we should credit him for the good in it. Peace and justice and love for one another are not only beautiful ideas; they are God’s ideas and his plan for this world. They are not to be found in new ethical developments, but in humbly submitting to what we have always known.
Culture is a jealous god. It claims moral authority. It demands compliance. Those who love their culture will peacefully reject its claims, gently resist its distortions, and faithfully point to the One from whom peace and justice flow.