My thanks to all those who have held the Watchtower whilst I finished my chapter – and especially to Neo, who has got the wing-man role off to such perfection that he might as well have been the model for it; with two more long pieces to write before late September, I am unlikely not to need help any time soon.
We have had much discussion, naturally, about the decision of the American Supreme Court on same-sex unions, and continuing rumblings about the many ways in which our secular society is going to hell in a handcart. There is not a lot to add to that – except to say that there is nothing in it St Paul would not have recognised. The society in which the Christian faith was planted was one very like our own – which is why so much of Romans seems as though it could have been written yesterday. The last fifty years have seen Christianity’s influence decline in the West, and it is hardly surprising to see a reversion to the mores of the later Roman Empire. Like its inhabitants, we are the heirs of Empire, and likes its inhabitants, many of us have the leisure to consume more than is good for us and to indulge other appetites, the satisfaction of which bring us temporary relief from a sense of inner emptiness: fornication, consumption, selfishness and egotism are all part of our fallen nature.
Of course, most of these things never went away. At best, a Christianised society helped provide some controls against them and a social framework which encouraged virtue and discouraged vice. At its worst, it encouraged a pharisaical tone to vulnerable people who fell short of its required standards, whilst quietly covering up the failings of the powerful. At its best, it gave rise to systems of social welfare and education which made the lives of people much better than they would have been; it encouraged us to see everyone as a child of God, and to value human life in all its forms, which meant not aborting babies in the womb of killing old people because they were in some ways inconvenient to us. At its worst, it colluded in being coopted by ruling elites into their power struggles, adapted itself all too willingly to secular norms, and forgot its core mission. In short, although of Divine Foundation, it is staffed by humans who endow it with our failings. The sure sign of its Divine Foundation is that it survives our failings and, at its best, helps us to be so much better than we would be without it.
Prosperity and social acceptance, whilst comfortable things for us, are not always good for us as Christians. Where it is the norm to say you are a Christian, everyone will claim to be so, whether they are or not; nominal adherence is sufficient for social purposes. We might be well-advised to see what is happening now as a necessary winnowing of the chaff from the wheat; when to be a confessing Christian is a social disadvantage, only those genuinely committed will make that confession. There is, of course, a time-lag. Many of our leaders are of a generation when there was still social pressure to conform to Christianity, and it is to be expected that there will be more chaff than there will be in the future.
We can only, in our time, bear faithful witness to what we have received, and remember what Our Lord said about how the world would regard His followers. Caesar has always had an exaggerated idea of that portion of our lives he can demand, and it may be that, like our forbears, we shall have to make some choices which will make our lives less comfortable. Compared to what so many of our fellow Christians suffer on a daily basis, this is, God knows, a small enough sacrifice; but we should not fear to make it.