The Culture Wars

     I really don’t want to be a culture warrior.  I’m willing to bet that you probably don’t want to be one, either.  It seems, however, that there’s no hiding from the escalating clash of Weltanschauungen that’s invading every corner of our culture. Formerly neutral spaces, from bakeries to professional sports, have become battle fields. There’s no just-minding-your-own-business in the brave new world that has been thrust upon us: we must all march in the Pride Parade; we must testify to our racial guilt in a sort of nation-wide Stalinist show trial; we must all submit to an untested vaccine for a virus that poses virtually no serious threat to 99% of us, even those of us who have already had the dread illness and enjoy natural immunity.  We must all join in, enthusiastically, or else. The push is relentless, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical endpoint . . . and there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind it at all.

     It may feel like a dam has burst over the past couple of years, or that one of those enormous lagoons that collect hog waste has given way, drowning all the good and beautiful things in this world under a massive wave of . . . well, you know.  And while I believe it’s true that recent events have brought greater visibility to the very real conflict that’s raging throughout our society, the conflict itself has been there all along.  The culture war itself is only a surface manifestation of teh real war. It’s been with us from the very beginning, and it runs much, much deeper than we can imagine.

The Armor of God

      St. Paul discusses this same endless war in the sixth chapter of his Letter to the Ephesians.  I’ve briefly cited this passage in earlier posts, but I think it’s worth looking at it in greater length:

Put on the whole armor of God,that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the  powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.Ephesians 6:11-20

Put on the whole armor of God,that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” -Ephesians 6:11

St. George Fighting the Dragon by Raphael, 1505

   St. Paul’s explanation makes sense of the utter insanity that is currently reigning over our society: we are engaged in a Spiritual Battle, we collectively, and each one of us personally.  It has always been this way, and will be until Christ comes again in glory. The nature of the battle is constantly changing: for individual believers there is always a personal, internal struggle, but there is also a more external, public conflict which changes and ebbs and flows over time and in different places.  The so-called “Culture Wars” are simply the form this external conflict is taking in our day.

“Could it be . . . ?”

     If the cultural war is really spiritual warfare, then, who is the real antagonist?   This becomes tricky, not because we don’t know, but because saying so in our current climate is difficult.  Those of us of a certain age will remember the Flip Wilson Show.  One of the comedian’s most successful gags was a character called “Geraldine”, actually Wilson himself in none-too-convincing drag, whose most memorable laugh-line was “The devil made me do it!”  More recently, Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live always provoked uproarious laughter from the audience when she said “Could it be . . .(pregnant pause) . . . SATAN?!?”  For a long time now, the message in the popular culture has been that anyone who actually attributes anything to the Evil One is, well, ridiculous (interesting, by the way, that both of the examples above involve men dressed as women).  We are set up to be dismissed as unserious cranks if we see the hand of the Devil anywhere.     

Dana Carvery as “The Church Lady”

     There are some who are still willing to speak out, however.  Just a few years ago, one South American cleric described a law legalizing same sex marriage as “a move by the devil, looking to confuse and deceive all children of God” (interesting that this same cleric, who now has a rather prominent position in Rome, was more recently named “Person of the Year” by the gay magazine The Advocate).  Closer to home, I once heard a speaker on Catholic radio arguing that one reason why it’s so difficult to make any headway with those who have left the faith and are now clinging to new enthusiasms like gay marriage, global warming, Marxism, etc. is that those beliefs have taken on a religious significance for them, and are occupying the place reserved in our hearts for God. Those other things, of course, are poor substitutes indeed for the Real Thing, the One who made us for himself, as St. Augustine tells us, and to Whom we can say “our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in Te). For just that reason they cling to their false spiritual consolations all the harder, in the unconscious hope that if they tighten their grip just a little bit more, they’ll feel fulfilled; but such things do not ultimately satisfy.  Those things in fact separate us from the one thing that can satisfy us, they divide us – and who is it who is called the Divider, in Greek ho Diabolos (ὁ διάβολος)? Could it be . . . ?  Who else, but Satan?

You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody

     None of us is immune to the temptations of the Great Divider. St. Ignatius of Loyola represented this internal battle as a conflict between the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Satan, and pictured it as Two Standards, as in Roman battle standards, around which the armies of each Spirit gather.  When we follow the Standard of Jesus internally, we serve in his army out in the world as well, and so it is also the case of the other side. As St. Paul tells us, our battle is with “spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places”.   Having spent many years among the secularists I know that the  majority of those who serve in that camp are well-meaning, and honestly believe they are on the side of good and righteousness. True righteousness, however, as St. Paul tells us, is not something we create for ourselves, it’s part of the Armor of God. Without that Armor, without the “Gospel of Peace”, and without “all prayer and supplication” we will not “be able to withstand in the evil day.” When we separate ourselves from God, or don’t avail ourselves of all the spiritual arms with which he provides us, we are helpless against the wiles of the Divider.  We need to remember this in our interactions with those who are on the other side.  We need to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and aim for the conversion of their hearts, and, ultimately, their redemption, not their destruction.     

     This mission of conversion is the reason that St. Paul asks that “utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak”. Jesus rallies an Army of Love around His Standard. That’s why we engage in the culture wars: not because we like brawling (see Eph. 4:15 above), and not to inflate our egos (Scripture is chock full of warnings about getting “puffed up”), but to win hearts and souls for Christ.

For Such A Time As This

Esther and Mordecai, by Aert de Gelder

     We are all called to action, and yet, as I said at the beginning, most of us would much rather just be left alone.  The Book of Esther, which provided the Scriptural Readings in last week’s Office of Readings, casts a revealing light  on this predicament.  The Jewish maiden Esther has been made queen by the Persian emperor Ahasuerus (either Xerxes or Artaxerxes).  At the same time, the evil counselor Haman has persuaded the emperor to kill all the Jewish inhabitants of his empire.  Her adopted father Mordecai asks her to intervene with the Ahasuerus on behalf of her people, but Esther is afraid of failure.  She tells Mordecai:

All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law; all alike are to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter that he may live. And I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days. (Esther 4:11)

Mordecai reminds her that her fate is not really in the king’s hands, but is and always has been in God’s hands:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)

     Esther has not become queen for her own sake, Modecai suggests, but precisely so that she’ll be in a position to save the Jewish people, all by God’s design. We all have likewise been consciously and intentionally put here by our Loving Father, in this exact time and place.  Yes, the times are evil, but who can say that each one of us has not been created for just such a time as this?   

Featured image top of page: Esther Before Ahasuerus, by Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1630

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