Peter Mead thinks that there has been a perplexing silence from Christian leaders and that it has been left to others to “speak the hard truths.” He writes about this in a three part series here, here and here.
Now, as I’ve written a few times, I think that our track record as conservative evangelicals when it comes to engaging with public theology and cultural issues can at times be inconsistent. Very recently, I wrote that whilst perhaps some of us might have said less on the big issues of the day, others perhaps should have said more. I argued that our public theology can be a little on the thin side. Secondly, I have frequently lamented the slowness of conservative evangelicals to speak louder on a number of issues including on racism and antisemitism as well as during the past year on the cost of living crisis. I don’t think we need to have party political loyalties to have something to say on those things.
However, I must admit that if anything, it was Peter’s articles that I found perplexing. They raised more questions than they answered and I couldn’t help wonder if he was being entirely fair. I would sum up the full list of questions under two header questions:
- What is not being said?
- Who is not saying it?
What is not being said?
Have a look at the lengthy list of issues that Peter mentions in his article. First of all, it is worth noting that there are things not on the list. Where for example is the issue of antisemitism and concerns that antisemitic conspiracy theories have moved far too close to the centre of public life? What about the cost of living crisis with impact on fuel and food poverty? What about the demonstrations in Tehran or what has been happening in Hong Kong over a number of years. Or what about the recent football world cup in a country with a notorious human rights record?
Secondly, there are issues on the list where Christians have been speaking out persistently and noisily for some time. Let me give two issues. First, there’s the issue of Climate Change. However, it seems that Peter has a specific and different perspective on this. His article questions some of the measures used to combat it. That is of course the challenge, there will be differences of opinion on such things.
More confusingly, he begins by talking about Ukraine. Now, voices have been loud and clear over the past year or so. I was a bit concerned in the early days that some might sit on the fence between the right of a nation to self determination and the self-justification of Putin’s tyrannical regime but I think that increasingly, here in the UK, Christian leaders have grasped the seriousness of the matter and the importance of being on the side of those attacked by genocidal tyrants. So, what is it that we’ve been failing to say about Ukraine? I honestly don’t know.
Thirdly, there are a few examples of generalised, unspecific or unspelt out concerns that provoke more questions. To give three examples, first there’s the description of a fourth industrial revolution bringing in the kinds of changes attacked as conspiracy theories in the past. Which conspiracy theories have been proven true?
Second, Peter talks about protests alleging election fraud in various countries and claims that those making the assertions are labelled “a threat to democracy.” Now, for as long as I’ve been alive, there have been issues about election fraud in various countries around the world as well as other examples of corruption, breaches of human rights etc. And for as long as I can remember, there have been Christians and others speaking up about such issues. So which are the countries and who is it that has attempted to silence protestors as “election deniers”? The language here sounds a little close to the kind of language banded about by those disputing Donald Trump’s election defeat in the US back in 2020. Given that at no point in the past 4 or 5 years was there any indication that Donald Trump commanded the majority of the popular vote, given the sources of such claims and given the behaviour of Trump and his supporters, including the Capitol Hill riots, it is not surprising that such conspiracy theories have not been treated seriously. I presume and hope that Peter isn’t talking about Trump. So which elections have we been perplexingly silent given that we cannot possibly keep up with what is happening in all places and at all times?
Third, Peter claims that there has been silence from us on the number of excess deaths this year following the pandemic. Well, apart from the fact that the actual reasons here are potentially complex and require a level of expertise in medical science that most of us do not have, I’m not sure how we are meant to wade into that debate -although it is a debate that is clearly happening. And here’s the thing, yes there’s a discussion happening right now but there are also people speaking with dogmatic certainty at the fringes. On one extreme is the Zero-COVID lobby who are pushing hard the claim that excess deaths now are a result of COVID itself attacking our immune systems or of undetected variants. At the other extreme are those seeking to blame the vaccines for further deaths now. Then in between are those who have persistently argued that there was always going to be a risk due to delayed medical treatment, suppression of other illnesses etc. In fact the latter is pretty uncontroversial.
The question is whether or not this means that lockdowns did more harm than good. It would be good for Peter to clarify what it is that he thinks Christians have been failing to speak up on here. This is particularly important because in fact, local church pastors have at times been under significant pressure and harassment within their churches in ways that sometimes cross over into what we can only call bullying and abuse because members of their churches believe they have failed to believe and say the right things here -either they’ve not been prepared to go along with a zero-covid or an anti-vax agenda. It’s my view that in fact, there has at times been a little too much carelessness from Christian thought leaders on blogs and social media about how they’ve given airtime to those two extremes and I personally think this has given permission for the kinds of behaviours we have seen in local churches.
And there is the problem when we throw up generalised lists of complaints, they are open to confusion and misunderstanding. Peter’s list includes specific moral/ethical issues where Christians should and do have clear views and where there is already a significant level of public unity. It also includes issues which I think align with a particular libertarian viewpoint. Now, Libertarianism is one specific philosophy, not necessarily right or wrong but one that Christians will differ over. Then there are items on his list open to interpretation and misuse by those with a very different agenda to the one we have as ministers of the Gospel, ideas and narratives that Pete would want to have nothing to do with and wouldn’t want Christian leaders to be giving voice to but sadly narratives that have been given a lot of fuel over the past few years.
I would encourage Peter to revisit his list and focus in on one or two specific examples, show what the issues are -with evidence and explain why Christians need to be more vocal.
Who isn’t speaking?
It’s worth starting by looking at who Peter says is speaking. He quotes Owen Strachan as listing a number of conservative social commentators who are speaking up where Christians should be. Now let’s not beat about the bush here. If you say that those people are communicating “the hard truths” then you are not saying that they are provocative and worthy of an audience even though we may disagree with much that they are saying. By referring to their commentary as “the hard truth” and by insisting that they are saying what we should be saying, you are indicating a level of agreement with their analysis. For me, it’s not that the people on the list (including Owen Strachan himself) are offering the hard truths where we should be because we have something more and better to say. It’s that their analysis is itself faulty and as much as I disagree with the solutions and “gospels” offered by the political left, so too I disagree with those offered by the political right, including Libertarians.
However, I have further questions. You see, when Peter says that there’s been a perplexing silence, who does he have in his sights? Do Christian thought leaders stay away from these issues? Well, have a read of the main Christian magazines, read the blogs, have a look at the books being published and I have to say I’m unconvinced that there’s been a perplexing silence. Whether it’s the edgier stuff from the Wee Flea, engagement from bloggers including Steve Kneale, Andrew Wilson or Ian Paul, the contributions of people like Graham Nicholls of Affinity on news channels or the FIEC’s podcast, the reality is that evangelicals are engaging the political and cultural issues.
So, what does Peter mean when he says that we are silent? Is he referring to what we say in our pulpits? Well perhaps we need a bit more analysis and discussion about how we engage public theology issues in our preaching.
Or is it what we are saying on social media? Peter talks about monitoring his feed. I wonder whether this is a fair assessment. It assumes that the purpose of our social media feeds is for us to comment on every issue that might be happening. Yet Christians are on social media for all kinds of reasons. This applies as much to national leaders as to individual Christians.
Then when we get to Peter’s final post, he talks about the reasons why people are silent and he talks in terms of fear of upsetting people in our own or in other churches. The implication does seem to be that he has ordinary pastors in his sights. This is where I have a concern. The point about most local pastors is that they do not have the platforms of book contracts, magazine slots or even in most cases, believe it or not blogs and social media accounts. So, we simply cannot second guess what each pastor is doing in his local sphere.
This is the kind of blanket complaint that tars a lot of people with the same brush without evidence that helps no-one. It puts a burden onto pastors that Christ has not put.
This is, I fear, another example of what Brett McCracken picked up on here and I commented on further, here. We get blanket statements on social media because pastors are expected to comment on everything and to live up to expectations set from outside of Scripture.
I’m not sure whether there really has been a perplexing silence from us. Have some people said less than they could have on some issues? Should the church have given more attention to specific cultural and ethical challenges? Quite probably and that’s always been so. We constantly hit the wall of our finitude. Do we need a proper conversation about how we engage the culture of our day? Yes we certainly do. However, I’m nor convinced that Peter has provided a compelling case that that there is a perplexing silence.