This article was published as “Spiritual Warfare” by 4Marks magazine on May 1, 2007. I offer it here as an expression of a growing concern. Abortion is a major battle front, but it is by no means the only engagement we face, even on a daily basis. I reprint it here to serve as a foundation for other upcoming observations I anticipate writing about in coming weeks. – Laura
Fighting the Good Fight
Living as a countercultural people
We are at war. No, not the war that is on the evening news each day, centered in Iraq and Afghanistan; this is a war closer to home, engaging each and every person – with dire and mortal consequences.
It is a war for our immortal souls – and the battleground is our minds.
In the early years of the Christian era, Christians were a decidedly unpopular minority in the known Western world. Their presence was uncomfortable to the status quo; they worshipped a single God who, they insisted, had become man, died and rose again. They rejected the myriad of local deities, so when trouble fell on a city the Christians could be blamed for having offended the gods. In Rome, where the Emperor was deemed a god, the Christians’ refusal to pay homage in the accepted ways became a much more personal offense.
In those early days, Christians were scorned, persecuted, arrested… and condemned to death. Atrocious, horrific deaths.
Out of this hostile climate, the apostles’ writings were easily accessible as more than simple metaphor: fighting the fight, wearing the armor of Christ, engaging in spiritual warfare. The images used by St. Paul in particular provided a multi-dimensional reality easily applicable to the spiritual life; the spiritual and the physical were very much integrated.
When a person from a pagan culture became a Christian, the conversion was a complete turn-around from his former life. Nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians. Corinth was such an infamous center of moral depravity that even the pagan classical world vilified the most outrageous depravities by associating those behaviors with “playing the Corinthian.”
Yet Corinthians came to Christ and were transformed (I. Cor. 6:9-11)
With the Christian conversion of the Emperor Constantine, circa 312, things began to change. Christians were no longer vilified and persecuted but were recognized as respectable members of society. The Christian influence began to spread throughout the world, above ground and in broad daylight rather than in stealth among the catacombs. The Christian worldview became the socially accepted norm throughout much of Western Civilization for the next 1800 years.
It seems that the pinnacle of a Christian world would have coincided with the Victorian era, when European colonization of Africa and Asia opened the remaining “dark continents” to the infusion of the gospel – by Catholics as well as Protestants – where it had not traveled before (or at least not in many centuries). This was an era in which all decent people were expected to be churchgoers, regardless of their denomination or sect. Laws governing morality were solidly based on the Ten Commandments, and social mores conformed to Judeo-Christian morality, at least publicly.
Of course, this Christian influence has not been without challenge or opposition. Whereas in the apostolic age embracing the Christian faith literally meant embracing a likely death sentence, when Christianity became socially legitimated, it became possible for people to profess a faith they didn’t actually hold. Moreover, throughout history dissenting voices were raised in various cultures and in various ways. Selfish hedonism existed side by side with monastic asceticism. Chaucer’s friar rode side by side with the monk and the young theology student. Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Galileo – philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment – were contemporaries of St. Francis de Sales. Yet Judeo-Christian moral and religious values had become the defining elements of civilized society.
Then, in the Victorian era, that pinnacle of Christian socialization and reform, of manners and decency, German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, set the world on its ear by declaring “God is dead.”
It didn’t matter that Nietzsche was on the brink of insanity or that he died in a lunatic asylum; the boldness, the defiance of his statement caught like wildfire. Marxism appealed to a different sort of rebellion. God began to become unpopular again, as first the intellectual elite and then the moral reformers (like Margaret Sanger) became bolder and more outspoken in their contempt for the Christian faith and its accompanying morality.
World War I left many artists and philosophers disillusioned, and their works reflect their anguish at the state of the world. The concept of a Post-Christian era was raised very quickly; Ezra Pound dated his Post-Christian calendar from October 31, 1921, the date James Joyce finished Ulysses.
It takes time for ideas to filter from the elitists to the masses, however; among many sociologists and theologians, the consensus seems to be that the decline of Christian influence on the world reached its crisis point when the Anglican Church stood as the first religious body to formally acquiesce on the issue of contraception. Until that time, all Christian peoples and churches had deplored the use of contraception as a dire opposition to the will of God. From that point, society began a rapid descent into socially accepted depravity.
Somehow, throughout the modern era, good Christian people have stood quietly by and allowed the whole fabric of our society to be undermined by people holding a worldview hostile to Christianity. We have allowed those hostile to religion to dictate to us how we may or must act in the name of “love,” and we have tragically acquiesced. We have allowed ourselves as a culture to adopt a quietism or passivity that has spread as a sort of moral anesthesia even among Christians.
Our entertainments – movies, radio, television – have injected new situations and attitudes into the culture. New norms of morality have been introduced and effected a major cultural paradigm shift, by sheer dent of audience numbers.
And this has happened because good Christian people have been lulled to sleep by an obscene, pagan idea: I have my truth, you have your truth, and it is incumbent upon you to be “nice” to me and let me have my way. You, Christian people, have to be “nice,” and let me do what I want, without criticism. And so evil has again come to dominate the world and our culture, causing us to have more in common with the pagan world than with the culture my parents knew when they died in 1991.
I can by no means provide an exhaustive list of the indicators and consequences of the change in our cultural paradigm, but I do offer for your consideration the following:
• The development of multiple means of artificial birth control and the overwhelming cultural acceptance of those means, which have combined to remove sex from the realm of marriage and procreation and to place it in the exploitive arena of depersonalized recreation.
• Legalized abortion, on demand and unrestricted throughout the duration of a pregnancy.
• Euthanasia, presented as a “compassionate choice” to end suffering of the terminally ill or seriously injured. (This is also known as “terminal medication.”)
• Overall lack of respect for the aged and infirm and a tendency to get them “out of the way” through institutionalized “homes.” This is also leading to an increased acceptance and practice of euthanasia.
• The simultaneous masculinization and cultural objectification of women through the misguided manipulations of radical feminism and the mass marketing of pornography.
• A glorification of homosexuality, to the point of “legalization” of gay marriage and adoption and the establishment of gay student organizations, even on high school campuses.
• A love of violence as entertainment. Our movies, television shows, and much of our popular music (rock and hiphop, especially) thrive on the portrayal and prescription of violence as a solution to conflict and personal dissatisfaction..
• A growing verbal violence through the acceptance of profanity in our entertainments and, consequently, in our public conversations.
• A love of the sensational – for example, the celebrity cult. For years, actors and actresses had to adhere to strict “morality clauses” in their contracts; now, the tabloids are filled with the irresponsible exploits of celebrities. Once characters who sinned eventually faced the consequences of their wrong-doing (think of Greta Garbo’s Camille); now all manner of sin and aberration is touted as glamorous and desirable, a normal part of culture and of a “healthy” and glamorous life.
• The vilifying of religion and religious. Formerly, Hollywood treated religion with respect (think of Boys Town, I Confess, and other movies strongly featuring religious characters and themes); now the religious are often the villains, or at least maladjusted foils in the movies in which they appear.
• A cultural ridiculing of traditional moral values. It is not enough that “alternatives” are presented to the nonbeliever; now Christian people must be ridiculed and insulted for holding fast to traditional moral values such as chastity, celibacy, sobriety, and simplicity.
• The promotion of worldly acquisitiveness and valuation and the elevation of the material over the spiritual.
• The dramatic decline of academic standards in our schools and the resulting decline in young people’s ability to engage in rational thought and make responsible, informed, considered decisions. We are raising generations of children that will blindly follow where the “experts” tell them they should go.
• The increased love of the banal and mediocre. Look again at our entertainments and see where there is any genuine talent, ability, or artistry to be found in them. Sarcasm increasingly passes as humor (thank you, Roseanne) and sentimentality passes for wisdom (thank you, Oprah).
• Instant gratification is expected as our native birthright.
• The growing contempt for menial labor and for those who perform it.
• The forced removal of prayer from our public schools.
• The revision of American history to whitewash over the influence of the pursuit of religious freedom in the population and founding of our nation. A growing number of high school graduates do not know that our celebration of Thanksgiving has anything whatsoever to do with God or the pursuit of religious freedom.
• The denial of the influence of the Ten Commandments on law and social policy, manifested by the forced removal of the Ten Commandments from the public venue, such as our area courthouses.
• The forced removal of Nativity scenes from community and public buildings, in the name of “freedom from religion.”
There’s a story that has been around for years: you can place a frog in a pan of cold water that is slowly brought to boil while the frog complacently adapts to his environment – until it kills him. The analogy is frighteningly apt. Ninth grade students reading Elie Wiesel’s Night are appalled at how the Jews of Germany, Poland, and other parts of Europe refused to believe the warnings sent to them by witnesses of Nazi atrocities against their people. “That’s dumb!” they say almost as one voice.
Yet such complacency, such disbelief, is our own sin. We have allowed atrocity to build on top of atrocity and we have not stood in the gap and cried “Foul!”
In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, President Bush stood before our nation and warned us that the war we had entered into, on terrorism, would be exceedingly difficult precisely because it is a war against an attitude, a philosophy of destruction, and not a sovereign nation or specific king. In the same way, we as Christian people are called to be engaged in a battle for souls – a battle not against individual men and women or armies, but, against attitudes and philosophical constructs that lead to the injury and destruction of the immortal soul:
St. Paul urged the Ephesians: “… 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 the 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….” (Eph. 6:10-13)
A deceitful view of the truth, common in our culture, says that all opinions have equal value, all ideologies are of equal merit. This is a worldview that tells us it doesn’t matter what we think, what we do, or how we live.
After all, it whispers and sometimes shouts, God only wants us to be happy!
No, dear friends. God does not want us to be superficially “happy.” God wants us to be good, so that we can be supremely happy with Him through all eternity.
Despite what we have been told by prevailing “wisdom” – which insists that I have “my truth” and you have “your truth” – there is only one Truth – and it is revealed to all of human history through the Person of Jesus Christ and through the agency of His Church. The issue is whether we are going to be faithful and obedient to the Truth or whether we are going to, by default, become complicit with the Enemy. We must recognize this and adapt our attitudes accordingly. There will be no middle ground.
We are called to be a countercultural people, in the world but not of it. This is not a popular or easy path. It means that we have to be engaged – deliberately engaged – in trying to know and to conform ourselves to a standard of thought, conduct, and feeling that the world is telling us is old-fashioned, archaic, and even repressive. It will require the engagement of all three of those dimensions – thought, conduct, and feeling – to combat the evil in our midst.
When we were baptized into the Church, into the Christian faith, we received, as Paul says, our adoption as joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8: 15). We are now citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven – in exile in this world, but eagerly awaiting our call Home, where we belong with Him. He is our Heavenly Father, but He is also our King. We are called to honor the laws, customs, and loyalties of our Homeland, even while we are in exile, as did the Children of Israel during their exile to Babylon. Like them, we are strangers and sojourners, having relinquished citizenship in this world in exchange for a Heavenly citizenship; we must therefore honor our first loyalty to God.
This loyalty is not popular in the world. Our eccentricity points out the destructiveness of a worldly, pagan culture and makes its residents uncomfortable. We will face a lot of misguided but well-intentioned opposition and downright hostility. The Enemy of our souls will make many attempts to get us to renounce our identity as sons and daughters of God.
The means he will use are manifold. Each of us has his particular weakness – lust, love of wealth and luxuries, self-aggrandizement, love of power – and it is to these that the Enemy appeals to us as individuals. What tempts me to stray from fidelity to Our Lord may not be what tempts you, and it hardly matters; the Enemy will address us personally.
We must begin our defense against the Enemy, and our offense against his domination of our culture, by changing our minds; old attitudes, the old complacency, will not do for us any longer.
It is astonishing to see how many verses in the Scriptures directly address the issue of our thoughts, our minds, and our orientation in the world but not of it:
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds – (Rom. 12:2)
Whatsoever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. (Phil. 4:8)
Be not conformed to this world… (Rom 12:2)
Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility to God? (James 4:4)
Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. (I John 2:15)
As we change our attitudes, our ideas, we must also take action.
We must never grow weary of defending the defenseless by our opposition to abortion, euthanasia, cloning, and embryonic stem cell exploitation. That is obvious – but it is only a beginning. We must also defend the dignity and worth of all human life, in the aged, the infirm, the culturally and socio-economically deprived.
We must also defend what is decent and honorable in our culture and oppose all that is mediocre, salacious, and banal. As inconvenient as it is, as bitterly uncomfortable as it makes us, we must face head-on the fact that our culture is becoming desensitized to sin – just like the frog in the pot of water. The mediocre and banal – if not the utterly salacious – entertainments that we feel entitled to enjoy are like a termite infestation eroding the moral and spiritual fiber of our culture.
We must not make excuses for careless self-indulgence. When we engage in activities, recreations, and conversations that make a mockery of the best of our identity as Christians, particularly as Catholics, we give that round of battle to the Enemy. It’s no good saying of a television show that glamorizes adultery or violence, “Oh, it’s just TV, it doesn’t really matter.” It matters a great deal; TV and other mass entertainments have been a primary means of desensitizing the culture to sin, evil, and coarseness.
Parents, particularly, must be diligent to protect the minds and souls of their children. Catholic parents who allow their children to watch MTV, BET, movies that glorify violence, and other aggressively contemptuous entertainments fail in their duty to train their children’s minds, characters, and consciences. Parents who do not challenge their children’s schools’ use of novels like Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, with its unchallenged contempt for others (both peers and those in positions of authority, particularly for religious), and its masturbatory references, fail in their duty to safeguard the minds and imaginations of their children and to preserve in their communities an adherence to the Christian standards of common decency that have shaped and defined those communities to the present day.
Moreover, we are defending not only our own children, but the children of those parents who are not doing their duty or living as active Christians.
When anti-Christian voices in our communities threaten the values and symbols we hold dear, we have an obligation to raise our voices in protest against the few dominating the many. We have an obligation to remind our elected civic leaders that the Constitution does not support freedom from religion, and that the voice of the majority chooses the policies and representations of our communities.
In every way imaginable, we have an obligation to seek and to conform to godly principles – as citizens, neighbors, and consumers. Our countercultural influence will not be nearly as effective if it is not all-encompassing, to the best of our ability at any given moment in time. What I am prescribing here will be an ongoing, developing endeavor, for the rest of our lives.
Finally, all our actions must be wholly undergirded with prayer. In prayer we touch the Mover of the Cosmos; in prayer we effect networks of change on a grand and an infinitesimal level. Our ideas and our actions become grounded and fused through prayer. Most of all, in prayer we enter God’s own presence – and in that Presence we ourselves are transformed. That ongoing transformation is what makes possible the change in mind, heart, and action we are being called to undertake.
Our culture is no longer dominated or governed by the principles of Judeo-Christian morality. Our identity and our values as Catholics are being challenged with increasing hostility. Battle lines are being drawn more dramatically with every passing week – between the friends of Christ and His enemies. The distinction between darkness and light, right and wrong, is becoming more dramatic.
Complacency will place us in the position of spoiled salt, to be thrown out (Mt. 5:13) or the lukewarm, who will be spit out of His mouth in Judgment (Rev. 3:16).
We truly are at war, as Paul says. – Therefore, grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his power Put on the full armor of God so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics… That is why you must take up all God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance on the evil day, or stand your ground even though you exert yourselves to the full. So stand your ground, with truth a belt around your waist, and uprightness a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to quench the burning arrows of the Evil One. And then you must take salvation as your helmet and the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God. (Eph. 6:10-17)
May He find us faithful to the very end.