This Present Darkness: A Reflection On The Futility of Culture War Rhetoric

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December 18, 2012 by fjmorgan

There is a lot of talk in Evangelical Christian circles about “being at war with American culture,” about how Christians need to flex their political muscle to “make America a Christian nation again.”  Much of this rhetoric is couched in the language of warfare and positions the church over against the indigenous culture in which is manifested.  But I wonder, does the Bible actually present the kingdom of God or the vocation of the church in this way, or is this the residual rhetoric of Constantinian Christendom, some sort of imperialistic hangover?

To be sure, there is warfare language in the New Testament, but how is it applied?  Is it applied to cultures, governments, or the other structures of the world?  Let’s consider, for example, one of the famous warfare passages from Ephesians: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12 ESV).

Note first, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood.”  But aren’t cultures embodied in people of flesh and blood?  If so, the church cannot be called to prosecute a war against culture.  In fact, the text is completely clear about whom this war is to be waged against: “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Cosmic powers, spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places, but certainly not people or culture.

So what other type of language does Scripture use to explain how the kingdom of God is to engage the various kingdoms of this world?  Interestingly enough, it uses language that is highly political: the language of diplomacy.  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 ESV).

This word “ambassador” is of particular significance.  The Greek word is presbeuo (πρεσβεύω) and in the first century it was a technical term used for Caesar’s ambassadors or legates (the equivalent of the Latin tem legatus).  Consequently, when Paul says that we are “ambassadors for Christ,” it indicates that we are to function as His diplomats.  Following this logic, the church then functions as an embassy for the kingdom of God, a diplomatic presence in “this present darkness,” an embassy on foreign soil, as it were.  But do kingdoms maintain embassies in the midst of nations with whom they are at war?  Of course not!  In fact, the first order of business when two nations are engaged in the hostility of warfare is to call their diplomats home and close their respective embassies. The fact that Christians continue to be embedded in the various cultures and kingdoms of the world indicates that Christians are nowhere in the posture of warfare, but everywhere in the posture of diplomacy. [1]

Likewise, in times of peace, is an ambassador interested in transforming the culture of the foreign nation where he or she serves, in trying to force the cultural values of his or her homeland on the foreign state?  Other than in extreme cases of ethnocentrism or imperial hegemony (both of which are in contradiction with Scripture), this is not how ambassadors operate.  As John Howard Yoder explains, “Christians are able to follow Jesus only because they have experienced forgiveness and can depend on the power of the Holy Spirit.  People for whom these preconditions are not met cannot possibly be disciples of Jesus on their own account.  It would be utopian to expect a Christian life from them, and unloving and legalistic to demand it.”[2]

So, if we are to act as ambassadors, conducting kingdom business from an embassy embedded on foreign soil, what is the message we are to carry to the foreign nationals?  Is it one of warfare and hostility?  Is it one of cultural or even political transformation?  Again, if we simply allow the text to speak for itself, we find that the message with which we have been entrusted is not a one of hostility, condemnation, or transformation, but a message of reconciliation.  This is the message: that in Christ, God was not declaring war on the world but reconciling it to Himself.  This, my friends, is the gospel (another politically charged term), not that we have loved God and went to war for Him, but that He loved us and sent His Son to die for us (cf. 1Jn 4:10).

Consequently, Christians are to embody the values of an alternative kingdom in the midst of a fallen world.  Rather than spending our energies trying to transform the various cultures and kingdoms of the world, we are to embody the culture and political reality of the kingdom of God and, in effect, to invite foreign nationals to expatriate by transferring their allegiance to a new kingdom.  Admittedly, this is highly subversive conduct for an ambassador, in fact, conduct that will likely lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous situations, perhaps even to physical death.

This being the case, perhaps Evangelicals should consider putting an end to culture war rhetoric.  If bad, even horrific things happen in public schools because “we’ve systematically removed God” from them[3] (as if somehow a Supreme Court decision can realistically impact the omnipresence of God), then how do we explain the countless cases of children who have been molested in churches, or the murders and other tragic events that have occurred in church buildings?  Is it because God wasn’t there?  No, it is solely because the kingdom of God has not yet been consummated and evil is still afoot in this present darkness.

Consequently, perhaps rather than enlisting as combatants, Christians should take their stands as conscientious objectors in the culture wars.  Perhaps we should redeploy our energies, resources, and rhetoric in ways that are more concerned with changing hearts than in changing public policy.  Perhaps we should drop the rhetoric of cultural condemnation and transformation, and take up the message of reconciliation, for after all, while we were in open hostility to and rebellion against God, while our allegiance was to “this present darkness,” while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).

Amen and peace be with you.


[1] Incidentally, the kingdom of God is the only political entity which when subjected to the hostility of open warfare, does not close its embassy.  On the contrary, it sends more diplomats to the point of conflict.

[2] Yoder, John Howard. Discipleship as Political Responsibility. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003. Pg. 41.

[3] Fox News interview with Mike Huckabee, December 13, 1012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXQ-uo8UVws

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