As we enter 2021, what lessons can we learn when we look back on the events in 2020? I would suggest the most powerful lesson from 2020 was the fragmenting of how people arrive at something being true. As a matter of fact, I believe the social upheaval that we experienced in 2020 was the latest movement in a glacier-like drift that has been in process over the last 400 years. Within the cultural clashes of 2020, we experienced a front-row seat on the very re-shaping of ethics in America.
That is a big assertion! Why do you say this?
Before the 17th century, the notion of “truth” and the ethics in western civilization found its anchor in the belief of a transcendent, moral, and law-giving God. The label assigned to this period of time is known as “premodern.” Over time, the premodern approach conflicted with the discoveries made by science. Therefore, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the notion of truth shifted into the sphere of science, the material world. The word “modernism” encapsulates this period of change. However, modernism was found insufficient in addressing the human experience in areas such as grief, heartache, love, and the like. Simply put, science could not navigate the complexities of the human experience. Something more was needed. From the end of the 19th century to our day, the arbiter of truth shifted to the individual. We now live in the period of time known as “postmodernism.”
What difference does this make?
With the individual now determining what is or is not the “truth,” people experience the fragmenting of knowing right from wrong. Undoubtedly, you have witnessed this effect when a person declares his or her sexual identity? Never mind that chromosomes determine one’s sexual identity according to biology; a person can now determine what is true for themself. Prior to the last few years, all civilizations have identified the truth of maleness and femaleness through obvious physical characteristics. This truth has been factually known since the dawn of time and even codified in the scientific realm of biology. However, if a notion or feeling has risen to the same level as factual truth, how can they be wrong? This new “freedom to choose” has inspired some to replace proper names with pronouns, to choose a public bathroom according to their preferred identity, and biological males can now wipe the floor with biological females in athletic competitions ranging from track to weight-lifting. These examples point to the effect of postmodernism in our society, where the individual is now sovereign over all, including reality itself.
This doesn’t affect society as a whole, does it?
During this past year, I can think of two culture-wide manifestations in which people actually created truth. The first would be the tearing down of statues featuring our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. Images of Lincoln that once heralded inspiration to pursue “virtues of tolerance, honesty, and constancy in the human spirit.” Without discovering a hidden speech or any new information as to something Lincoln believed, a group of rogue individuals chose to tear down statues of Lincoln. The reason? Statues of Lincoln were “demeaning and racist.” Really? How can a bronze figure demean someone? What is the racist message emanating from the image of a man that emancipated thousands of African people? The only way an individual can arrive at this conclusion is by believing something to true in their mind over what is manifestly true according to reality. Only by elevating one’s thoughts to this level and then re-forming reality in the mind is it possible to re-define the very person and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. In effect, the basis for “knowing” Lincoln was a racist relied solely on what these people felt was true with no evidence whatsoever. With the tearing down of Lincoln’s statue(s), we beheld an epistemological waterloo in which how people arrive at the truth can be re-defined according to what a person feels is true. Since the social activists were permitted to get away with these actions and as lemming-like people mindlessly follow along, we will see an uptick in explicit demands, protests turning violent, the censorship of conflicting voices, and corporations being held hostage to the will of the elite mob (e.g. NFL, NBA, etc.).
The second example would be the conflation of various acts of [perceived] injustice combined with the almost instantaneous broadcast of those events without the benefit of context or extenuating details. These two co-joined forces led people
must occur to serve “social-justice.” Nothing I am saying should be taken as a dismissal in seeking justice. The solitary point I am making is that the conclusion of what constitutes “social-justice” by a vast amount of people was based on a minimal amount of information and yet has been embraced as being absolutely true. No doubt a trip into Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Kenosha, Wisconsin or Seattle, Washington would reveal many examples of injustice done in the very name of social justice. How could it be that people can loot and burn based on the circumstantial details within a 5-minute soundbite or the monologue of a late-night personality? Regardless of what occurred, the broadcast of partial “facts” and incomplete details managed to convince millions of people to embrace a conclusion as to what was “true.” The actions of violent protestors were justified based on what they knew to be true.
Do Definitions Matter?
As cities burned, “social-justice warriors” began to pronounce a justification for their many acts of injustice in one word – “racism.” From nightly talk-shows to early morning news updates, “racism” was batted back-n-forth as a sufficient reason to explain everything from inner-city poverty to “white-privilege” prosperity. No one could escape the “eye of Sauron” like gaze… even people who thought they weren’t racist needed to re-examine themselves. Soon videos surfaced of white-people – heads swimming in a mixture of confusion and misplaced guilt, bowing before African-Americans in an attempt to appease what was tantamount to bloodguilt for the racism of decades gone by. Yet, in all the reports, I never heard a host or guest challenge the definition of racism. Merriam-Webster defines racism as: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Who is claiming superiority between races? How exactly do the actions of some police officers rise to the level of “white supremacy?” After all, weren’t some police officers involved in African-American? Did you ever see anyone raise this concern?
Given the dictionary definition of racism was out of step with the activist on the street, the word was given a new definition rooted in “unfair advantages” that [all] white people enjoy by the very fact that they are white. In making this definitional change, the dialogue never needed to explore the extenuating circumstances related to any “racist” act. What was simply needed and now demanded was the eradication of racism through social-justice. Racism was now defined according to what the activists themselves believed to be true and “social justice” became the rallying cry of the moment. Therefore, without definitional boundaries, the administering of “social justice” will be determined by whoever is in power.
As 2020 unfolded, the cultural elite force-fed our country that racism was the source of all our social ills – everything from poverty to policing. Across the sports world, names and messages were painted on football fields and NBA floors, on helmets and jerseys. The legitimacy of the message or the innocence of the name on the helmet or jersey didn’t matter as much as the goal – to eradicate “racism.” Those who dared question the legitimacy of the movement was instantly marginalized and “canceled,” dismissed from the conversation since they are racist themselves.
Now that truth is determined by the individual, theft, violence, looting, riots, and the like can be justified on whatever grounds a person wants to choose, whatever justification the individual believes to be true. This is precisely why standards such as laws have become a target. Law is more than a civic standard, it is a line of demarcation between right and wrong within society. Consider the example of “police-free” zones. When rogue citizens take on the role of “creator-god of truth,” the law is no longer needed and only serves to obstruct “social-progress”… so says the mob. In effect, civil law diminishes the mob’s ability to define reality as they have determined it to be and anyone who opposes them must be “canceled.”
How did we get here?
Something much larger is in play in our culture, the very notion of how we determine what is true. Why? Truth is no longer the pursuit of knowing what reality is, but how reality should be seen due to what an individual or group thinks. Reality has been detached from the maker of reality – God Himself. The absolute ethics of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and untruth have been diminished and this slide will continue… and get worse. in short, Western culture is fragmenting along the fault-line of knowing what truth even is.
Where do we go from here?
In 2021, the two character traits that will make all the difference will be discernment and courage. Discernment is “the ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.” To see beyond the events of the day and recognize the underlying sources as to why those events are happening. For instance, in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulled back the curtain that hid the Wizard so that Dorthy could see who was pushing and pulling the levers that created the chaos in front of her. Courage is “the strength of mind to carry on in the face of danger.” Discernment helps us accurately know circumstances while courage helps us respond to those circumstances accordingly. The cultural upheaval of 2020 was dreadfully absent of both. For churches as a whole, discernment and courage will distinguish between being healthy or unhealthy in the coming decade and beyond. The forces that are shaping the cultural landscape of America have no consistent or reliable basis in truth, only a thirst for power and control. It is from within this context that followers of Jesus Christ will either stand strong or fold like a cheap suit.
Where will you stand in 2021?
Discernment and taking a courageous stand against falsehood will be difficult and costly. When we take our stand on the authority of God’s Word, we will simultaneously be declaring what is and is not true AND extending a hand of compassion toward those who are drowning in the sea of moral confusion. We will be able to stand against the sin of racism and manipulation and race-baiting and sex-trafficking and all forms of violence against fellow image-bearers. Jesus is the embodiment of truth America needs desperately. Followers of Jesus Christ have the high ground of hope. After all, Jesus declared:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”John 14:6