Recent months have brought a lively discussion of Christian participation in the culture war. On the one hand, the pro-life movement appears to be making some slow progress on the abortion issue. The trial of abortionist and serial murderer Kermit Gosnell has the potential to awaken those who are nominally pro-choice to the reality of what all abortions are. At the same time, President Obama’s ‘shift’ on same-sex ‘marriage’ has opened the floodgates, and opportunistic politicians are falling all over themselves to be on the ‘right side’ of history. The sad reality is that advocates of the biblical definition of marriage have (for the moment) lost the culture, and a pessimistic reading of the next few years indicates that the political and legal ground will shift as well. My own state just altered the definition of civil marriage so that same-sex couples can now “marry.”
The result has been an intramural debate among supporters of traditional remarriage: Should we make a tactical withdrawal, re-engage with natural law arguments, re-train the cultural imagination through artistic and creative expressions, or some combination of the above? Others are arguing that we should effectively abandon the wider culture war mentality altogether and focus our attention internally, while still others wonder whether we’re entering a season in which God has simply imposed a judicial hardening on our leaders and the wider culture, and our only hope is the Third Great Awakening.[i]
The split between the relative progress on the life issue and the substantial loss on the sexuality issue is a point of tension as we consider strategy. Some no doubt are willing to concede the arena of sexuality in order to throw our energy into winning the culture on life and ending the abortion holocaust. Decoupling abortion from the dead-weight of a losing issue has the potential to win those who are disturbed by Gosnell, but also find same-sex ‘marriage’ perfectly acceptable. Surely the life of the weakest members of the human race ought to be our overriding concern, and if abandoning the definition of marriage gives us a strategic advantage in the fight for life, we ought to take it.
I sympathize with those who would make this argument, yet I question whether it’s actually possible to decouple the issues so neatly. I agree with those who recognize a deep, subterranean thread connecting acceptance of abortion and the promotion of homosexuality (and radical environmentalism for that matter), namely, our culture’s ongoing war with fruitfulness.[ii] Thus, given the rising pressure to embrace all forms of deviant sexuality, I question whether our pro-life arguments are really winning the day, or whether some of those on the other side of the sexual revolution are simply uncomfortable with some of the collateral damage of their ‘victories.’
Which brings me to the present essay. Building on the work of Peter Leithart, I’d like to suggest a biblical-theological strategy for ‘winning’ the culture war (and particularly the battle for the unborn) by making a tactical shift in the other direction. In other words, I want to make an argument for drawing the circle tighter between the life issue and the sexuality issue, for doubling down on our biblical opposition to homosexual practice. Indeed, I’d suggest that we ought to intentionally enlarge the sexuality issue to include the rampant manifestations of heterosexual sin in fornication, adultery, and easy divorce, and that rather than being chastened by our cultural defeats, we ought to be emboldened to speak more clearly and forthrightly about God’s design for human sexuality. And I think we should do so, knowing that it will probably antagonize the wider, unbelieving culture (and its Christian cheerleaders). In making this argument, I should note that at this point, I’m merely proposing it for wider consideration, not planting my flag on a particular tactical hill. With that caveat, let’s move to the reasoning.
The Dilemma of the Longsuffering God
Let me set the biblical-theological issue up this way: one of the challenges faced by Christians who want to wisely and biblically seek cultural change is God’s immense patience and longsuffering. I say this is a challenge, because it can make “interpreting the present time” very difficult. How many of us have looked out at the wider culture and wondered why God doesn’t bring his judgment sooner? 60 million dead babies in this country, 350 million in China, the media’s active complicity in diverting attention from the damning trial of Kermit Gosnell—these horrific realities are why imprecatory psalms exist.
Nevertheless, the fact that such horrific, God-dishonoring, and people-destroying evils continue unabated raises the question of God’s delay in meting out judgment. Many of us accept that God does continue to govern the rise and fall of civilizations and nations, that he does pour out his righteous wrath upon the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, that we can sometimes identify his judgments after the fact (as in the case of Nazi Germany or the American South during the Civil War). However, the vomit-inducing and rage-awakening evil that we witness in our culture and around the world, the approval and promotion of activities that God abhors, and the apparent absence of God’s vindicating justice that throws down the wicked and exalts the humble—these lead some to conclude that God’s ways are entirely inscrutable, that we cannot hope to understand why he brings his vindicating justice at one time and not at another. There is no humanly comprehensible rhyme or reason to God’s judgments, no detectable pattern that would allow us to properly gauge our expectations or shift our strategies as we seek to live faithfully in the world and disciple the nations. In short, the delay of God’s judgment in the midst of horrific evils leaves us with two apparent conclusions: 1) God can and will judge the nations of the world, and 2) we have absolutely no idea when and how he will do it.
A Summary of Leithart’s Taxonomy of Empires
Enter Peter Leithart’s book-length footnote to Defending Constantine. In Part 1 of Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, Leithart provides a survey of the biblical presentation of empires, with a particular focus on the relationship between the two biblical imperialisms: the rebellious imperialism of Babel and the Abrahamic imperium that finds expression first in Israel and then in the church. With respect to the rebels, Leithart distinguishes three types of world empires that compete with the Abrahamic. What follows is a brief summary of Leithart’s categories.
First are Cherubic Guardians, which Leithart refers to Cyrian empires. These are analogous to the Persian empire under Cyrus (thus the name Cyrian), which aided the Jews in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. Such empires are multicultural and multi-confessional, doing justice and protecting the Abrahamic imperium against hostility and persecution. They may be explicitly Christian, manifesting the kind of “Lactantian concord” that was realized to one degree or another in Constantine’s reign. This means no coercive imposition of Christian confession upon unbelievers, but still allows for civic pressure (up to an including a Christianized public square) that expects the gospel to run and be honored in a multi-confessional society in which the governing authorities acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. Cyrian empires may also be non-Christian, displaying a kind of principled pluralism that allows adherents of various religions to freely worship according to their conscience, and in particular allows the saints to worship the living God in Jesus Christ.
Second, Leithart describes Totalizing Babels, illicit empires united by religious and political confession (the “single lip” and “set of words” of Genesis 11:1) and aspiring to global dominance by building a city and a tower against God. A Babelic empire is “a religious project, the political form of an aspiration to divinity…a cooperative venture of ambitious politicians egged on by their cheerleader priests” (8). Babels embody an over-realized eschatology, viewing the empire itself as the end of history. They seek security in centralization and homogeneity, eventually imposing linguistic, cultural, and religious uniformity on their citizens and subjects. Significantly for the purposes of the present essay, Leithart argues that “Babelic empires are founded on the blood of innocents.”
Finally, Leithart describes Ravenous Beasts, predatory empires that demonstrate a violent hostility to the Abrahamic imperium. Beasts are the telos of all unrepentant Babels, the natural terminus of the totalizing and homogenizing principle that operates in them. Babels are intolerant of cultural and religious diversity, and the church’s faithfulness to her Lord inevitably brings her into conflict with Babel. When Babels assault the church, they become Beasts, devouring the saints and drinking their blood (to use the vivid imagery of Revelation 17-18). This assault on God’s people arouses his judgment and he casts down the Beast and the whorish religion that supported it. As Leithart says, “Ironically, bestial empires get tipsy in the very act of drinking the blood of the saints.”
In Leithart’s taxonomy, the fundamental characteristic is the attitude of the empire to the Abrahamic imperium. “The key question for Scripture is, how does this political entity treat the people of God?” The initial promise to Abraham establishes the treatment of Abraham’s offspring as one of the key criteria by which other peoples will be judged. “Nations and kings who bless Abraham will be blessed, whereas those who curse will be cursed.”
This fundamental standard may be the key to unlocking the interpretive dilemma created by God’s longsuffering toward horrific evils. The death of innocents (as in abortion) does provoke God’s wrath, and it will not sleep forever. God gave the Amorites four hundred years to fill up their iniquity before bringing his judgment through Joshua. However, Babels have always been founded on the blood of innocents, and America is just one more in a history of Babels, and the largest Babel at the present moment. The key difference between Babels and Beasts is that “Bestial empires are founded on the blood of the saints.” The Bible seems to suggest that the blood of martyrs fills up the cup of God’s wrath more quickly than the blood of innocents alone. It is this shift—from the blood of innocents to the blood of martyrs—that rouses God’s long-sleeping wrath which throws down the Beast, either through cataclysmic judgment or in massive Spirit-wrought awakening (or perhaps both).
Turning Babel into a Beast
Leithart’s biblical-theological insight—namely, that God is slow to anger when dealing with the slaughter of innocents, but his wrath is quickly kindled and poured out when his people come under attack—may point to a tactical shift in how Christians engage in the culture war. Put simply, if we are deeply grieved by Gosnell’s infanticide, by Planned Parenthood’s bloody clinics that echo with silent screams and by their political and media enablers, and we really want to see God’s justice done with respect to the unborn, then our task as the church is to speak and act so prophetically, clearly, constantly, and creatively that we either a) induce a tidal wave of repentance on the part of our abortion-loving culture, or b) become so odious to the present Babelic State that they turn upon us and awaken the slumbering righteousness of our Bridegroom and Lord. Put another way, the church should openly embrace the fact that the arrival of God’s justice in our day may require the transformation of the American Babel into the American Beast through sustained and relentless prophetic speech and action.
Which brings me to the relationship between pro-life advocacy and the fight over the definition of marriage. Because in the progression outlined above, the particularcause of the Beast’s assault on Abraham’s seed doesn’t factor largely into the equation. Whether the Beast attacks because we refuse to let the Gosnell trial be swept under the rug, or whether he attacks because we continue to insist that homosexual behavior (along with heterosexual immorality) is a sin against the living God is largely irrelevant to arousing God’s protection of his people. In other words, it may be that the best way to hasten the demonstration of God’s righteousness and topple the abortion-regime is to awaken the ire of the unbelieving world by getting under their skin with respect to their sexual-otry, homosexual and otherwise. To put it in biblical terms, if we want God to judge the Herods for their baby-killing, idolatry, and greed, we should never tire of pointing out how offensive it is that he has his brother’s wife (or his wife’s brother, as the case may be). In short, we should endeavor to so speak and act that we soberly but gladly accept that putting an end to the massacre of unborn innocents may require us to get in between the Babel and the innocents, however we can.
In our day and age, sexuality, and particularly the legitimacy and praiseworthiness of homosexual practice, is Babel’s sore spot. In recent weeks, historian Niall Ferguson was shamed into apologizing for saying that John Maynard Keynes’ homosexuality may have affected his economic theory. ESPN apologized because Chris Broussard, one of their analysts and an evangelical, said out loud, in public, and on the air that practicing homosexuality, fornication, and adultery is “walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ.” Nothing stirs up the cultural gatekeepers like unabashed insistence that those who practice sexual immorality will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In light of this, could it be that the best way to hasten the demise of the state-sanctioned slaughter of the unborn is to move God to action through persistent and sustained faithfulness when it comes to sexual ethics? Rather than retreating and re-trenching in the debate over gay marriage, what if we instead expanded the battlefield and launched a wider offensive on issues like fornication, pornography, divorce, adultery, sexual abuse and trafficking, and yes, homosexuality? If recent events are any indication, the fiery trials will increase, and we’ll have the opportunity to testify to our faith in the same way that Jesus, Peter, and Paul did.
The Necessity of a Faithful Church
Of course, such an offensive requires an internal cleansing first; judgment always begins with the household of God. We ought not expect God to rise up to defend his people from bestial empires when we ourselves are playing the harlot. To that end, here are a few suggestions for what such purifying preparation might entail.
First, we need to recover the kind of typological preaching that trains us in the patterns of God’s judgments and helps us to find our place in His story. For example, in 1-2 Kings God is patient with Israel and Judah for the sake of Abraham and David. In other words, God delays judgment on a wicked generation out of respect for the faithfulness of their fathers. Likewise, God may be withholding judgment upon us for the sake of our fathers, who walked before him in righteousness. Or again, if America is Israel under Ahab (analogically speaking), what should the church do? For starters, let’s not bow the knee to Baal in hopes of winning Baalists to our side. Instead, we ought to provide for the sons of the prophets in any way we can, and wait for the opportunity to stand on Mount Moriah and stare down the Beast and his Whorish Religion. We ought to be preparing for that day, living in fellowship and communion with God, so that when God gives us the clean shot, we take it, and fire falls from heaven as our prayers prove to powerful in their working.
Second, we should reestablish explicit moral instruction, especially regarding sexual ethics, in church membership classes. Prospective church members should recognize that joining Christ’s body requires the death of their sexual immorality, the crucifixion of the old man with his passions and desires. Such instruction must be coupled with enforcement of church discipline for unrepentant sexual immorality. We can’t offer healing to the world, if we are sick and unwilling to take the medicine ourselves.
Third, we must train the next generation to face persecution and martyrdom the same way that Jesus and the apostles did: enduring for the joy set before them, and expressing that joy in chains with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We need a good dose of Narnian kingship: “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”[iii] First in, last out, laughing loudest: that’s just the sort of glad-hearted, sacrificial responsibility that we need today.
Having done that, we should then begin to alter the sorts of questions that dominate our discussions of what it means to faithfully proclaim the truth. Instead of mainly asking, “How can we speak and live so that the world will listen?”, what if we asked “How can we speak and live so that God will act?” Instead of worrying about being counted worthy of respect in the eyes of the world, what if we labored to be men of whom the world is not worthy, living in such a way that God is not ashamed to be called our God? Instead of mainly pondering how to persuade a godless and passions-enslaved people that sex belongs in monogamous marriage and only monogamous marriage, what if we labored to faithfully and forthrightly declare the word of God concerning his design for sexuality: that marriage is one man, one woman, one lifetime, to display the riches and glory of Christ and his church, until the Great Day that we join in the Wedding Supper of the Lamb?
I realize that this program may not be popular. Some may wonder if it’s really gotten as bad as all that. I don’t make this suggestion lightly. I have no desire to raise my children in a land ruled by a Ravenous Beast. But as believers in Jesus Christ, we ought not fear God’s judgment. As Doug Wilson recently reminded his congregation, “Judgment is not something going wrong—it is what happens when things are put right.” Like the members of the Hall of Faith in the Letter to the Hebrews, we do not choose the times in which we live. Some of them conquered kingdoms and stopped the mouth of lions through their faith. Others were mocked, flogged, mistreated, afflicted, and tortured for their faith. Perhaps in our day God intends to accomplish the former by his people’s faithful endurance of the latter. Either way, may God give a greater grace.
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.
[i] For those interested in the online discussions, see Peter Leithart at First Things, Brad Littlejohn at Mere Orthodoxy, Greg Forster at The Gospel Coalition, a series of posts by Alasdair Roberts at Calvinist International (here, and here), as well as all of the links contained in those posts. They ought to keep you busy for a while.