We headed for church this morning to celebrate the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men to worship the Christ Child, the following of the star to the manger. We drove through a thick fog, a bone-chilling fog. The damp fit my mood, as I reflected on the horrific massacres of this past week. For wildfires breached once again the fire trail of Western civilization. The barbarians entered the gates of Paris and the free world. Where was that Epiphany star?
The killers were attacking the West by trying to silence us. I, for one, prefer logical debate to satire, respect to ridicule. It troubles me when Christian images are ridiculed and defiled; I know how it feels. But we in the West discuss our differences in peaceful forums.
Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
“Without free speech no difference of opinion can be resolved, no progress made in the law or in politics, no truth found and held high, no scandal unearthed and stopped…We know on some level that this is how civilization keeps itself together.”
So the issue in the Paris massacre is not that the publisher should have been more restrained. The cartoonists were not “at fault” for their caricatures. The issue is how civil society deals with disagreement. We do not grab a rifle and shoot. We express our grievances through debate, speech, the courts.
Clearly terrorists who kill in the name of their god do not agree with our laws, or how we choose to redress insults. They are not interested in converting us to their beliefs through debate and apologetics. They are interested in forcing our submission, and submission is not peace. Submission is not freedom. We in the West honor freedom.
There are many trends in Western culture that I find disturbing, and so I wrote a novel about them called The Fire Trail (just finished the first draft). One of the themes is the need for individuals in our culture of freedom to practice self-discipline, to consider one another’s feelings. But without faith institutions to curtail excesses in word and image, we seem to be at a loss. We do not want to, nor should we, limit speech by legal means. It is far better, to be sure, to limit ourselves, to control our urge to ridicule.
In many universities some who see themselves offended have tried to limit free speech, by naming offensive speech “hate speech.” This is a dangerous road to travel. I would rather be offended than to criminalize offensive (hate) speech. Protection of free speech is far too important, far too intrinsic to who we are as a people. We need this First Amendment right in order to survive.
Perhaps it is simply easier to claim offense than to engage in debate. It is easier to ridicule than to reason. Perhaps both sides – the offender and the offended – act and react simplistically out of laziness, mental sloth. Perhaps they are used to easy and not trained in the difficult.
Much has been written about the need for the return of virtue to the public square. The West was built on Judeo-Christian virtues, blended with Greek virtues. As faith recedes, how do we return faith’s virtues to the public square? Without the authority of that Judeo-Christian God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how can we survive and still be free?
The Jewish legacy of the Ten Commandments gave us laws to honor God and one another. The Greeks spoke of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage. Christianity added faith, hope, and charity, giving us seven virtues to battle the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.
I have often thought that if we practiced these virtues, or confessed and repented the vices, the sins, we would have little need for legal restraints. But we are children of Adam and Eve. It is difficult to practice these all the time; we are constantly tempted. It is easy to envy and be angry, even easier to be gluttonous and greedy. It is easy to lust, encouraged by the soft porn all around us. And pride honors all sins and has no need for virtues, not admitting they exist. Pride lives in denial. It’s blinding.
How do we infuse the public square with the desire to be good? We cannot legislate goodness. We cannot legislate love, honor, respect for one another. This is the great question of the twenty-first century, how to revive the legacy of faith as faith dims, as churches close and their lights go out.
So my little novel is my small peaceful contribution to the debate, a quiet call to recognize that the barbarians are on our borders, to admit our pride and our denial. I fear such admission and recognition may be too late for Europe, as one commentator lamented, but America has hidden strengths and is used to changing course and doing battle. Never before has there been such a need for such a change of course.
As the great Anglican scholar, C. S. Lewis, wrote in Mere Christianity:
“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
So as I gazed this morning in church upon the Christ Child in the manger, I knew it would all work out, in the end, for God’s glory. For there are still wise men who will bring their gifts to him and, in so doing, to our world. There are still shepherds who will bow before the Christ Child, who will care for the sheep who cannot care for themselves. There is still the love of Mary and Joseph, who show us how to practice virtue, how to say “yes” to God and how to hear his voice, in vision or dream or word or sacrament.
The great gift of Christmas, our preacher said this morning, is also the great gift of Easter. It is the gift of life itself, life on earth and life in eternity. And they are the same, he said, for eternity is now.
The great gift of Christmas is the gift of God to our world, the light shining in the darkness. It is the gift of love, and yes, the gift of Western Civilization, of civilized culture. For our culture – our freedom – has been built upon that gift, and that world is now threatened. We value life and love and freedom; others do not. The choice is clear. We must look to the star of Bethlehem, to the Shepherds, to the Wise Men, and to Abraham and Isaac.
We must return virtue to the public square and to the world.