Have you ever been afraid to say something that you believed was true?
I recently finished reading Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents and that question was my litmus test about whether his book is exaggerating the challenge that Christians are facing in our current cultural moment.
Dreher argues that we are making a turn towards soft totalitarianism (in contrast to hard totalitarianism) and that the church is wholly unprepared for what is coming. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s work, Dreher describes a totalitarian society as “one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology” (7).
Survivors of Soviet totalitarianism speak to similarities that they see from their time behind the Iron Curtain and swift changes in the United States today:
“What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups – ethnic, sexual, and otherwise – and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics amongs these groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.” (xi)
One of Dreher’s main concerns is a change from old school liberals who could disagree agreeably and contemporary progressive social justice warriors who seek to silence dissent. In his own words:
“The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness. In this way, the so-called social justice warriors… who started out as liberals animated by an urgent compassion, end by abandoning authentic liberalism and embracing an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism.” (10)
There may be better ways to engage Dreher’s argument and test the truth of its diagnosis and its prescription. But this was the question that kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I read: Why has it often been so difficult for me to say what I believed in the various places I have been since I started seminary in 2002?
I don’t mean difficult in the way that I assume it is always hard to have difficult and tender conversations. I mean difficult in that there was a social pressure that was so strongly opposed to certain ideas that it felt like to speak them was to take a very real risk of being rejected by the entire community forever for having uttered them.
For some of you reading this, I will seem to you to be exaggerating. Maybe it will help if I offer three of my most vivid memories of my time as a seminary student.
Before I go any farther, my intention here is not to take a cheap shot at my seminary. I’m not sure my seminary intended to make it hard for me or any other student to speak our convictions. But the truth is I experienced seminary as a place where it was almost impossible to say certain things out loud.
I am sitting at a round table in the refectory at dinner with a group of peers, all about the same age as me. As I was eating, the conversation turned, again, to topics like politics and social issues, where there was assumed agreement. I don’t remember what exactly was being talked about but all of the sudden it just hit me: These people hate my family and friends I love back home. I’ve been eating with them for months and no one here really knows me. And based on their words, they despise me.
There was a campus wide protest on behalf of LGBTQ people. The protest was enacted in the form of a day of silence in order to protest the ways that LGBTQ people are silenced every day. You participated in the protest by taping your mouth shut and wearing a sticker that said that you were not going to be speaking at all that day to protest and express solidarity with LGBTQ people.
Nothing in my previous experience had prepared me for this. I remember thinking that I understood why people who were passionately in favor of the church embracing gay marriage and the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians would work to see change. I actually wanted to listen to arguments for and against the church’s position.
What jarred me was the feeling that this protest seemed to have been conceived in a way that put the maximum amount of shame on those who were not with them. Simply to speak that day was to reveal oneself as an oppressor, a bigot, a homophobe. From my perspective, the protest was a clear litmus test: you are for us or you are against us and we are going to force you to take sides right now one way or another.
In my naivete, I remember being confused that the faculty and administration of the school seemed to entirely support the protest even though it undermined the ability to have class discussions in every class taught that day. And it seemed odd to me that in an academic environment you would protest not through careful conversation, logic, and ideas, but by refusing to participate in any discourse at all.
I never felt the same way about seminary after that day.
I took a course that was a practicum in preaching in my final semester of seminary. At some point during the semester, every student preached a sermon to the rest of the class. I only remember one sermon that was preached that semester. The sermon was memorable for two reasons. First, it was the only time a student in any class I ever took in seminary talked about homosexuality in a way that did not affirm gay marriage or the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. It was the first and only public argument I heard during my three year seminary experience. That made it memorable.
(If this does not seem odd to you, it might help you to know that this was the issue, by far, that was the most controversial and threatening to divide the church when I was in seminary. It is also the reason the church was poised to split this year if the General Conference had not been postponed due to Covid-19. It might also help to know that the official position of the UMC was and still is what can loosely be defined as affirming traditional sexual ethics. So this student was the only person I ever heard who actually spoke publicly in favor of what the church taught, in a place where many students were preparing for ordination in this same church.)
The second reason I remember the sermon is because it was so bad. It was painful to listen to. I remember initially being hopeful that someone had the courage to speak to the plain and consistent prohibition of same sex sexual activity in Scripture. That hope quickly turned to cringing because the preacher failed to show love towards people who struggled with same sex attraction. I don’t remember hearing a word of hope. I don’t remember hearing the gospel.
This last memory has haunted me the most because it illustrates what happens when dissent and differing viewpoints are stifled in an educational environment. Resentment and anger increase because people who dissent see exactly what is happening and many of them simply go underground. And everyone misses the opportunity to think better and to pursue the truth. This is a problem in general. But it is a crisis in an academic environment.
Have you ever been afraid to say something that you believed was true?
I’m guessing you have. My experience is that fewer and fewer people are willing to risk anything to stand for the truth.
Dreher is pessimistic, some might say characteristically pessimistic, here:
“Christian resistance on a large scale to the anti-culture has been fruitless, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches as well – even those populated by Christians who identify as conservative. Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.” (13)
Is there any hope here?
Yes. But Dreher does not offer superficial comfort.
“The task of the Christian dissident today is to personally commit herself to live not by lies. How can she do that alone? She needs to draw close to authentic spiritual leadership – clerical, lay, or both – and form small cells of fellow believers with whom she can pray, sing, study Scripture, and read other books important to their mission. With her cell, the dissident discusses the issues and challenges facing them as Christians, especially challenges to their liberties. They…. Identify the challenge, discern together its meaning, then act on their conclusions.” (18-19)
Let me offer one final memory from my time in seminary. It is equally vivid. And, from my perspective, it is entirely hopeful.
I walked into a classroom with a handful of other people. My heart was racing. I felt scared. I didn’t know if I would be able to talk. I sat down with my lunch. I knew everyone there. But I was as nervous as I have ever been in my entire life.
I had been invited to join a Wesleyan band meeting, an accountability group where you confess sin in order to experience forgiveness and pray for each other’s healing, and this was my first time to attend.
The person to my left opened us with prayer and went first. After he confessed, someone else reminded him of the promise of Scripture, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
And then the person on his left went and so on until I was the last one.
I still remember the gift that they had given to me in each trusting me enough to show such vulnerability and honesty before they knew how I would receive it or respond. Their courage enabled me to tell the truth that day. And their love, support, encouragement, and willingness to press in and hold me accountable changed seminary. It changed my life.
Through this group, God began to heal these other memories.
This group was in many ways like the cell groups that Dreher describes. And it was through the relationships developed in this group that I had conversations about deeply contested ideas and beliefs that I was unable to have in my classes. (Although the first time I reached out to someone to talk about human sexuality, I asked to meet off campus.)
I am not sure if I think Dreher is right in everything that he says in this book. Since much of what he is doing is predicting what is coming, only time will really tell.
We should all hope that he is wrong.
But as I read the book, I kept remembering all of the times it has felt close to impossible to say something I believed was true or say that something that was being affirmed is not true.
Certainty that one is on the side of justice seems to be replacing careful thinking, nuanced argument, and even the space to ask questions and explore ideas.
Throughout my time in theological education, I have often sought advice from those who have gone before me. Particularly before my tenure review, I was discouraged by how often I was encouraged to keep my head down and not make waves so that I wouldn’t jeopardize tenure. This seems to me to be the kind of practical atheism that far too many American Christians have embraced:
Profess faith in God. But make decisions as if God doesn’t exist and is powerless.
I encourage you to read Live Not by Lies, if nothing else, because it is a bold challenge to such malnourished formation of Christians. He reminds us of a Christian imagination where actual human beings created in the image of God have refused to bow the knee to worship idols. And they have suffered for their faith in very real ways. But above all, their testimony is that they have counted the cost and joyfully taken up their cross and determined to follow Jesus Christ, their Lord and only salvation.
We are desperate for real Christianity, not the cheap imitation we have tolerated for far too long and tried to pervert to our own worldly advantage.
I conclude with a reminder from Jesus himself:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’
Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
– Matthew 16: 21-27
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.