In my early twenties I attended a creation care workshop that went off the rails. What was supposed to be a benign gathering aimed at discussing a biblical call to be good stewards of the Earth was hijacked by several adults who turned the meeting into their own platform to oppose climate change. I felt sorry for the gentle hosts and outraged by some of the outlandish talking points that were thrown about. One person suggested that poverty could be addressed by delivering bags of day-old McDonald’s food to poor families in Detroit, and another wondered why, if he had grown up with lead in the drinking water, he should care about lead poisoning today.
I remember coming away from that workshop disappointed in humanity.
As a child born in the early nineties, coming of age into political consciousness has been like growing up and realizing that many of the adults you looked up to by default, and to a fault, are not always the people of integrity and wisdom you held them to be throughout your childhood, just like those participants in the workshop.
My generation was born into a period of unbridled optimism about American democracy and its prospects. This attitude was fueled by American victory in the Cold War and an unwavering confidence in our own exceptionalism, which Ben DeVries so deftly unpacks. The collapse of the Soviet Union left no viable ideological alternatives to a liberal world order, so much so that some even theorized we had entered the “end of history.” Liberal democracy would spread like wildfire and lead to a ceaseless flourishing of humanity—under American leadership, of course.
But what a farce this vision has always been. The successive crises I have witnessed in my lifetime—9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, the Trump presidency, BLM protests and racial injustice, and COVID-19—have methodically ripped apart the myth of American exceptionalism. The recent Capitol insurrection is only the cherry on top of a cake that has been baked, frosted, and long ago set out to grow stale.
As obvious as it seems, coming to a realization that we are not special has been like waking up from an afternoon nap in a groggy stupor. Likewise, it has taken me many years to realize how my upbringing as a white, suburban, evangelical Christian has at times been problematic. Case in point, in high school I participated in a mission trip to Pittsburgh where we served mostly low-income black and minority families through home construction and renovation. I distinctly recall being deeply unsettled by the speaker at our nightly worship sessions, a local pastor who seemed to place an inordinate emphasis on a social concern for the poor instead of winning souls for Jesus. What good is helping improve someone’s material status if that someone is not saved? I thought.
In a sense, my high-school self was correct. Jesus saves and people need Jesus. But people also need to eat and live with dignity. From my position as an affluent white outsider, my concern about another’s eternal destination but not his or her poverty quickly appears quite ridiculous.
I believe this experience, though not political, reveals something about the individualistic psyche that has helped create our current societal unrest. I was naively optimistic about my own impact, ignorant of reality, and all the while shielded by a pernicious half-truth that allowed me to remain comfortable and avoid my own responsibility.
I humbly suggest that we cease being ignorant optimists and start being realistically hopeful: honest about our faults and limitations but full of longing for change. Only from a clear-eyed recognition of our history, with its panoply of sins, and our complicity in systems of oppression today—cue white supremacy and Christian nationalism—is authentic hope and change found. As James Baldwin famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Real change often requires brutal vulnerability, and it begins with each of us. I am reminded of what C. S. Lewis wrote about how, in learning about temptation for The Screwtape Letters, he relied not on “many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology,” but on an “equally reliable” source: his own heart. This reflection has stuck with me and I am often reminded of it when, in my own heart, flashes of entitlement and exceptionalism arise, as they all too often do.
My hope is that this latest storm will arrest us from an apathetic slumber, teach us to care, and impel us to think creatively about our past and future. These days my first reaction to the injustice and chaos of the world tends toward anger; indeed, my first version of this post was decidedly more vitriolic. But if my life is evidence of anything, perhaps it is this: although attitudes are ingrained, they are malleable. Occasionally, and much to the chagrin of my wife, I even still wear the old t-shirt I received on that Pittsburgh mission trip, now tattered from many years of use.