Many who live outside the United States perceive Americans as brash, arrogant. We plead guilty, though we hope our international friends will treat us better than the stereotype deserves. As is often the case, a conceited facade conceals insecurity. News media focused on the triumphant celebrations in Times Square and outside the White House Sunday evening when the headlines reported Osama bin Laden dead. But President Obama's remarks set a starkly different tone. He ended a measured, somber address with something of a national pep talk, tacitly acknowledging America's need for some good news.
"The cause of securing our country is not complete," Obama said. "But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place."
Just consider the events that preceded bin Laden's death. To take only one example, Donald Trump somehow became a serious candidate for president by perpetuating unserious claims about Obama's birth certificate. The New York Times columnist David Brooks described a political scene far from jubilant as Americans worry about unsustainable national debt, stagnant wages, illegal immigration, and escalating energy prices.
"As these problems have gone unaddressed, Americans have lost faith in the credibility of their political system, which is the one resource the entire regime is predicated upon," Brooks wrote. "This loss of faith has contributed to a complex but dark national mood. The country is anxious, pessimistic, ashamed, helpless, and defensive."
Across the political aisle, former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said something last week that helped me understand the effect of this national pessimism on church leaders. His comments came in the context of the accusations that led the Obama administration to finally release the president's long-form birth certificate. But Gibbs could just as easily have been speaking about the challenges Christians face when testifying to the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“There are no more arbiters of truth," Gibbs told Politico. "So whatever you can prove factually, somebody else can find something else and point to it with enough ferocity to get people to believe it. We’ve crossed some Rubicon into the unknown.”
No doubt you can already find a wealth of conspiracy theories about the government's testimony that they dumped bin Laden's body in the ocean. That's the tenor of mistrust in an anxious nation.
View from the Other Side
Tim Keller addressed the growing culture of institutional distrust in his recent interview with Christiane Amanpour for This Week on ABC. Not long ago Americans recognized the occupant of the White House as their president even if they didn't vote for him. No longer. The last two presidents have been dogged by questions about their legitimate claim to the office. Besides Obama's tussle with the birthers, President George W. Bush weathered the Florida fiasco and later endured allegations that he knew about the September 11 attacks beforehand.
As we've seen in the praise for a job well done in finding and killing bin Laden, an overburdened military might be the only American institution that commands deference and respect. Even before the Great Recession hit and wiped out personal wealth for millions of Americans, big businesses like HealthSouth, WorldCom, and Enron collapsed under the burden of their deceptive practices. The Vietnam War and President Nixon's resignation diminished the government's ability to command respect from the people. Major media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post earned public trust by exposing the government deception and corruption. They squandered it as bloggers and other critics exposed their efforts to hide personal preference and agendas under the false premise of objectivity. Doctors? Not with escalating costs for health care. Lawyers? Not for their role in wrapping the nation in red tape. Teachers complain that students no longer fear or even obey them. Even the commissioner of the $9 billion National Football League was booed lustily by fans frustrated by his role in locking out the players.
We could go on and on. Ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up. What could he say that would strike you as an honorable profession? Not even the clergy is exempt from falling into disrepute. The Roman Catholic Church will not soon escape the shame incurred by priests who abused children and the bishops who covered for them. And the televangelist scandals of the 1980s still haunt Protestants, especially those who lead large churches. This is the context in which we present for the skeptical world the truth claims of Christianity, the mystery of godliness: "He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory" (1 Tim. 3:16). So you say, the world responds; those are your facts. I have mine, and I don't feel obligated to try and reconcile them with yours, they argue.
The Postmodern Turn
Within the church we feel this shift acutely. Much has been made of the postmodern turn, which undercuts our ability as Christians to testify to the gospel as universally binding facts.
"Truth on this view is a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to perpetuate their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world," Kevin Vanhoozer explains about the postmodern turn. "According to Michel Foucault, behind every discourse on truth there lurks rhetorical posturing: knowledge claims are violent impositions by powerful institutions; universal truth claims are simply masks for ideology and the will to power."
You can see, then, how the church's infamy relates to how unbelievers in the West receive the news that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Why should they trust what we say? How do they know we're doing anything other than exercising our will to power, seeking to consolidate our influence and line our pockets?
Our Love Cannot Earn its Return
Christians have responded to this crisis in several ways. Many church leaders call on us to meet this challenge by proving our critics wrong with love and good deeds. Before we speak, these leaders caution, we must earn the right by demonstrating love for our neighbors. There is biblical precedent for such an approach. Jesus said, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). This is not an isolated command. He also said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 15:35).
No doubt the church would be wise to listen to its founder and Savior. We have sinned and blasphemously justified it in the name of Christ. We have not loved our neighbors as we ought. We are shamefully culpable and complicit in the church's disastrous loss of credibility.
And yet, there is no amount of good deeds that will ever decisively win nonbelievers to Christ. We the church will always disappoint them, because we will never be free from sin this side of heaven. Consider the example of those you have wronged. You can—indeed, must—repair what you've done wrong and act in such a way that invites restoration. But your efforts alone will never fully persuade the object of your sin to overlook the wrong. He or she must choose to forgive you, to release you from the debt. Our love cannot earn its return.
We cannot win the world by our actions. That honor belongs to Jesus Christ alone, whose act of redemptive self-sacrifice releases believers from the penalty of sin and final death. In this uncertain era of mistrust, we can do no better than to introduce unbelievers to the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). We fall to temptation, but he resisted. We fail to love, but he loved us to the end (John 13:1). We betray our friends and family, but he endured betrayal and persevered to do the work of his Father. We make promises we cannot keep, but he was raised, just as he said (Matt. 28:6)!
We should expect that skeptics will doubt these facts. Indeed, many saw them and still did not believe. But the same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead can give second birth to the most hardened critics, even on this side of the Rubicon, even in this anxious nation.