A City Set on a Hill

Ed Vitagaliano | The Stand

Not all revolutions are fought with rifles and bayonets at the barricades. Sometimes they are fought in high school classrooms, on college campuses, on screens big and small, on radio airwaves, and in print.

It is clear that America has undergone a moral revolution over the last half-century. Not a shot was fired. Few would argue with that assessment.

Some might say that these radical changes in morality are simply because many Americans are adopting postmodernism – i.e., moral relativism – as their philosophy of life. However, that is simply another characterization of what is happening, not why. 

Others might see the problem as simple apathy – that Americans have just stopped caring about questions of morality. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus at City University in New York, argues in her book One Nation, Two Cultures that such (usually downward) changes in the moral environment occur as wealth increases in democratic, capitalistic nations. The very prosperity produced by a capitalistic nation eventually leads to self-indulgence – and a “live and let live” moral framework that lets you have your self-indulgence and lets me have mine. 

However, surveys actually appear to demonstrate the opposite: most Americans really do care about morality. Americans seem to have an intrinsic awareness that things are not quite right morally. 

The problem is not that Americans don’t care about morality, but that they are conflicted over which morality to choose. The heart of our culture’s moral crisis seems to be rooted, not in apathy, but moral ambivalence. 

Moral paralysis

This indicates a peculiar American double-mindedness about moral values. There are, in effect, two powerful moral magnetic poles in operation – both equally strong – and both exerting influence on American mores that at times makes our beliefs appear contradictory. One pole reflects a still existent, though perhaps fading allegiance to traditional morality, and the other a distinct – and perhaps distinctly American – ethic that is firmly wedded to the concept of libertarian individualism. 

In his book One Nation, After All, Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe suggested this dual-track moral impulse. After interviewing 200 people in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, California, and Georgia for his book, he discovered that the American middle class, while generally strict on themselves morally, had added an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not judge” other people’s actions. 

Himmelfarb pointed to the same trends in American culture, saying that most people shrink from appearing “judgmental.” She said, “They habitually take refuge in such equivocations as ‘Who is to say what is right or wrong?’ or ‘Personally, I disapprove of pornography, but that is only my own opinion.’” 

However, the problem with such ambivalence is that it produces moral paralysis. America is becoming less and less able to form a consistent view concerning moral principles – and perhaps even less willing. 

At the same time, this inertia has allowed a more libertine, hedonistic morality to gain the upper hand by default. After all, if Americans refuse to call someone’s actions immoral, then by default those actions must be moral – actions cannot be immoral and moral at the same time. 

The flourishing values of relativism, once entrenched, will become extremely difficult to challenge, let alone overthrow. Any conservative Christian who has attempted to make a difference on a college or university campus, or in the news media or entertainment industry, could attest to that reality of life. 

The church: A city set on a hill

For Christians, our nation’s moral confusion is a painful, discouraging fact. Yet God has both charged the church and given it the grace to bring His truth to pagan cultures. It has always been this way, and it is this way still. Our culture – because it appears to be rushing to embrace pre-Christian pagan ideals – needs the church to be the church as much as ever. 

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus told His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Matthew 5:14f). 

Light is frequently used in Scripture to denote the spiritual truth of God and His Word, and here it is used of that calling of individual Christians to demonstrate God’s light to the surrounding culture. 

However, Jesus also uses an example that has a more corporate sense: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Such a city is seen for miles around, and its illumination not only guides weary travelers to hearth and home but keeps them from stumbling in the darkness to their own destruction. 

Surely this is a reflection of the church’s duty in a dark world. Collectively, as a community of faithful disciples, the church is to show fallen men how God intends them to live. As “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), the Christian community is to pattern life in God’s kingdom “in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10); and, as Jesus said in Matthew 5, to “men,” (v. 16). 

This addresses the heart of the problem America faces at this critical moment. As society wrestles with issues that are clearly moral in nature, our culture reflexively asks, “Who is to say what is right and what is wrong?” 

The church is to say it! The church must rise to the occasion and present a clear message of the absolute and eternal validity of God’s laws, the rightful place of those laws in ordering the affairs of men, and the power of the gospel to transform sinful men so that they can obey Him in all things. 

It appears the church is either ignorant of this responsibility or negligent in it. In fact, the one thing that Wolfe said surprised him in his research was how milquetoast American Christianity had become. In discussions with Christians in Tulsa suburbs, for example, Wolfe said believers were not comfortable “in expressing themselves in the language of absolutes.” He said that even Christians are being influenced by a new moral code that promotes relativism and tolerance. 

Compare such a sad state with the passionate words of Paul, that “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God,” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Christians must not only proclaim the offer of reconciliation, but also the need for it. 

There are many Christians who are doing exactly as Paul says, but far too many who are not. If the church is pleading with the world’s people to be reconciled to God – with the same passion as if it were God Himself entreating them – it is difficult to see it. 

A church that is unwilling to make that proclamation of grace – or because of compromise, unable to make it – has covered its light under a basket. It has ceased being a city set on a hill, and instead become a dark star, which not only fails to emit light but sucks in all the light around it. 

God will have His light, however. Perhaps it will yet shine through our generation. Perhaps it will await a more faithful generation to come.

SOURCE: THE STAND

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The Stand
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