“The purpose of Newspeak was […] to make all other modes of thought impossible”
George Orwell, 1984
The rise of hashtag cliches has led us to self-inflicted Newspeak, wherein we latch on to simple phrases without putting in the effort to parse out their meaning. We tend to launch these phrases as a sort of “gotcha” of moral superiority instead of taking the time to engage in respectful, meaningful debate.
We saw a number of these in recent months:
FLATTEN THE CURVE
STAY HOME, SAVE A LIFE
LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS
These phrases floated the internet and were accepted as fact with very few taking the time to ask important questions, such as:
How flat must the curve be?
Is across the board isolation our best solution?
The historical precedent of pandemics is to quarantine the sick, not the healthy, why the change?
Should we halt multiple industries that people depend on for their livelihood?
What are the implications of deeming some jobs essential and others not?
Is this cure worse than the disease?
Those who were bold enough to ask these questions were often told they did not care about people, wanted people to die, elevated money above life, were science deniers, and conspiracy theorists. This combination of Newspeak and the wholesale acceptance of Ad Hominem and Appeal to Authority fallacies has ushered in a time of poor thought and deep division.
This ought to alarm Christians. Liberty of thought is a Christian idea. We are lovers of truth. We believe truth brings light to the darkness. We ought to have zero tolerance for this kind of censorship and self-righteous bullying that seeks to coerce people into cooperation. That is not the way of Christ, who challenged those who twisted the truth for their own aims. He didn’t silence dissent he proclaimed he was Truth himself. Christians, therefore, need to be at the forefront of reasoning beyond hashtags. Especially in the case of explicitly biblical language, as seen in the lockdown movement’s favorite phrase:
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
This phrase was adopted by a number of politicians, and as a result most Christians were quick to comply due to a deep desire to be obedient to this important command. It was perhaps prudent in the first few weeks when little was known, but “caution is one thing and wavering is another (J.R.R. Tolkien)” there is a point in which caution becomes cowardice, and cowardice is not benign. As statisticians continued to move the mark and some courageous voices within the medical community called foul, there came a time where the question should have been asked: are these measures truly loving our neighbor? As well intentioned as these measures may have been, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions (C.S. Lewis).” Good intentions do not necessarily lead to good action. By accepting this phrase and the orders done in their name I believe we failed to truly fulfill it. We shuttered businesses, stopped gathering as a body, and isolated people for two months in the name of love.
“Public reason is not neutral: it is shaped by a theory of good (Alister McGrath).” We adopted public reason and came to believe that love is only about ensuring people live long lives. But for the Christian, long life is never the final aim, “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you Lord Jesus (Jim Elliot).” We are more than just our bodies, but we adopted the subtle reductionism of love that says otherwise.
We allowed people to be reduced to their heartbeats, ironically by many of those who do not even recognize a heartbeat as a sign of life.
But if “man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal (Soren Kierkegaard),” then love must extend beyond mere bodily health. It must encompass the whole person, body and soul. Our lack of careful thought and quiet acceptance of a theory of good that is not in alignment with God’s has led us to a multitude of damaging decisions, and we have collectively settled into “an awful lot of inactive kindness which is nothing but laziness not wanting any trouble, confusion or effort (John Steinbeck).” Instead of carefully considering the ramifications of our choices through the lens of Christ, we opted to simply follow the cultural pressures. We stayed home as people fell into financial ruin, and suicide and domestic violence rates increased to an alarming peak. Worst of all, the Church moved into digital only relationships–something many within the Church had warned was not a replacement of community, face-to-face interaction, and incapable of bringing about the proper obedience to God’s command to gather as believers–only months before, but when the alternative was pushing against orders, we settled into it despite our words from the past.
I believe we did this with hearts that wanted to do the right thing, but our thinking was flawed. “Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support (C.S. Lewis).” Good intentions removed from God’s standard of love, which encompasses more than our physical bodies, are harmful. We functionally announced to the world that the gathering of believers was non-essential, that church could be called church when no one is physically present, and that digital relationships are good enough. We let “love” be defined too narrowly, when we should have been proclaiming that “love is helping people toward the greatest beauty, the highest value, the deepest satisfaction, the most lasting joy, the biggest reward, the most wonderful friendship, and the most overwhelming worship—love is helping people toward God (John Piper).” Have we been thinking of love in these terms? Have our actions communicated that we believe this?
This truth is blood bought, it requires sacrifice to speak it—increasingly so—but sharing the truth of who God is and the full facet of what he calls humans to is the most loving thing we can do. To be faithful to this we must be what the Church is always commanded to be, the ones who “tell [men] of Life and Death, and of all they would forget (T.S. Eliot).”
As we move forward and talk of the “new normal” what it means to “love our neighbor” must be firmly planted in how God defines it. It is the second greatest commandment, according to Jesus, but it is impossible to fulfill it without following the first: Love God. Before we consider recommendations, or even laws, we need to carefully consider what it means, in God’s economy, to love people. When a secular institution tells us something is for “our good”, we have to be willing to admit at some point, that perhaps it is not good in the eyes of God. The ultimate truth of course, is not merely scientific studies or data, or the seedy underbelly of politics, but Truth himself.
“In times of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act (George Orwell)”, and in times when we are reduced to mere bodies, fighting for human interaction that recognizes an eternal soul, and taking calculated risks to maintain true connection, in essence: being truly human is revolutionary too.
By simply existing as a people obedient to the God who purchased us out of death and sin and into life abundant, the Church can be a light in the darkness, an essential component to maintaining the full scope of what it means to be human in a world of fear, mistrust, and reductionism.
May we have the courage to magnify God, and in so doing, love our neighbor well.