A Simple Outline for Engaging Culture
Culture is often defined as the attitudes, beliefs and customs of a group of people. While attitudes and beliefs shape the culture, it is primarily the customs that help to identify it. It is these “customs” (actions) that ultimately fuel the culture wars that exist in our world today. In light of the recent “flag” issue and especially, the recent Obergefell same-sex marriage case in the Supreme Court, I’ve been thinking on how people of faith can do a better job of engaging culture in a time where, in many cases, we seem to have lost our relevance.
Since the mentioned ruling, my social media feeds have looked like the Confederacy went to war with a Skittles factory (I’m sure you’ve seen the memes as well). We all have strong feelings on these issues and I don’t assume that all of us even share the same views. However, regardless of our view, if we want to help shape the behaviors of people that believe and act differently than our particular “tribe”, then we may want to think about how we engage and influence the culture around us (especially if you find your “side” in the minority, something that many Evangelicals today are having a hard time getting used to).
In the story of Daniel in the Bible (Daniel chapter 1), we observe a young man who suddenly found himself in the minority of a hostile government. Daniel willingly subjected himself to much of the culture of his new authority, but for some reason (not explicitly stated in the text), he felt that partaking of the meat and wine allotted to him would “defile” him. He had a strong faith in God and a strong personal conviction that went contrary to the culture he suddenly found himself in. So what did he do? He set out a challenge with the king’s chief of staff of whom he had already found favor (might I add, probably not by demanding his “rights”). He chose a different diet of vegetables and water and suggested that the king’s assistant observe Daniel and his friends for 10 days and see if they were not at least as strong and healthy as those who were served the king’s diet. As the story goes, at the end of 10 days, Daniel and his friends indeed appeared stronger and healthier than their peers. Because of this, they were permitted to continue on their selected diet while the others continued with the king’s demands. I think there are a few simple lessons here that could help people of faith better engage a culture that may seem increasingly hostile to it.
1. Work for the Common Good
Daniel’s objection was personal, not political. What Daniel did not do, may say more about his “excellent spirit” than even what he did. Daniel did not start out by protesting how “defiled” the king’s food was or how wicked the people were that ate it. Daniel did not demand that everyone else also believe or behave (eat) as he did (even after his diet proved more advantageous). He did not say “I told you so” when he was right. He did not rally a protest campaign among his buddies against the “king’s meat”. He simply lived and illustrated Micah 6:8 as he “acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God.”
Daniel appealed to the common good of his captors. When we appeal to the common good of all people, it checks our motives and gives us a platform for influence. The king gave a decree for a reason and Daniel was submissive to that (political/common good) reason until it caused him to bring (personal) defilement upon himself. I’m sure he must have grown nostalgic for the “better days” of Zion and must have been uncomfortable living within the culture and confines of his new found pagan kingdom, yet, he submitted himself willingly to it’s authority for the common good with one personal exception. He also appealed to his captor’s desire to please the king and alleviated his fears by allowing for a measurable evaluation of the suggested alternative.
2. Find Common Ground
Daniel searched diligently for common ground with his captors. He was wise enough to allow for a plan that benefited both sides. Common ground is not necessarily compromise. Through Daniel’s wisdom, not only did he keep himself personally pure, but he also helped his captors, or otherwise enemies, to benefit from his plan as well. In finding common ground, Daniel helped to spare both his life and made his adversary look good in the eyes of the king. Throughout the rest of the book we find Daniel was not only a willing participant but a leader in many aspects of the Babylonian culture, though he never strayed from his faith or compromised in his personal worship (Daniel 5:11).
If people of faith want to gain influence within a culture that is increasingly hostile or at the least is no longer actively friendly to much of the Christian message, it may be time that we actually learn from Daniel’s example or even heed Jesus words and “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” At the end of the day, every human has the basic need to feel safe, be loved unconditionally, be respected and to feel like their life has significance. We all want the same things out of life, we just may disagree on where they come from. We lose common ground when we forget this and appear angry, whiny and selfish and we lose our ability to influence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the church and people of faith were known more for what we are for than what we are against, we may find that we regain our voice in the public square. When our lives are filled with hope, joy and a genuine concern for others we attract the right attention as people ask us “…to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15). If we’re looking for common ground, below are a few things gay, straight, black, white and most civilized people can agree on. How can we join together to help with these:
- At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor.
- About 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade.
- Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
- 6.9 million children under five years of age died in 2011, nearly 800 every hour.
- 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
- 1.6 billion people — a quarter of humanity — live without electricity.
- The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percentaccounts for three-quarters of world income.¹
Maybe we can start here. I think we can agree on that.
3. Tell a Better Story
It only makes sense that (along with God’s help), Daniel carried himself in such a way that his captor, though a cultural and religious polar opposite, deep down inside was for Daniel. While it’s obvious from the text that God worked in his captor’s heart, Daniel was wise enough not to get in the way.
Dale Carnegie said “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If you have ever been in sales at all you also know that internal pressure produces action but external pressure produces resentment. Leon Festinger formulated the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957 at Stanford University. He stated that “when attitudes conflict with actions, attitudes or beliefs, we are uncomfortable and motivated to try to change.” This means that people will naturally act in a way that is consistent with their beliefs, attitudes and values. When these all connect, we live harmoniously, but when they don’t, we feel dissonance to some degree or another. We may feel awkward, uncomfortable, upset, or even confused (take Peter and his vision of the great sheet in Acts 10, for example). To reduce this tension, we will often go to extraordinary lengths to change our attitudes, beliefs or behavior, even if it means doing something we normally wouldn’t want to do.
Simon Sinek, in his groundbreaking book Start with Why, shares how corporations and movements have created lasting influence and change as a result of their “Why”. Motive Matters. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I can tell you one thing people definitely don’t buy is self(ish) preservationism. That’s a horrible “why”. If people sense motives of self preservation from those trying to influence them, they can sniff that out a mile away. If you are going to influence anyone, as the old saying goes, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Christians, of all people, should know that the only thing that can provide lasting hope and joy is a relationship and identity rooted in Christ Jesus. It’s time we started behaving like we actually have it. While I believe healthy marriages to be the foundational institution of society, I also know that marriage alone does not make one happy. In time, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will find that out as well, and I, for one, want to be there for them when they figure that out.
We are where we are today NOT because of a Constitutional anomaly or even judicial activism but simply because, over time, one perspective on an issue managed to tell a better story. While one side was making arguments based upon an unshared religious viewpoint and self preservationism, the other was telling the story of real people and appealing to the basic human needs of love, respect and justice. Jesus himself even said “…for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8 KJV). I wish not to make light of the potential cultural fallout of the magnitude of the Obergefell decision, however, after nearly 2 millennia, I still think that Paul, in his context of the Roman empire, was up against a steeper cultural climb than we could ever possibly know in America today. Even in the midst of all of that he leaves us these words in his epistle to the Romans (Romans chapter 1 seems to be the point of greatest conflict in the same-sex marriage issue, oddly enough):
“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! 17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. 19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD. 20 Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” 21 Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” [Rom 12:9-21 NLT]
Let’s start there. Because after all, Love really does win.