It’s proving to be an unsettling year. Words such as “crisis,” “resistance,” and “collapse” pepper headlines, and few dismiss them as mere alarmism. All is not well – on this, at least, there is broad consensus. The political cultures of Western countries are infested with rage. Cold War nightmares such as nuclear conflict are suddenly again imaginable. On the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, Christian denominations – far from nearing a grand restoration of unity – find themselves riven by half-hidden schisms. Partisan divisions infect private life, hardening barriers and poisoning friendships.
At such a moment, being told to “take courage” can sound like a grim joke. No doubt that’s how it sounded to the friends of Jesus who accompanied him on his last journey to Jerusalem, where he would be killed. Yet, as John reports in the sixteenth chapter of his Gospel, “Take courage!” was one of the last things Jesus told his disciples, just hours before his arrest and execution. He added, in a statement that must have puzzled them: “I have overcome the world.”
Courage – heart, etymologically – seems to me precisely what we’re in need of today: courage to stand by the truth, and courage to stand by the gospel’s claim that everyone belongs to God, because Jesus has overcome the world. Such courage, according to Augustine, is simply a form of love – “love ready to bear all things for God’s sake.”
To inspire such love – and to guard against a failure of nerve or of imagination – this issue of Plough highlights lived examples of the virtue of courage. This can take the form of boldness in the face of persecution, as shown by Yu Jie’s firsthand account of the challenges facing the church in China. It can be the bold decision taken by police officer Steven McDonald to forgive the young shooter who paralyzed him, and to spend the rest of his life testifying to the power of forgiveness. Courage is the willingness of a family and a community to affirm that a young man with severe disabilities was born for a missionary purpose, contrary to the utilitarian creed of our times, as Maureen Swinger recounts.
A synonym for courage favored by the apostle Paul is perseverance. Few have persevered as tirelessly as Dorothy Day, a social-justice radical in the best sense, who gave herself daily in unspectacular acts of love. What was exceptional about Day was her consistency in living out the hard demands of the gospel. Readings from The Reckless Way of Love, a new book from Plough, reveal the source of the inner strength that allowed Day to do so without burning out.
As dangerous as the temptation is to become disheartened in a year like this, there is a danger more insidious still: the voice whispering that despite the suffering and degradation around us it’s not really that bad. This voice, of course, is far more likely to speak to the comfortable and affluent than to refugees, poor immigrants, the incarcerated, or the starving. It is also more likely to speak to those who believe that Christianity is doing just fine – that, setting aside a few inevitable shortcomings, we Christians have no urgent need to repent, certainly not in a way that would visibly transform our everyday lives.
We need the courage to dare tangible changes in our lives.
A new book by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, has been garnering attention – and much of it amounts to a howl of protest against Dreher’s call for Christians to strategically retreat from seeking cultural power in order to build stronger Christian communities. (See Plough’s interview with Dreher in our last issue, as well as the thoughtful letters in “Readers Respond”) Dreher’s various proposals can certainly be constructively criticized. But many reactions, it seems to me, altogether ignore his book’s basic insight: that Western churches, virtually across the board, have failed to cultivate faithful discipleship within a post-Christian culture. The symptoms of this failure are well documented, and damning. They include our ineffectiveness in passing the faith on to the next generation, as shown by sociologists such as Christian Smith; the extent to which materialism and consumerism – and militarism and nationalism – have polluted our everyday lives; divorce rates as high among Christians as among others; and an epidemic of pornography addiction afflicting Christian men.