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The Closest Exit May Be Behind You
The Church is not the world, and that's not a problem to be fixed.
When sensing an emergency, human nature tends to look for somewhere to run. This is true physically as well as spiritually. Every commercial airliner reminds passengers before takeoff of where the exits on the plane are: “Keep in mind the closest exit may be behind you.” Of course the exit doors are visible enough. Why the reminder? I think part of the answer is that when we’re trying to escape, we tend to only look ahead. It takes a kind of self-control to stop pressing forward toward the biggest exit to look for a different one that may be not in our immediate vision.
A crisis is an epistemological event. When something goes terribly wrong, when we feel threatened or know something must change to avoid catastrophe, how we process information and make decisions changes. In many cases, our singular focus becomes how to relieve the pressure and defuse the danger. And that kind of tunnel vision can take us places that won’t actually help us.
Much of what I see that troubles me in Christian rhetoric and culture is, I think, the straightforward epistemological consequences of a church that feels itself in crisis. Many of us can’t even explain how the world could have changed so much so fast. A transformed public conscience has led to unfathomable revolutions in law, which have in turn reeducated the public conscience. In the 1990s the main concern for many evangelicals was how to preserve purity in a vulgar media age. Now the concern is how to preserve a right to say what people find vulgar in a legalistically progressive media age. To pickup on an infamous metaphor that one conservative pundit used of the 2016 election: many Christians feel like the oxygen masks have deployed and the plane is falling apart.
The sense of crisis conditions how we respond to the world and to each other. If you think your survival depends on how quickly you can get off the plane, you will look for the exit, but not in the way you would look for an exit after a smooth landing. What you’ll probably do is fix your eyes on the biggest, most intuitive place to get off: the exit in front of you, the one to which you can and will run, the one that you had been looking at the whole time. But what if the closest exit is actually behind you?
The instinct toward self-preservation at all costs. The impulse to defend institutions and individuals no matter what, for fear that their failure will implicate you by proxy. The reach for the totalizing language of combat, good guys vs bad, the civilization of Us versus the barbarian Them. The Lord’s work in the world’s way. All of these are the prominent exit near the cockpit, the one that makes the most intuitive sense, the one which draws our first thought when the crisis emerges. This is the exit that most of our fellow passengers will rush to. How could they not? It’s right in front of them.
What other exits are there?
The answer, of course, depends on where you’re looking.
I’m convinced, moreso every day, that the place we need to look is not toward the most visible and intuitive exits, but the ones behind us. Behind us are the sirens of history, in which we learn that unprecedented times are not really unprecedented, and that the church was born with everything she seeks from political or cultural magnificence. The exit behind us is the exit of temporal bandwidth, the ability to imagine ourselves and our worship not in the pressure cooker of contemporary dramas but in the sober sanctuary of God’s century-over-century promises to preserve us.
Also behind us are the exits of self-sacrificial love. There’s something in contemporary American Christianity that has convinced itself that the way of the cross should not and will not actually make us weak before the world. We worship a Lord who walked right into his own crucifixion and somehow we think our charter is to crucify the Left. We’ve gone the wrong way when our faith in Christ has not made us wage culture war any differently than them who mourn as those with no hope. Has it occurred to us that we’re not allowed access to the same means of social dominance as the nations? Has it occurred to us that our political weakness—our refusal to lie and belittle and cajole—is not a problem to be fixed, but a reality to be embraced when we take on the name of Jesus? The closest exit is behind us.
We have to be reminded of this. We have to be reminded to see what our crisis-mode spirits don’t want to take the time to look for. Staring down the obvious, intuitive, apparent path will only make things harder in the end. Is the route of rescue the obvious one, or is it the one we’ve forgotten about, the one much closer, the one that was designed with passengers like us in mind?