For most of our history, the one attitude US Americans have been known for around the world is a sense of optimism. Hopefulness of a better tomorrow and fresh possibilities like a bright sunrise after a darkening storm were subtly promised any person who came to these shores.
Such optimism is rooted in our history, built from the first days by people moving here to start over. The reset—whether motivated by those seeking religious freedom, economic opportunity, or even adventure in a new land- has always fed personal optimism. Of course, that attitude is also encouraged by our founding documents. You hear it in language like this: “…that all men are created equal, that they are are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The optimism and the social covenant that are the basis for our society has produced a certain fair-mindedness and even-handedness in our dealings with one another. That is how we have maintained civil discourse even when there have been widely divergent views. Some would call it simple respect.
But if you listen to the language of our current political season, you hear something very different. It’s been coming for awhile, in print and on-screen. The vocabulary of political dialogue is now mostly harsh, belittling and at the far edge of “fair and balanced” — no matter if your network of choice begins with an F or a C. Caricature of opponents and competition for outrageous sound-bites have utterly replaced genuine conversation between people who are citizens of the same country.
Of course, the same sort of communication shows up in more than the political arena. It’s in comedy—both stand-up and sit-com live on the edge of anger or put-down. It comes from commentators like Joy Behar and Chris Matthews or Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. It shows up on every news show that tries to have multiple people presenting perspective on an issue—usually by loudly talking over one another. It’s in college students and empty-nesters – especially when they talk about each other.
And in the wake of losing fair-minded, even-handed dialogue, we are losing our optimism as a people. Something else is becoming our defining attitude.
Followers of Jesus Christ were among the first to be citizens of our country. Most among that Pilgrim band knew the burdening terror of religious persecution, and were set to courageously pursue a different sort of society. Christians who order their lives by the tenets of Jesus will be good citizens, called by Jesus to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt.22:21) The Biblically shaped life will recognize the priority of the Kingdom of God (Matt.6:10, 33) and citizenship is in heaven (Phil.3:20), while also submitting “to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1) and praying “for… all those in authority.” (1Tim.2:2)
But even more, in the US American context, Christ-followers have a decided edge when it comes to optimism. Theirs is not an optimism that arises from good economic forecasts or military strength or even rightly ordered civil laws. No, the Christian’s optimism is called hope or faith, both of which are rooted outside any current circumstances. “Now faith is the assurance or evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb.11:1)
Both hope and faith find their headwaters in God, and even more particularly, in the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ. The gospel is simply the promise that a holy God, in His mercy, acts through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to reconcile sinful people to a relationship with Himself; to repair the brokenness that effects everything in the world caused by that sin; and to restore the world as God meant it to be: beautiful, true, good, right and saturated by His glory.
The hope and faith that emerge from this gospel shape a Christian’s approach to people, to this life and the next. Gospel-infused optimism should filter every relationship, conversation, cultural engagement or issue dialogue – and remain stable through them. It can enable Christians to enter the cultural conversation with people of faith or people with none, politically conservative or liberal, with fair-mindedness and even-handedness. You could call it “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
In other words, Christians are uniquely equipped to lead the way with optimistic respect or respectful optimism.
But over the past couple of years, I have noticed that in our cultural conversations, and even more disturbingly, in our conversations about faith and with one another over theological and missional concerns, this sense of gospel-fueled hope is often missing. It shows up in the sort of language we use towards one another, in print, on blogs, and on-screen. It is often harsh and belittling, tinged with anger. Caricature of opponents and competition for outrageous sound-bites have utterly replaced genuine conversation between people who are citizens of the same far country and servants of the same glorious King.
And in the wake of losing gospel-driven dialogue, we are losing our optimism as Christian people. Something else is becoming our defining attitude.
In other words, we’re not that different from the world around us.
So, what is it? What is the attitude that is emerging to dominate both the cultural conversation over politics and social issues, and among Christians who debate theology and ministry?
We are—Americans and Christians alike- becoming a disturbingly cynical people. What do I mean by cynical?
- § Cynicism is a loss of optimism or hope, having been replaced by a weary acquiescence to the world as it is, a world that is not going to get any better.
- § Cynicism grows dull to wonder and amazement, settling for bland routine and days absent imagination.
- § Cynicism struggles to accept people as they are and expect the best from them, finding it easier to demand everyone be like me and expect the worse so disappointment is less painful. Why give anyone the benefit of the doubt when holding your cards close to the vest keeps you in a much stronger, emotionally safer position? It distances relationships.
- § Cynicism pushes back against generosity and community, preferring instead selfishness and isolation.
- § Cynicism is prideful (assuming that it simply knows better than the sorry fools on the other side), refusing the humility that is ever ready to learn from someone different.
- § Cynicism prefers the tools of the inside joke, the sarcastic reply and rolled eyes to dismiss an argument rather than the transparent heart, the respectful tone, and the risk of looking in another’s eyes to see their soul.
- § Cynicism is always ready to talk and rarely willing to listen.
- § Cynicism is basically angry, which makes it difficult for love, mercy, goodness or joy to come near.
- § Cynicism always looks backward into the loss of the way things should be, rather than leaning forward into the hope of the way things can be.
It seems that cynicism is often mistaken for other things, things that sound infinitely more noble. For instance, some mistake cynicism for realism, priding themselves on being the only ones who see things the way they really are. Others see cynicism as the calling of responsible citizenship or church membership, warily watchdogging the government or churches and their leaders for breaches of the public trust. Some Christians mistake cynicism for being prophetic, ‘holding forth the word of truth” against compromise or for theological acumen that battles false teaching. Still others mistake cynicism for comedy, cleverness or rightly applied sarcasm.
Now, while there is a place for realism, responsible involvement, prophetic confrontation, theological examination, and even sarcasm, the sad truth is that too many of our realists, watchdogs, prophets, theologians and comics are often little more than jerks with a platform or people with anger or control issues. But since they are loud and love spotlights, they seem to tinge the whole world with their cynicism.
For the Christian, cynicism utterly misses the point of grace and the gospel. It puts all the weight for producing a better world on me, and those who see the world as I do. The reason we end up bitter, tired and hopeless is that we were never designed to produce a better world. Only Jesus can do that, because only Jesus knows the way the world is supposed to be, and only Jesus has the power to transform lives in a way that makes miracles appear in the middle of our mess. And miracles have a funny way of diluting cynicism and nurturing hope.
Cynicism is an emerging national “virtue”. But it doesn’t have to be.
There are people who claim to be Christ-followers scattered across every spectrum of our great country: rich, middle class and poor; Democrat, Republican and independent, Tea Party or Coffee Party; evangelical, mainline and Catholic; rural, small town and urban; unknown, little known and famous. We live in thousands of neighborhoods, work in or attend millions of businesses and schools where we gather in break rooms, in student areas, and on ball fields.
What do you suppose would happen if even a few of those people would believe, hold fast to, live and speak out of this reality: “Christ in you, the hope of glory…” (Col. 1:27)? What if the larger hope of Jesus began to mark our discussions of politics, economics, government policy, current events, art, popular culture, generations, community improvements, theology and mission? What if the larger hope of Jesus promoted us to, as Wendell Berry encourages “believe the best you can imagine in the face of the evidence” ?
I suspect that a different attitude would emerge. It won’t be fast. One moment of trusting in Jesus more than politics, money or military or “being right” at a time. One conversation at a time. One blog post or comment at a time. One Facebook update or Tweet at a time. One commentary at a time. One touch of the hope of Jesus from one life to another…one at a time.
And the atmosphere of our society would change.
See, the hope of Jesus is never comes alone. It brings along goodness and mercy, joy and peace. Christ-hope sparks imagination of a substantive life, a better beauty.
And where Christ-hope’s imagination runs free, cynicism cannot live. It will wither away, like five-day old cut flowers. Where Christ-hope’s imagination runs free, nations grow strong and free, while churches grow deep and true.
Hope is a better virtue than cynicism.