The morally heroic and the rescue of culture

heroic graphic

By Ed Vitagliano
A nation coming apart at the seams, rent by strife and factionalism. Founding principles are jettisoned, replaced by a cynical “will to power” that engenders graft and corruption. The people, having rejected moral traditions and embraced relativism, become obsessed with sex, heartily applauding sexual anarchy and perversion. Monogamy is disregarded, and marriage as an institution begins to disintegrate. A declining birthrate threatens eventual extinction as the use of contraceptives and abortion abounds as a means to limit the number of children. Unemployment grows and a flagging creative spirit haunts a once robust economy.

All these symptoms of a sick society are everywhere evident in America, but in reality the symptoms have been repeated countless times in human history.

That is the conclusion, not of a moralizing pulpit-banger or a conservative Christian commentator blathering on talk radio, but of two non-Christian scientists from the last century.

In his 1934 classic work, Sex and Culture, British anthropologist J. D. Unwin studied 80 societies, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, English and others. He analyzed their cultural beliefs and practices, especially as related to sex and marriage.
Then in 1956, Pitirim A. Sorokin, founder of the sociology department at Harvard University, released a similar work titled The American Sex Revolution.

Both saw the same cultural patterns throughout history: (1) As nascent societies are led upward by discoveries, new ideas and trailblazing individuals, energy is put forth into cultural improvements. (2) Expansion and new endeavors and even more discoveries are made, and success ensues. (3) Enjoying those successes eventually leads to stagnation, population decline, egotism and a rejection of the common good. (4) Decay sets in and a period of wrestling with this decay is the result, often followed by a downward death spiral from which the society cannot extricate itself. (5) A younger, more vigorous culture that is in the second stage begins to push on the edges and eventually supplants the older, once great culture.

Linchpin: Sex and marriage
Both Unwin and Sorokin saw a common factor in every such decaying society: changing attitudes and actions regarding monogamy in marriage.

Strong cultures always upheld monogamy in marriage and resisted a loosening of mores regarding sex outside it. However, when the people turned away from this view of sex and marriage, they always began the process of decline.

In effect, cultures always experienced something akin to our own sexual revolution as a catalyst to the decay process. As the Bible says, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Unwin said the culture “that tolerates sexual anarchy is slowly but surely debilitating itself, impairing its collective health and endangering its very survival.”

Why should this be so? Sexual laxness becomes a manifestation of a broader and deeper problem – a growing love of pleasure and self-indulgence. In order to enjoy life’s pleasures, self-discipline is cast aside and decay sets in, much like a once strong and fast athlete who has retired to a luxurious but sedentary lifestyle loses the “edge” that once resulted in excellence.

‘Morally heroic’ counter-revolutionaries
Historically, there were always some within a culture that resisted the initiation of sexual revolution, and these people hindered the corruption process.

While neither Unwin nor Sorokin was religious, both argued from their research that a decaying society might be saved – but only if there remained within it a stratum of citizens who were willing to hold to the culture’s moral traditions.

Sorokin explained that, as the ideas and consequences of a sexual revolution become evident, the members of this moral resistance “become more religious, morally heroic and sexually continent in the periods of disorders and great calamities.”

If they remained committed to sexual restraint and monogamous marriage; and if these counter-revolutionaries did not themselves succumb to the rising tide of immorality; “the process of decline may be halted,” Sorokin said, and the society “may regain its mental and moral sanity; may halt the dangerous drift through complete deterioration.”

Christians should see the clear biblical parallels in the research of Unwin and Sorokin. Believers are called by Jesus to be salt and light in their culture (Matthew 5:13-16). Using Sorokin’s words, Christians must be willing to be that “morally heroic” stratum in an otherwise decaying populace if there is any hope for a reversal of cultural decline.

Enduring persecution and pain
Of course, being salt and light is not an easy thing to do. Jesus repeatedly warned His disciples that they would endure pressure, ridicule and even persecution for remaining faithful to His word.

Not surprisingly, the research of Unwin and Sorokin validate this as well. Sorokin, for example, said that the majority, up until the very brink of disaster, failed to understand the dangerous path upon which it had embarked.

“Most peoples and leaders of decaying societies were unaware of their cancerous sickness,” he said. “Most of them were sanguine about their present state and future prospects. They continued to live cheerfully in a fool’s paradise, and hopefully looked forward to the realization of their unrealistic dreams. Their leaders attacked all honest appraisals of the situation and called them false prophecies of doom and gloom.”

Ironically, then, the sexual revolutionaries didn’t appreciate the warnings of the counter-revolutionaries. As George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, famously said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Even if outright persecution does not break out against faithful Christians, they must still be prepared to endure the hardships of living in a society that is deteriorating. The Bible is filled with the examples of godly men and women who had to live through the pain and anguish of cultural corruption – and often the judgment that followed.

For example, Jeremiah – the “weeping prophet” – cried out as his nation disintegrated all around him: “My eyes run down with streams of water because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lamentations 3:48).

Repairing ruined lives
Rolling up the sleeves to help the victims of societal upheaval, enduring the slings and arrows of the adherents of debauchery, preparing for a long renovation of overturned foundations – this is the workload that will fall upon the shoulders of those called by Jesus Christ to be salt and light.

Obviously, no society is eternal and all cultures eventually weaken and die. But the research of Unwin and Sorokin provide real world examples of the pain of disobedience to God – whether done in ignorance or rebellion – and the power of renewal to restore.

As another prophet said of the coming time of Christian influence: “Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins, they will raise up the former devastations, and they will repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4)

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