Peace, Be Still
As these words key into the computer file, I see off to the side news updates on the latest deluge to hit the Gulf Coast. Déjà Vu was never so debilitating. Again! Again! And are the still-smoldering fires out west just the latest in an ever-accelerating burnoff of the world as we know it?
We were warned of a second wave of COVID-19 infection—and death—but way too many of us acted herdlike in thinking it a passing howl in the night we could ward of by clustering together in silence. Will there be a third wave before the magic potion appears, borne to us on the same optimistic wings that took men to the moon, even as they decline us the closest light-years of a limitless sky? But COVID-19 has cousins already hiving their way from the recesses, released by climate change and global demographics. Will we continue to find antidotes or resort to garlic and crucifixes. Déjà vu redux!
In my life I once thought 1968 the year of chaos confined by memory to a past left behind. That was the year of civil rights fought for at risk of life, of mass demonstrations against an endless war made more toxic by the Tet offensive, of homegrown terrorism, of the assassination of two men—one a nation’s conscience and the other its future. And it was the year of a chaotic political convention—rancor inside and police brutality in the streets. But I am undone by déjà vu. We seem to be there again.
Who could have imagined that more than a half century later we would be still engaged in wars that have lasted half that interval; that one cold war is replaced by at least three more with Russia, China, and Iran? Or that the civil rights movement once won, we should be facing off in the streets again. Or that a Berlin wall swept away by freedom should figuratively be erected on our border; behind which we wallow in the debris of a Constitution.
I know that this issue of Liberty will come to many readers right at the intersection of a presidential election. It may be yet to come or already a thing of the past for you. No matter; the chaos is a present constant! And no ballot-festooned hero is capable of undoing the present reality by any snap of the executive fingers.
It might be that my title, and the figures of speech I used in explaining the turmoil, evoke a certain scene from the New Testament of the Bible. Intended.
For years I had hanging on my office wall a limited edition line print of a storm at sea. The waves were towering mountains of compressed foam sliding into the deepest valleys. In the center of the frame is a figured leaning into the wind, spray drenching his garments. He is climbing a cresting wave and reaching toward a small squall-squashed derelict of a fishing boat in which cover several men. It is the most realistic representation I have ever seen of the Gospel account of Jesus walking through the storm and calming it for His awestruck disciples. In times of stress I have studied this scene and almost felt the spray and heard the crash of angry waves and recognized the purpose in the Stormwalker’s outing.
Several years ago I was in Antigua, Guatemala, for Easter week. The festive decorations in the streets included whole roadways overlaid with colored sawdust painted scenes, swept away in a moment by processions of costumed reenactors and phalanxes of men bearing aloft huge platforms with statuary and saints. But my wife and I were drawn along with tens of thousands in a moving flood of people to a local church. Getting closer, we were slowed to a jostle and an amoeba-like shuffle that took us slowly inside, till at last we stood pinned to a barricade in the middle of the large church. In front of us was a huge diorama. Brilliantly painted waves wavered in sync with power sound effects of a storm. Above us teetered and rocked a fishing boat with larger-than-life, clearly terrified sailors. And in front of us, reaching toward them, the Man who could calm any storm. It was a powerful display! While the sound effects were loud, the huge crowd was almost silent. Villagers from the far mountains, who may never have been on the ocean, and office workers from the city, who dream of a holiday at the beach, all stood silently at the scene. And I remembered my first visit to Guatemala, at Christmastime and similar celebrations, but during a bitter guerrilla war and the daily appearance of dead bodies along the roadsides. Somehow the storms in that country have subsided.
Lately I have rediscovered a book I read while working for some years back in my homeland of Australia. It was once in the library of a two-story publishing house I worked at there. I had heard that in the mid-1930s, a time of economic depression, the nearby stream flooded up into the second level and the library there. Many of the books when opened years later had a layer of fine red silt, which would fall out as dust. This book, as I open it today, still carried the tale of that flood. It is a book I read and reread. Called The Christ We Forget, it was written in 1917 toward the end of the Great War, by P. Whitwell Wilson, a newspaper journalist and member of the British parliament.
I wish I could share it all here. A long-forgotten evangelist named J. Wilbur Chapman, a pupil of Dwight L. Moody’s, and who once held an evangelistic series attended by a total of 1.5 million people, had this to say about the book: “One of the greatest books I’ve ever read.” I will make do with quoting a few lines from the introduction.
“Before the war,” wrote Wilson, “many of us were making money, others were busily earning it. Our children were getting on nicely at school. Certainly there were grave evils, like drink, and bitter social inequalities, and rancorous political quarrels, and reckless extravagances, which gave us uneasy twinges of conscience. But we drifted, in tens, hundreds of thousands, from public worship. We ceased to pray. . . .
“Then—suddenly—we were brought face to face with facts which we had forgotten.One of these facts was Death—another was Pain—another was Hatred—another was National Duty—another was Suspense. We learned that life is not a game, but a grim, heroic combat between good and evil.
“Hopes of a better dawn have encouraged us. We are sure that faith will return.
“Yes—but Faith in what? Faith in Whom? . . .
“We must all long for the time when once more this same Jesus who died shall be known again among men, not as a crucifix merely, or as a shadow, but in all His fullness of love, of power, of wisdom, of suffering, and of victory.”
I am a Christian, and I quote these lines not to cut any of our continuing defense of religious liberty for all. And we must defend the right of all to believe or reject as their conscience leads. But I speak to those who remember that the society that some centuries ago became the United States of America was rather uniformly Christian and indeed Protestant Christian. Of late that nostalgia has become blurred in an unseemly way, with a desire to make America great again by reforming it into a Christian structure of government. That is not only constitutionally misguided, but misses the way virtue touches a people: not by edict but by example.
It seems to me our present distress has given us two dangers in this election. One of them is before us. The first, if the mandate of the people has it for continuation of the last four years, is an increased insistence by a religious coalition that America be Christianized by legislation—and barring that by proclamation. The other hazard, if there has been a change of administration, is joining the papal global initiative to save the planet from destruction—an admirable goal. But the plan is doctrinal at base and will require mandated worship on a holy day—not a good day for continued religious freedom.
The storm still rages.
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."