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Jesus offers Christians a third way. It’s neither engagement nor disengagement. Rather, it’s re-engagement.
Jesus in the Midst of a Cultural War
For a number of decades, Western culture has been labelled ‘post-Christian’. Inherent in this label is the notion that, while retaining a degree of Judaeo-Christian philosophy at root level, Western culture is almost thoroughly otherwise at the level of social policy and practice. Christians, whose values once ran concurrent with the values of the culture in which they resided, are now often finding themselves at odds with the very civilisation they helped to create.
This has been evidenced most obviously in the recent cultural debates – ideological conflicts known as the ‘culture wars’. Christians, by and large, have often sided against pervading Western cultural thinking on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and Islamic extremism. This has made them the target of widespread public ire amid accusations of bigotry, intolerance, and homophobia. Given the gravity of such accusations, and the hazardous political climate, how should Christians manifest themselves in a culture that is post-Christian? How can Christians meaningfully contribute to a society they are increasingly at odds with?
Recent examples suggest Christians are still struggling to answer those questions. Israel Folau has demonstrated the polarising dangers associated with public declarations on social media of some of the Bible’s more confronting passages. Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option, goes to the opposite extreme in suggesting the solution lies in Christians disengaging from the culture altogether for the sake of the church’s survival and the preservation of the faith as a whole.
The potential flaw in these two Christian approaches to the culture wars of a post-Christian society is the failure to ask the most important question: what would Jesus do? How would Jesus behave in a culture hostile to him, with people of differing values to his own? Thankfully, a story in the Gospel of John provides a window into Jesus’ attitude towards those for whom matters of culture were causes for tension and division.
John tells the story of Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman of uncertain character (John 4:17-18). This encounter is significant. First, as John notes, Jews and Samaritans were not people who shared pleasantries. Jews viewed Samaritans as second-class citizens: an estranged community marginalised by a dubious history of foreign contacts and associations.
Second, the Jews saw in the Samaritans not a remnant of Israel, but rather a people to be avoided. This attitude was demonstrated earlier in the Jewish refusal of Samaritan help in the rebuilding of the temple after the return of the first Judean exiles under Zerubbabel in 538 BC (Ezra 4). This contributed, thirdly, to a divisive animosity between Jews and Samaritans over matters of tradition, ethnicity, and religious observance. In this simple encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus finds himself in the midst of a centuries-long culture war between his own people and the people to whom this woman belongs.
The Samaritan woman knows this. When Jesus initiates a conversation with her by asking for a drink (4:7), her response demonstrates the tension between the two ethnic parties: ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ (4:9). Before the conversation has even begun, the Samaritan woman brings up an ethnic tension between Jews and Samaritans in an effort to draw Jesus into the culture war. As the conversation progresses, she continues this effort by bringing in historical tensions: ‘Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.’ (4:12). When the conversation reaches its climax, she raises the most divisive issue of all: tradition. The woman says to Jesus: ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.’ (4:20). She seems to want to determine whose religious history is right.
Despite the Samaritan woman repeatedly seeking to draw Jesus into a divisive culture war conversation, Jesus, in each instance, refuses to engage with her about culturally divisive topics. In every case, Jesus responds to her provocations with an answer that addresses a different, more real issue.
In the first instance, instead of talking about a Jew needing a Samaritan for help, Jesus addresses her need for him: ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ (4:10). In the second, instead of debating the finer points of history, Jesus emphasises the need for true nourishment: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.’ (4:13–14). And, finally, instead of arguing over the true location of worship, Jesus asserts the importance of the true quality of worship: ‘The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…’ (4:23). In the midst of a culturally tense situation, instead of entering into a potentially incendiary conversation, Jesus focuses on drawing her closer to him. Jesus doesn’t answer any of her questions because, while culturally significant, they are irrelevant to the real issue: humanity’s need for true spiritual nourishment that is only found in him.
Christians today often find themselves in conversations not unlike Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. Too often, Christians will stoop to the level of cultural debate with those whom they disagree, resulting in little more than unproductive arguments. This gives the impression of Christians who speak at people, telling them all the ways in which they are wrong, preaching a message of guilt and judgement. Because of this, Christians tend to double-down on their position or disengage altogether.
Jesus offers Christians a third way. It’s neither engagement nor disengagement. Rather, it’s re-engagement. Jesus’ way of navigating a culture war is to reframe the conversation around real issues: not of culture but of spiritual need and fulfilment. Following Jesus’ example means being humble enough to put aside cultural differences and interested enough in a person to have a conversation about Jesus. The result of Jesus’ conversation is that the Samaritan woman puts aside her entrenched cultural positions and goes away interested in Jesus and his message.
For Christians living in a post-Christian culture, following Jesus means following his example. It doesn’t mean taking up a position on every cultural issue. It means re-engaging a divided world with Jesus, preaching a message of grace and spiritual fulfilment in him.
Christian Bargholz is an associate editor of InterSections. firstname.lastname@example.org