Future generations always demonize the ethical blinds of the past. It is easy for us to demonize the choices of Columbus or Andrew Jackson, because their culture treated other races as less than human. I am not excusing them, for there were others of their culture who did not accept those cultural blinds, but were able to accept all people as equal. Perhaps Stowe or Wilberforce had their own limitations, and were not as enlightened as, say, Archbishop Tutu or MLK Jr., but without the message and sacrifices of these, the latter would never have had the opportunity to speak.
All I am trying to say is that every age has their own cultural blinders that limit them from, what looks to outsiders, obvious moral choices. The ethical choices are always there, always a possibility, but the zeitgeist of each era causes a fog to appear, and only those who choose to clear the fog from their own minds are able to see it.
It would be easy, and probably profitable, to look back on history to see the zeitgeists of eons past to see how these limitations limit people’s obvious moral choices. What is more difficult is to apply this principle to our own age, to our own lives. What are our own cultural blinders that limit us to obvious moral choices?
In the United States, and probably the West in general, one of the most significant ones is the destructive result of our lifestyles. Because of our lifestyles, millions are impoverished, the resources of the earth are being diminished, governments are being toppled, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are being killed.
The obvious moral choice is to change our lifestyle. To change the way we look at our material wealth. To live in a completely different way, different from those who live around us.
And yet this change is so difficult. Impossible.
I’ve been teaching in my Sunday services about how Jesus requires all of us to be “anawim” in order to obtain God’s utopia. The anawim are the lowly and outcast who are seeking God. Jesus says that in order to be the type of anawim He wants us to be, we need to sacrifice our family and wealth; we need to be ready to be persecuted; we need to practice hospitality to all in need. Jesus demands a lifestyle change if we are going to be His disciples.
Perhaps we can’t do all that is necessary right off the bat. Perhaps we just need to be more bold in order to save our own souls. Perhaps we just need to start somewhere and then start again and again until our lives are in conformity to Jesus’.
So, two questions for us to ponder–what lifestyle choices can we make so as to escape the zeitgeist of materialism and empire? And what other zeitgeists are there that future generations will shake their heads in shame about when they read about us in history books?
Steve, I think this paradigm is a very useful way to think about our own moral oversight. Slavery being bad now seems obvious, but what isn’t obvious to us? One of the great myths of this way of thinking is that things inevitable gets better. But of course, this ignores the huge amount of struggle that went into these zeitgeist changes.
It’s also remarkable how many of these zeitgeist changes Jesus has been calling us to all along if only we were listening. And of course materialism and lifestyle are prime examples.
Unfortunately, given the pace of “progress”, one wonders whether we will manage to change our zeitgeist before we outgrow our planet completely. Some people are suggesting we’ve already outgrown ourselves and are just running on fumes.
This is a really insightful post. The contingency of our own ethical and moral vision is a troubling reality, and I’m sure we can glean a lot from looking at the patterns of vision-shifts from epochs past. And God help us to change in the areas we’re already aware–materialism, nationalism, classism, etc.
But I wonder if trying to “clear away the fog” that is the spirit of our own times is as easy as it sounds. I think this might parallel the “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” myth. We need help to learn where we have logs clouding our vision.
Community and conversation are essential to all of our attempts to see with clarity amid our cultural haze. Looking back on history is a great place to begin, but we have to acknowledge that most of our history books are written by people with strong ties of loyalty to the spirit of our times.
We need to seek out perspectives, voices, belonging to individuals outside of our culture. To find the anawim where they live. Poverty has a way of breaking corporate ties.
So dig into history and reach out to the margins. And pray that the Spirit will give us eyes to see the zeitgeist of today.