Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(“The Second Coming”, William Butler Yeats)
In 1920 the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem about civilization’s descending trajectory into chaos. In that post-World War I setting he portrayed in “The Second Coming” a world strewn upside down: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Yet remarkable to Yeats is that the “best” were apathetic while the “worst” were filled with passion and intensity.
Today, along with Yeats, many worry about where our culture is headed; they worry why the “best” seemed paralyzed by inaction while loud, strident voices grow more intense. How do Jesus followers act when things seem to fall apart?
Here again we do best to look to the New Testament and listen to the voices of those who overcame a world empire. Specifically, the little letter of First Peter has some remarkably prescient words for us today in what some call a “Culture War”.
In this brief letter the Apostle Peter writes “To the exiles in the Dispersion” (I Peter 1:1). His readers are early Christians “dispersed” or scattered throughout what is modern northern Turkey. This is a time that an ancient Culture War has erupted into violent persecution of Christians. Peter writes from Rome (referred to in cryptic code as “Babylon”, I Peter 5:13), sometime between the cataclysmic years of A. D. 64 – 67. Peter, who will soon die by crucifixion at the hands of Emperor Nero, is advising fellow Christ followers on Christ-like behavior in the wake of a culture coming apart.
Remarkably Peter writes at a time when Christians were dipped in tar and burned as torches illuminating Nero’s garden parties. Other Christians were tied behind chariots and dragged to their deaths through the streets of Rome. Peter knows that the persecution that has erupted in Rome will likely spread to his readers. Thus, Peter notes that his readers are already being slandered for their Christian life-style and with more sure to come (I Peter 2:12; 3:14-16; 4:14). Indwelt by the very Spirit of his Lord Peter writes the following instructions to any caught in the crossfire of a Culture War (I Peter 3:9-11, 14-16):
Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days,?let them keep their tongues from evil?and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it”… But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
As I reflect on Peter’s remarkable words I realize that he has learned a lot of grace since that night he sliced off a soldier’s ear thinking he had to defend Jesus. Now Peter is writing in the Spirit of Jesus calling for love in the face of opposition. Rather than being paralyzed by fear Peter advises blessing those who wish to do harm. I am helped, by underlining some of Peter’s key instructions for us:
- Repay with a blessing
- Do not fear what they fear
- Do not be intimidated
- Sanctify (set apart) Christ as Lord of our lives
- Be ready to give an answer to any who ask why I have hope
- Reply to opponents questions with gentleness and reverence
- Keep our consciences clear in the midst of everything that is happening
Here is surely what it would mean for us to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), bringing preservative power to a culture in decay. Here is what it would mean to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) for those in darkness. Without this, the center cannot hold. Things will fall apart.
I encourage you to relate today’s text to last week’s (February 19) conversation in The Living Room as we sought to explore Christian civility in an uncivil world. You can pick up on this conversation by going to The Living Room page.
Let’s pray for each other as we seek to follow Jesus more faithfully to help the center hold
Grace and peace,
NOTE: Beginning this next Friday, February 28, The Living Room radio conversation will be broadcast live each Friday at 12:00 Noon Mountain Standard Time. You can listen to any of the weekly conversations 24/7 on podcast.
photo by Chris Seward