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Culture Marches On

June 19, 2014

Well, yesterday the U.S. Patent Office cancelled the trademarks of the NFL Washington Redskins that use the word “Redskins” or pictures containing images depicting such.  The stated reason was that the term and images were hateful and discriminatory.  This move has been a long time in coming as there has been an ever-increasing outrage in our culture about this.

To be sure, not everyone agrees.  There are voices calling the move politically correct and saying that those offended are just too sensitive.  President Obama has gotten his share of the blame for this move, apparently on the assumption that, in the midst of headaches with Iraq, Syria, Russia and elsewhere he has spent a good portion of his time making sure this Patent Office decision took place.

The judgment is being appealed and it could be several years before the patent protection is actually lifted, if it ever is.  Then too, there is no reason the team can’t go right on calling themselves the Redskins, they lose only the marketing monopoly of the goods affected.

People are already speculating who is next.  The Cleveland Indians?  Atlanta Braves?  Chicago Blackhawks?  Or, branching out, if some people find it offensive, should the Minnesota Vikings or Fighting Irish names be dumped?  Are we condemned to a world where if anyone anywhere is offended we have no choice but to give in?  I don’t know but I think there is a lesson here that the evangelical church can learn from; that culture marches on.

What was acceptable in our culture a few years or decades ago may no longer be accepted.  Conversely, what was shunned by our culture may now be tolerated or even accepted.  There is no question that the term “redskin” is seen by an ever-increasing segment of society as offensive.  It doesn’t matter how much the NFL owner believes he is not being offensive, cultural judgment is moving the other way and he really needs to just get over it.

Churches have never been particularly good at accepting cultural changes.  As sure as we are that we are “biblically correct” we fight in the public sphere to make following our beliefs mandatory for those who do not share them.  There is nothing new here.  For nearly 2,000 years slavery and Christianity has coexisted.  Important “heroes of the faith” were big supporters of slavery.  As much as we try and whitewash that fact they often lagged behind and even strongly opposed (quoting Bible verses) the shift  toward abolition, they frequently did.

George Whitefield, for example, was a great evangelist but he not only supported slavery, he actually lobbied and campaigned to introduce it in places (Georgia for example) where it did not exist.  For 20 years or more his writings supported and urged the institution of slavery.  Yet none of this effort makes it into evangelical biographies of him today.

When cultural shifts take place the church has but two choices.  We can examine our beliefs and, after a long hard look at the passages we drew from, change our minds.  If we do this, then culture, as with slavery, has done us a great favor.  Yes, I know other Christians were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.  I am not sure how we can celebrate Wilberforce as a hero of the faith for his stance and not condemn Whitefield for his opposing stance.

The second option is to, after an honest look at our beliefs, affirm them.  But in this option our question becomes how do we live with grace in an environment where culture has marched on?  For as long as there has been a church it has learned to survive and thrive in an atmosphere of cultural antagonism.  We American evangelicals are singularly bad at this practice however.  Long used to a cultural majority; we turn to either head-in-the-sand denials of reality or become pouting sore losers stalking off the cultural stage.

If we truly believe that we are called to the Great Commission the latter choice is not an option and the former one is a spectacularly useless tactic to reach those in a changing culture.

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