Public Square

Our Guilty Culture

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Universities that once revered free speech are today readily adopting speech codes and censoring speakers. American corporations are jumping on the bandwagon of gay pride and gender equality. Socialism is gaining favor. What has made American culture so receptive to these and other movements that would have been considered far out of mainstream just a few years ago? One primary cause is guilt. Over the past few decades, guilt has made the soil of American culture highly receptive to these and similar ideas. 

Americans consciously or unconsciously feel guilty about many things. Our nation’s history of slavery and real or perceived forms of discrimination top the list. The prosperity we enjoy as Americans can engender guilt when God is not recognized as the source of these blessings. And at a fundamental level, we all stand guilty before a holy God (Rom. 1:18-20). 

Unresolved Guilt In Our Culture

In former times, Americans generally confessed their guilt to God and received forgiveness. But the percentage of Americans possessing a Christian worldview has dwindled to only 6 percent, half of what it was just twenty-five years ago, according to George Barna’s “American Worldview Inventory 2020.” In the 18-to-29-year-old age group, today’s figure is a mere 2 percent. As America has increasingly abandoned a Christian worldview, unresolved guilt has saturated our culture.

“The fact of guilt is one of the major realities of man’s existence,” says Rousas J. Rushdoony in his insightful book, Politics of Guilt and Pity. “As a result of this omnipresent sense of guilt, there is an omnipresent demand for justification…the sinking ego wants to save itself, to find justification by making atonement for its guilt.” 

People cannot atone for their own guilt, of course. Only God can cleanse from sin. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” confessed King David (Ps. 51:4). As Rushdoony points out, when God is out of the picture, the guilty must try to justify themselves. 

Seeking Justification in All the Wrong Places

One method of self-justification is to project guilt on other people and things. Today’s chief targets of blame include our nation, its founders, the police, capitalism, and Western civilization. It should not surprise us that Christianity is especially in the crosshairs because Jesus himself said, “The world…hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” (Jn. 7:7). 

Another method for assuaging the pain of guilt is to do things that will make the guilty feel better about themselves. This is a major reason for the increased emphasis on self-esteem and the rising popularity of movements that are viewed as extraordinarily compassionate, such as sanctuary cities, gay rights, and socialism. Guilt is not necessarily the major impetus for these movements, but it makes American culture more receptive to them.   

Showing compassion to the disadvantaged and fighting injustice are noble endeavors when motivated by faith to glorify God. Unfortunately, because God is largely ignored in our present culture, much of the social justice agenda is characterized by self-righteousness, accusation, and condemnation. The result is division rather than healing. Some movements, such as gay rights and critical race theory, violate biblical precepts. Meanwhile, fighting for the rights of the unborn fails to qualify as a worthy cause in the minds of many.  

Slavery & Freedom 

While growing up in a small town in the south during the forties and fifties, I was part of systemic racism. I remember the water fountains at the courthouse with signs that read “White” and “Colored.” I went to an all-white school and watched movies at the theater where blacks sat in the balcony. This was just the way things were, and as a boy I thought nothing of them. To my greater shame, even as a young adult who should have been aware, I participated in this unjust system without protest. 

But these sins, though significant, are only a fraction of the overall sinfulness of which God has graciously made me aware. He has lovingly shown me the truth of Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I deeply resonate with these words of the apostle Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:19, 24) Thankfully, Paul answers his question with, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 

I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 when nine African Americans were murdered by a white man at an evening bible study at Emanuel Church. I talked with some members of the families of the victims of this tragedy, and I can testify that the forgiveness they immediately extended to the unrepentant murderer and his family was authentic. They had amazing power to forgive because they had first received forgiveness from God through Christ.  

The world cannot understand this type of forgiveness. In describing this specific incident in her New York Times #1 bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson writes, “Black forgiveness of dominant-caste sin has become a spiritual form of having to be twice as good, in trauma, as in other aspects of life, to be seen as half as worthy.” How sad that Wilkerson thinks the victims of this tragedy are extending forgiveness simply to gain worth.    

Despite its serious flaws, Wilkerson’s book makes some helpful contributions to the race-relations dialog. One cannot read her descriptions of the evils of slavery without becoming painfully reminded of the cruelty we humans can inflict on one another. Even her questionable assertion that America has a caste system in which blacks are the equivalent of India’s untouchables can prompt some useful discussion. But because she judges matters strictly through an oppressor/oppressed lens, she ends up merely shuffling the hierarchy of the caste system she criticizes. In her system, the oppressed are on the top rung.  

My heart yearns for Wilkerson and all others to know the joy of the forgiveness of God. Until we are set free by faith in Christ, we all are slaves to the same wicked master: sin. As Jesus said, “…everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn. 8:34). Our common history as slaves and our shared need for a Savior unite us far more than race or any other human characteristic can differentiate us.    

The Only Antidote

Racial injustices are serious, and with God’s help, especially we who are Christians should humbly work to correct them. Perhaps it is an indictment of our past failures that many in the social justice movement consider Christianity to be a system designed by the dominant caste to oppress a few rather than a relationship offered by a loving God to free all. 

Guilt has permeated our culture largely because we Christians have neglected to faithfully preach the gospel to ourselves, share it with our neighbors, and ensure that it is proclaimed in our churches. It is possible to attend more than a few churches in America for many weeks and never hear the straightforward and powerful message of passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 

The gospel is the only antidote for self-righteousness. It alone can demolish the unbiblical responses to guilt that drive some of the destructive currents of contemporary culture.   

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