If you’re unfamiliar with Jordan B. Peterson, then I’d like to invite you into this commentary with a brief intro. Peterson is a Canadian psychologist, lecturer, and highly popular YouTuber. He is a bestselling author, cultural critic, and podcaster as well. His online lectures, which have made the rounds in the millions, revolve around bettering one’s self. One of Peterson’s most famous adages is “clean your room” — a call to better one’s self before one attempts to go out and change the world. Yet many forget the initial controversy that helped to propel Dr. Peterson to Internet darling.
In 2016, Canada introduced legislation that could punish a citizen for misgendering an individual. “Gender expression and identity” would be protected and be seen as a form of discrimination should someone be found guilty of the verbal trespass. Peterson was one of the most vocal dissenters of the legislation, prompting several interviews across various news outlets as Peterson’s viewpoints trickled into the public spotlight. Peterson claimed the bill bordered on compelled speech and would result in further legislation to control thought and inadvertently criminalize innocent people.
But the watershed moment in Peterson’s rebellion was his proclamation of what he’d do should he be forced into a jail sentence. “I’ll starve myself. I won’t eat.”
This bold claim caused even more people to take notice. But for many, such as myself, Peterson’s defiance upended the ideals of the bill itself. Why would someone threaten to starve himself? Wasn’t the bill inherently good? Wasn’t this about defending the expressions and rights of those who are transgender or at the very least, transgender-minded? Peterson didn’t think so. He saw the bigger picture and was willing to go straight for the jugular to get his point across.
“I’ll starve myself. I won’t eat.” In other words, “I’m ready and willing to suffer to show you the truth.”
This idea of suffering in the face of something that was originally meant to stop the suffering of others, stifled observers. If anything, it expanded the conversation on Bill C-16 and what it could mean if carried to fruition. If someone, an intellectual like Peterson, was willing to hurt his own body in order to get his point across, then perhaps this warranted a closer look.
LIFE IS SUFFERING; BUT YOU MUST OVERCOME IT
Western Christians are not accustomed to suffering for their faith. I can attest to that truth myself. The most frequent injunction I face on behalf of my faith is a heated disagreement; the kind I can either walk away from or close my computer and then go to bed. To my own shame and embarrassment, stories of the persecuted brethren across the world are difficult for me to relate to. The idea of hiding out in cellars, in underground tunnels, and organizing secret meetings sounds like the stuff of Hollywood. And yet, this is the experience of many outside the Western world who profess Jesus Christ.
There are a multitude of reasons for why I feel this way. There is the abundance of resources, for starters, that causes Christians like myself to struggle with what it looks like to live sacrificially for Christ. Having been born into a country that values altruistic spending, aka capitalism, I am the benefactor of a system which pits value against value. Good against good. Better against best. And the winners are the ones who make the wisest of transactions, which can, in turn, benefit others as well.
The Western established government is another. A system that provides freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, among other freedoms that — again — are not afforded to others outside of America’s borders. To be able to meet in public (we’ll get to that later) or pray at a business without being dragged into the streets is a powerful privilege. Something I admit, I had not always done even when asked of me to do so.
But the most glaring reason for our disconnect, in light of the pandemic, is the American need for security. It’s not just the resources and comforts, but the desire for a secure, predictable livelihood. A nice bed, a rooftop over one’s head, and a neighborhood without crime are not bad things, mind you. They are not something to be avoided in order to “fight the secular system” either. But when placed on the throne of one’s most sought-after life experience, it leaves little room for Christ to penetrate. It makes God into a bully; an opposer to what’s good rather than the giver of all good things. It even turns God into a safety net, when you’re meant to cast the net alongside Him. And ultimately, it confuses what Christ-centered pursuit can look like. The landscape of American culture tends to idolize and demonize financially successful Christians, while simultaneously doing the same thing to Christian transients. It would seem that the two sides are not friends at all, but bitter enemies in their war over what American culture could look like if only God had His way.
But again, there is this pesky thing called suffering that we must contend with. A successful businessman (or woman) who claims to be Christian may look like someone whose life is devoid of suffering. It may only be that upon closer inspection, might we see the trials and tribulations that brought this person to monetary triumph. The same can be said for the gypsy-like Christian; whose “suffering” may appear to be counter to American gluttony, but manages to find security in a land where even its lower class citizens would be considered upper-middle class in many other countries.
What is the answer then? And why call attention to an agnostic who is defying his secular government (i.e. Peterson)? It’s because of the example Dr. Peterson set forth. His willingness to suffer was not only disarming, it was defiant in the face of a tyrannical proposition. Dr. Peterson was a student of history and well-versed in the psychology of social movements. He recognized the slippery slope. He had a deep and intimate understanding of what the next likely progression could be. For it had happened before and as human history tells us, could very well happen again.
As Christians, are we capable of doing the same? Do we know how to stand up for righteousness when the time calls for us to do so? And even more so, do we know the cost associated with standing in the face of an injustice? I ask these questions because I certainly don’t have the answers, but am willing to engage the questions openly. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in this pandemic, it’s the cowardice of the American Christian.
This is not to paint a broad brush upon every Christian who lives in America — myself not excluded. But I would argue the way Christians have embedded themselves in American culture. Suffering, at least on behalf of doing what is right in the sight of God, is a lost discipline. It’s the reason why the likes of Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn are more widely known among non-believers than Ravi Zacharias or Francis Chan. The perception of what Christianity entails is more synonymous with high living and moral lessons than being a beacon of truth and light.
How to change this? First of all, it’s important to remember that Christ was not rebellious for the sake of being rebellious. He spoke directly to the problems of the day. He knew precisely what was hampering the faith and hearts of His own people. This is to be the posture of every Christian, in every generation. What ails my generation may not be the focal point of the one that follows. Yet the focus remains the same: ascertain what God is up to; understand what God says is good and what He says is evil; then we move accordingly in the direction of what is good while denouncing what is evil. Both in example and in execution of our words.
The pandemic has exposed how Christians are grappling with this application. Churches, big and small, have expressed confusion on what to do. Should we stay open? Should we have children’s services? Should we obey our local governors to a tee (because that’s what our Bible says to do)? Now, after more than six months of the virus being at our shores, are we doing what God would want us to do in the face of an outbreak?
Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church (California) has recently garnered national attention. Not for a recent book release, though he’s had many bestsellers, but due to his open defiance against Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders. Orders that include punishments for “gathering in church” and even “singing and worshipping”. But Pastor MacArthur’s church, of more than several thousand attendees, has continued to meet every Sunday despite Newsom’s mandate.
On the surface, this appears to be foolish. Perhaps even troublesome to the American Christian. Yet Pastor MacArthur’s response to the situation has been simple: “Churches are essential…at this point, the virus’ survival rate is over 99%…the chances of death in your life are 100%, but there is also the chance that eternal damnation awaits some as well” (paraphrased). His words have catalyzed other churches to take notice.
But this still leaves the uncomfortable PR about defying government orders. This is another gray area for evangelicals across America. What should Christians do? I will defer to Pastor MacArthur again for more insight into the situation: “We uphold the law when the law is just…and what’s more, the order telling the churches not to gather is unconstitutional.” As Pastor MacArthur has put it — it violates the freedom to assembly. And the right to practice their faith without government oversight or injunction.
Both of MacArthur’s answers should matter a lot to Christians. We uphold the law when the law is just. Well, who dictates that? God does. And it requires an intimate understanding of Biblical doctrine, Biblical views, and a reliance on the Holy Spirit to be able to see the difference. The second part is also important: knowing the laws of the country by which you reside within. Many Christians are strangely in the dark over this matter. Not only do we have a lack of knowledge of our country’s own history, but we are ignorant to the point of not knowing when our rights — as Americans — have been violated.
I would venture to guess that most Christians know the names of their favorite sports teams or preferred worship songs, but to have a general understanding of their public servants, policies and services is liable to be a place of relative ignorance. Or perhaps there is a knowledge of the latter but a genuine lack of the former (upholding God’s law) which muddies the waters so badly. Either way, it takes a seasoned pastor to make the bold statement that churches are not only essential, but they are also honoring their governments by defying their orders when they are unjust.
SITTING WITH THOSE YOU DISAGREE WITH
Jesus regularly ate with sinners. He adopted those who were spiritually dead and rejected the ones whose obedience to God were displayed through titles only (the Pharisees and Sadducees). This example is pressed into just about every Sunday service I can remember. Jesus takes the beaten and brokenhearted into His arms as much as He is willing to receive the financially prosperous and mighty. But there is that one critical detail we often miss: the open invitation to sit with those who would call you a liar.
After Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise, he traveled the globe. His lectures on anxiety, depression, and “get yourself together” lessons turned him into a self-help guru. But many categorized him as a 21st century theologian. For it was not merely the fringe players that Jordan found himself hanging out with, it was other intellectuals. It was other prominent voices, namely those who did not always agree with his conclusions. Peterson engaged with atheists like Sam Harris in open debate; he toured with liberals like Dave Rubin; he sat in on discussions with conservatives like Ben Shapiro; and he recorded podcasts with former marines like Jocko Wilink, a man who lauded Peterson as someone that had “lived a completely different life from his own, but wound up coming to the same conclusions about how to live one’s life” (paraphrased).
Peterson’s openness to cross pollinate with so many other voices turned him into a popular name overnight. And though one could attribute his sudden rise as the reason for his many rendezvous’s, it was his ability to make friends, or at the very least be cordial, with the ones speaking into similar spaces that helped him to make so many appointments. And here’s the kicker: many of whom did not subscribe to all of his beliefs.
Granted, we would not expect every pastor to do the same. There are already enough expectations upon local church leadership to juggle an online personality. But therein lies one of the many faults with Westernized Christianity. What titles are we required to wear in order to be an effective witness? How do Christians actively engage with those who would potentially turn them away right off? It bears repeating, but it is the mere desire to engage on a regular basis (looking myself in the mirror here).
All too often, Christians are told to “love their neighbors”, but the execution is lackluster. To many, that means “don’t bother someone like you would prefer not to be bothered”. Or it may come off as, “let your neighbor do whatever pleases him or her.” But neither extreme turns out to be correct. Instead, it’s actively “showing up” in times of need and also in times of calm. It’s investment. It’s reminding oneself that there are souls who do not profess Christ, and we ought to be proactively engaging with them in their lives. Sound easy? Even bothersome? It will be. But that’s the point.
STAYING RELEVANT BY NAMING WHAT’S RELEVANT
Lastly, one of Peterson’s greatest qualities is his fearlessness to call things for what they are. From his resistance to Bill C-16 to his lectures on personal responsibility, Peterson engages the culture with precisely the buzzwords of his detractors. Neo-Marxism, for example, is an ideology many Americans have been unfamiliar with. As are the many atrocities associated with the former Soviet Union.
Americans (and Christians) regularly use Hitler, the Nazis, or the father of lies himself, Lucifer, as the standard for darkness. But there are other ideologies just as dangerous to America — and by extension Christianity — that exist. The gulags of the Soviet Union are eerily similar to the concentration camps of the Holocaust, the latter being widely regarded by Americans as the single worst atrocity of the last 100 years. Peterson, in contrast, puts light on more than the usual suspects — a feat which awakens his followers to the many enemies of Western civilization, both past and present. It’s not mere Nazism that threatens the West, it’s a host of other bad philosophies. It’s Marxism. It’s white privilege. It’s intersectionality and identity politics run amok. Peterson does not shy away from structures of thought that can result in tyranny.
Can the Church do the same?
I recognize there is always a fear that the Church will become a house of politics rather than a house of the Lord. But the Church cannot survive if it ignores obvious evils. Even if politics are ignored, or social issues never raised, the people who leave the halls on Sunday will still face them down. Do we give our own too much credit to ‘get it right’ when the time arises? Only up until a few years ago did I finally start to see articles denouncing Jesus as a ‘socialist’ enthusiast; a reaction partially made due to the growing trend of young people adopting the philosophy.
Then there are more deceptive evils like the Black Lives Matter organization. From a 10,000 foot view, black lives do matter, but if one analyzes the actual organization’s beliefs and goals, BLM transforms from a vehicle to enact social equality to a Trojan Horse for a Neo-Marxist agenda. How many churches are speaking about this? Or are they merely just trying their hand at peaceable race reconciliation?
It was Jerry Falwell, Sr. who once said that churches ought to “let government handle itself” while the Church handle its own. But when Roe v. Wade was passed, it was clear that even though the Church abandoned the political space, its people had not. They were still having to live their lives for six days out of the week, apart from the umbrella of the Church, despite what its leaders might have believed. Falwell would later recant of his remarks, helping to lead what is now the “pro-life” movement.
There’s plenty baked into this post, but I will leave you with this: people are equal, ideas are not. I cannot claim to be the originator of this phrase. For I borrowed it from the late great, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. But I wanted to say this for I know there are many who would read this piece and perhaps think that the Church is beyond reproach. Or that the people who make up these ideologies are somehow “villains” or the “bad guys”. So again, I will remind Christians of what the apostle Paul reminded the church: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
The Church’s members are meant to be the preservers of good things (salt). And to expose evil wherever it operates (light). This edict has not changed. Thus, outside of relying on an agnostic academic to make an impact on her behalf, can the Church, at large, move forward where even JBP has not? Even more so, where Peterson ultimately cannot? There is still time for the Church to “clean up her room”.