I am not sure whether anyone is sufficiently qualified to make accurate and diagnostic comments on ‘The State of the Nation’, but this is my own take on the subject, reflecting on what has happened in the past eighteen months.
Comparing the Covid pandemic to either of the two world wars is a pretty well-worn and hackneyed exercise, and in all sorts of ways these two types of events are very dissimilar. But significant crises like these do have certain things in common: they act firstly as a kind of microscopic dye which reveals the true character of society; and secondly, they act as catalysts, accelerating the processes, especially social changes, which were already in motion.
When historians come to write about Covid in decades and generations ahead, there will be a great deal to say and whole sections of bookshops will be given over to the subject. Just as a history of the Second World War is more than a military history, so a history of Covid will be far more than a medical history. It is the psychology and the sociology of these Covid times, more than the epidemiology, which should be especially interesting to us.
Lockdown and its consequences
For most of us, perhaps, Covid will be associated with ‘lockdown’, whatever form the various lockdowns have assumed in the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. One thing which lockdown did, almost immediately, was to cause people to turn inwards to their own homes, families, interests, and preoccupations. But as time went by, it also created an intense, concentrated pressure-cooker situation that lent itself to a kind of tribalism, accentuating strong passions which were already present before, but were magnified when certain stories hit the headlines.
We are aware of these stories: the death of George Floyd in May of last year and the rapid escalation of BLM protests, leading to the toppling of statues of slave-traders and then becoming intertwined with a wider narrative about racism, colonialism, white supremacy, white privilege, and so much more. Then, in March this year, some of the same themes reared their heads again in the Oprah interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. It is interesting that passions boiled over in each of these stories, and that they both happened during the height of a specific lockdown.
But these issues were already being discussed back in January 2020; it was then that Laurence Fox was challenged on Question Time about white privilege, just after the Sussexes had announced that they would ‘step back’ from being full-time royals. The point is that these contentious and divisive subjects become more contentious and divisive during lockdown, but they were already simmering before the word ‘coronavirus’ became everyday language.
There followed the murder of Sarah Everard and the subsequent protest in Clapham Common, just a few days after the Oprah interview was aired. It seemed at one point as though this threatened to be another ‘George Floyd moment’. There was something of a resurgence of the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ that had surfaced after the #MeToo movement and the Gillette advert early in 2019. This is itself part of a much more complex conversation ranging around feminism, LGBT rights (with the ‘T’ of Transgender pulling away from the ‘LGB’), and conversion therapy, which is a very significant and present controversy.
These issues of race, sex, and gender are all part of the fabric of Cultural Marxism, Critical Theory, and Intersectionality. But then we have to add into that mix issues thrown up by Covid itself, and also by climate change. There are certain similarities between Zero-Covid and Net Zero. Both strategies have a Utopian tinge about them. Both, if pursued single-mindedly, could be shown to be extremely costly economically and socially, to the point of being unrealistic. The emerging energy crisis in the UK and across Europe appears to be bearing this out already. Both are, again, highly divisive issues which tend to separate people along party political lines.
Nihilistic world view
But what is perhaps more important is that both are also governed by a mantra of ‘follow the science’, without asking whose science we are following. Science can never be neutral; it must always be undergirded by philosophical and epistemological assumptions and commitments. The myth that science is neutral masks the agendas of those who control the news, control the media, control social media – who might seek to establish a kind of ‘healthcare totalitarianism’ or ‘environmental totalitarianism’ if left unchecked.
So we can pull together these several issues or causes: race, sex, gender, health, the environment – not to mention issues surrounding Brexit as well as the Scottish independence – and it is not hard to trace an identifiable world view which makes recognisable pronouncements in all these areas.
There is a more extreme form of world view which we might associate with the more dramatic and disruptive actions we have seen in a number of public protests, in present ‘cancel culture’, and in the more vitriolic attacks which take place on social media. But there is a more moderate form which is subtler, and therefore all the more dangerous.
What is the distinguishing ideology and commitment behind this world view? It is, essentially, atheistic. It is John Lennon’s Imagine being realised: no heaven above us, no God, therefore no absolute authority, no transcendent voice, no ultimate truth. So what is there? Just a world doomed to extinction populated by warring tribes; a polarised and polarising power struggle, a barren hopelessness.
Nothing is more symptomatic of these circumstances than the directionlessness, purposelessness, and misery of so many younger people in particular. Superficially, their condition may not seem too serious. Many of them are going along to their festivals, preparing to head off to university, engaged with their friends physically as well as on social media. You can still hear a great deal of youthful laughter.
But too often it is a laughter that sounds like ‘the crackling of thorns under a pot’ (Ecclesiastes 7:6). By and large, the Millennials and Generation Z are in thrall to this nihilistic world view. Mental health issues among them are soaring. They have bought into identity politics, and this has widened the gulf between the younger generation and their parents.
And a society characterised by misunderstanding and mistrust between generations is one which is already living on borrowed time – it can scarcely be described as a ‘society’ at all. I have often been struck in the last few years by the relevance of Isaiah 3 to our situation. Verse 5 tells us that ‘the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honourable’. That is what we are seeing now more than ever.
Western civilisation on the brink?
A generation and a society that is detached from earlier generations, that has ditched and destroyed the ancient landmarks, cannot be free and happy. The Sixties Revolution promised freedom, but two generations on we are seeing a new kind of slavery. It is a more stifling and intolerant kind of conformity than what preceded the 1960s.
Where there is slavery there is fear, although it is a fear that might not be so easily defined. It is a fear that latches onto so many objects – fear of catching or spreading Covid, fear of climate change, fear of preparing or eating food containing allergens, fear of ‘mis-gendering’ or being ‘mis-gendered’, fear of offending or of being offended, fear of being rejected, fear of being isolated.
I am reminded of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words at his first Inauguration in 1933: ‘Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’
The kind of fear we are seeing around us now is similar. Roosevelt was speaking at a time when America was in the grip of the Great Depression and Hitler had recently come to power in Germany. The world, and Western civilisation, was on the brink of catastrophe.
We are living through similar times now. 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, the Covid pandemic, and the nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan; along with the rising and continuing refugee crisis, an undermining of the concept of the nation-state, a confusion between patriotism and nationalism, a loss of confidence in capitalism, the adoption of environmentalism as the new state religion, and the accompanying geopolitical shifts, especially regarding China; all these things presage a possible collapse of Western civilisation. We are in a situation not unlike that of the Roman Empire in the third century AD.
Perhaps it is God’s purpose, in his wise judgment, to bring down the curtains on several centuries of Western supremacy. Perhaps the very last dying embers of ‘Christendom’ are about to be extinguished. Perhaps the ‘global south’ is already far ahead of us in terms of godliness, family stability, missionary zeal, and societal robustness which runs through the generations.
We cannot answer these questions from our present standpoint, and the ‘secret things’ belong only to the Lord. And if all this happened, the Lord would still remain on his throne. But I was asked to speak about the nation, not the whole world. So what do we need?
The needs of the nation
I answer with the most deliberate simplicity: this nation needs God. It needs the sense of God. It needs the fear of God. What should the church do right now? The short answer is that we need to make God known, and we need to make God known in our churches, among our own people, especially the younger ones, so that they will know God, live for him, and tell others about him. But in order to make God known, God needs to be known to us, and this must start in us and in our local churches.
What we must not do is simply ‘wage war on woke’. It might be tempting to do this. But to do so might be perceived as, and might actually be, nothing more than a deepening of the polarisations which already exist. I have recently begun an evening series in Grove Chapel on the life of King Josiah. What did Josiah do? He turned neither to the right nor the left: he fulfilled the requirements set out for a king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
And the church of God is called to a kingly, as well as a priestly and prophetic role, as the body of Christ in this world. We don’t argue about ‘left’ and ‘right’, but we look up and look straight ahead. We don’t correct one error by over-compensating and committing an opposite and equal error. Tribalism is warring between rival groups on the horizontal plane; but we must look up to the God of the vertical, the God of heaven.
What does this mean practically? We need to be people of courage as well as faith and wisdom. We need to proclaim not a bare ‘come to Jesus’ message, but the gospel as the whole counsel of God, with a robustness which identifies and engages with the issues we have been talking about. We cannot assume the biblical knowledge of earlier generations; neither can we assume the same historical, literary, cultural knowledge and familiarity.
This means we especially need to engage people with creation ordinances, or, more precisely, ‘Genesis ordinances’; we need to demonstrate in the power of the Holy Spirit that these issues of sex, gender, health, the environment, race, and nationhood are addressed authoritatively, substantially, and convincingly in the Bible. We need to be prepared to engage in controversy, but with great patience, diligence, and love. As and when we use social media, we need to do so with great wisdom and assiduousness, making sure that our gentleness is evident to all.
And we need to be people of prayer. In the last few months, the brief cry ‘Lord have mercy’ has fallen from my lips and my heart with increasing frequency. We long for the Lord to visit us. We long for the Lord to arouse and awaken young people especially, that they might be a rebuke to my generation and a channel of blessing, in reformation and revival, to their own generation, and to a generation yet to be born.
This article was first delivered as a paper at an Affinity Council Meeting, 14 September 2021.