In the early 1980s, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established a commune called Rajneeshpuram and embarked on a search for utopia in the wilderness of Wasco County, Oregon. (The Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country recounts the story.) The cult sought to create the perfect city by deconstructing the social norms and religious strictures that in their view suppress one’s true self.
Rajneesh taught that free love and dynamic meditation were the key to liberating the individual and reaching “superconsciousness.” The group bought 80,000 acres and indulged all their wildest inclinations in orgy-style meditation sessions. They wanted a perfectly compassionate and just community, where no one’s self-expression would be restricted.
But before long, the brokenness of human nature brought them back to reality. When the commune received political pushback from other residents in the area, they became anything but compassionate. In the name of free love and self-expression, they attempted murder and committed fraud and bioterrorism to get their way. They also abused each other and exploited the homeless. Their attempt to completely rid themselves of all constraints left them defenseless against their own internal evils.
I see this dynamic in the public square today. Contemporary concepts of compassion and justice that ignore human brokenness and individual sin can only lead to the same desolate destination. When those ideas involve pretending men can be pregnant or arguing that the traditional family is a tool of the oppressor, we’re not progressing. We’re descending away from truth. If we want to achieve justice, we first have to understand human nature. And to understand human nature, we have to study the nature of sin.
Here again, a story from the past serves to support the point. As activist Dorothy Day fought for justice, she was surrounded by people with a very similar worldview to those in the Rajneeshpuram commune. The radical peace movement of the 1960s “preached liberation, freedom, and autonomy,” as David Brooks explains in his book The Road to Character. But Day was unimpressed by that message. She preached the opposite: “obedience, servitude, and self-surrender.”
Christian virtues fueled her social action, but she was not some naïve pilgrim of piety. Earlier in life, she had partaken in her comrades’ “open sexuality and lax morality,” as Brooks puts it. Those actions resulted in a broken heart, a broken family, and an abortion. She grew wise enough to understand that there’s nothing empowering about a lack of discipline and structure, which creates only dysfunction.
Day compared the radicals she worked with to adolescents who’d just discovered that their parents weren’t perfect and, in a spirit of disillusionment, rebelled against all their instructions and institutions. She’d say, “All this rebellion makes me long for obedience.” Her colleagues’ irreverent behavior demonstrated an immature and empty defiance that distracted from the work and weakened the movement.
Sadly, that same posture is prevalent in some justice and equality movements today. They rightly see the need to deconstruct oppressive systems but can go only so far as to drop their adherents off in the confusion and chaos of the wilderness.
By contrast, the Bible’s Exodus narrative prescribes liberation as well as obedience. God didn’t free the Hebrews to seek self in the wilderness for eternity. He delivered them for the purpose of worshiping him, and he demanded their obedience in order to prepare them for a much greater destination.
In that same spirit, Dorothy Day knew that when we divorce social justice from a framework of obedience, we do so at our own peril. She knew the wilderness—no matter how liberating it felt—could never be the final destination of any Christian social endeavor.
To be fair, we must acknowledge the injustices and sins that have caused so many to leave the church and rebuke Christian orthodoxy. They’re rebelling against rules, wielded with prejudice and malice, that continue to bludgeon women and racial minorities. They’re responding to structures that cover up abuses of power and morals that are enforced discriminately. They’re rejecting religious institutions that serve white supremacy, support misogyny, and mistreat same-sex-attracted people, all while claiming a biblical basis.
Such harshness and hypocrisy have led to one of the biggest lies of our age: that a person cannot be orthodox—upholding historic Christian doctrine and morals—and also compassionate. Now in the public square, whenever we talk about boundaries and restrictions on individual expression, many of us assume that oppression is going on. Today, orthodoxy is associated with calloused hearts and heavy burdens that serve only old prejudices.
They have rightly responded to a culture that ignores systemic sin. But they’ve done so by ignoring individual sin.
This story has two extremes, of course. As believers, we know that compassion and self-sacrifice are literally the lifeblood of true Christian orthodoxy. When American Christianity doesn’t adhere to the Great Commandment and recognize the image of God in their marginalized neighbors, it falls well short of orthodoxy. In other words, the church isn’t harsh because it follows the Bible too closely. It’s harsh when it doesn’t follow the Bible and the spirit of Jesus closely enough.
On the other hand, a permissive culture is compassionate in the same way that an unserious, lackadaisical instructor is considered cool. They’re momentarily convenient but ultimately harmful, because they’re unable to meet rigorous objectives and promote long-term human flourishing. Their unwillingness to prepare us for the tests and harsh truths of life is a form of neglect. Inevitably, they can’t protect us from the consequences of our sloth and sin. At best, they enable only dysfunction.
We live in a culture that’s losing the ethic and the will to discourage mentalities that lead to sex work, recreational drug use, and family abandonment. We’d rather find ways to excuse them than stand on unpopular principles. But gospel-driven compassion doesn’t conceptually refashion or normalize our brokenness in vain attempts to evade categories of sin. True justice isn’t inclusive of sin, because sin leads to moral disorder, and moral disorder is where injustice thrives.
“I’ve been told that the idea of sin is an old, outworn notion,” said Gardner C. Taylor, civil rights leader and pastor. “It may be. But I know this … that old and ugly word may be outworn, but the consequences are not outworn. I speak of broken families, war, and overdoses. The consequences of sin live on!”
Taylor understood that suffering came from societal injustice and also individual immorality. Our failure to acknowledge one or the other isn’t compassion; it’s neglect. It leaves us and our neighbors unprotected from the deception and cruelty of human brokenness.
By contrast, when we embrace moral order in the context of relationship and love, we can acknowledge that our sexual proclivities and perceived identities aren’t always righteous. We can talk about the complexity of human desire. And we can locate ourselves not in the wilderness of personal fulfillment but in the abundant, boundaried space of God’s purposes.
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