Breaking Down Our Moral Breakdown 

front porch with white pillars and a brick foundation and an American flagRemember the good old days when you didn’t have to lock your doors? When kids could just run outside to play and their parents didn’t have to worry? Those were the days – or maybe not.

A Columbia University researcher, Adam M. Mastroianni, has shown, convincingly, that the good old days were in all likelihood not much better than our own days of – alleged – moral breakdown. [see: Harvard Gazette, June 15, 2023] Some of us tend to think otherwise. Some old folks seem to champion the life and values of the past, in contrast to the life and values of our current brave new world. Many of all ages, indeed, tend to think that our world is undergoing a serious moral breakdown

That’s because, Mastroianni argues, many of us tend to forget or repress painful memories from the past and cherish the good memories from that selfsame past. Hence our vision of the good old days and our fears that current generations may be captives of a moral breakdown. To the contrary, Mastroianni argues convincingly, things today are pretty much the way they were generations ago, morally speaking. We’re experiencing not a moral breakdown, then, but our own selective memories.

All this can be well taken, I think, but it’s seriously misleading. It suggests, if it doesn’t say so in many words, that morality mainly pertains to the acts of individuals. Almost a century ago, the American theologian and ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, tried to instruct all his fellow citizens, that, while significant, moral or immoral acts by individuals are only part of the story of human history. Especially in his little classic, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr argued, in effect, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For Niebuhr, human collectivities – churches, labor unions, political parties, the capitalist classes, business conglomerates, and the nation state – have huge, often inordinate – powers in human history, a phenomenon long ago announced by the New Testament’s vision of the global, even cosmic, works of “the principalities and powers” of death.

The systematic theologian, Paul Tillich – for some years at colleague of Niebuhr – thought along the same lines when he projected his, how, frequently underplayed, even forgotten, theme about the world-historical, even cosmic workings of what Tillich called “the Demonic.”

Tillich meant a number of things by that construct. But he surely had in mind, above all, the colossal destructivity of the Holocaust. How could a whole nation of individuals, both Protestants and Catholics, many of whom treasured individual morality – above all, loving one’s neighbor as oneself – become captive of the heinous forces of mass death, looking the other way at the murder of six million Jews? Tillich never tried to explain – somehow – the origins and the workings of the Demonic in human and cosmic history. But he kept talking about the Demonic, insistently indeed, even though that was not a construct that would – in optimistic, moralizing America – help him to win friends and influence people as he consistently wanted to do with his self-consciously chosen “apologetic theology.” In this respect, Tillich gave voice to the teachings of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant – which ran so profoundly contrary to the optimism of Kant’s own period, the Enlightenment. Kant consistently insisted on the reality of what he called “radical evil.”

While it may be helpful, then, to ponder the moral breakdown of contemporary life in the U.S., that’s surely not enough. Are not many of us white Americans, for example, deeply claimed by the principalities and powers of racism, for example? Yes, conversations about reparations have recently begun to emerge in our midst. But more often than not, by my observation, even these conversations are more talking the talk than walking the walk. Who can convincingly argue, indeed, that white American churches are no longer captive to the Demonic in this respect, as many of them have so egregiously been in the past?

Which has wrenching implications, it seems to me, about how we think of the ministries of our churches. Should the primary social goal of our churches to shape individuals to be good moral citizens? Maybe good moral citizens who know how to pray? Or should the primary social goal of our churches be to take on the Demonic, to struggle with the Principalities and Powers of Death?

If it’s the latter, as I believe it must be, if we are to be found faithful to our calling to take up our crosses to follow the Lord of life and death, we’re then in for a struggle of colossal import. Sunday morning, then, in addition to everything else that it must be, can no longer be just a process to support and to enhance the moral life of individual Christians. Our Sunday Liturgy must be not just a school for souls, but a meeting to organize for the struggle to which God has called us all.

And then there’s – spirituality. I’ve written a book on the topic. I’m not against it, by any means. But maybe what all of us who are struggling to be Christians in these times should be working on more than anything else is the struggle to follow Jesus and his call – which so fascinated Dietrich Bonhoeffer and propelled him to participate in the anguished struggles of the Confessing Church of his own time against Hitler and Nazism. Maybe every Christian congregation in these apocalyptic times should be reading Bonhoeffer’s tract, the Cost of Discipleship, all over again. The challenge for us American Christians today, it appears to me, is by no means just individual morality or individual spirituality, but all the more so contending together with the Demonic. That, I believe, is how we should break down our moral breakdown.