Those among us who enjoy reading or writing dystopic fiction may have an interesting experience in store. The signs are that our civilization may be moving towards dystopia in real life. We may have to experience it for ourselves.
I don’t read or relish dystopic fiction myself, but I’m aware of the kind of world it portrays. Nations deeply divided against themselves. Unpredictable, random violence. Cold, heartless cruelty and mockery. Powerful forces using advanced technology to maintain their ascendancy. Degradation of the natural environment. The majority robbed of the elements of civilized life—education, medical and social care, freedom of thought.
The world has seen these conditions appearing in many different places at many different times—no need to enumerate them here. And strangely, they often come about unexpectedly, after times of great reasonableness and cooperation. It’s as if a society suddenly loses its sanity. Society collectively endorses some policy counter to all the values that have hitherto brought them the greatest benefit. Society is captivated by boastful, unreliable leaders. And a particular mark of this social malady is that people close their ears to caution and criticism—they insist that those with reservations are traitors, public enemies, vermin.
What causes these extraordinary, Gadarene stampedes? There must be economic and social factors, of course. But such factors, occurring at other times, while causing dissent and upheaval, can still lead to relatively peaceful results. As Christians I think we need to factor in a spiritual cause. I used the word ‘Gadarene’ advisedly.
In the New Testament there are several passages which foretell a destructive (one might even say ‘dystopian’) crisis. They say that it is about to take place at the time of writing or speaking. They also add a promise that when the crisis breaks the Lord will soon intervene. They read like a description of the end times; yet obviously the world did not then end. Even Our Lord’s warnings about the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth are interlocked with his discourses on the last days: but clearly, the first actually happened soon afterwards, while the other time is yet to come.
Another such passage is to be found in St Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. He speaks of a great revolt, led by an enemy who is being held back from appearing until his appointed time. St Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they know what is holding him back, but he doesn’t tell us; and whatever happened to them, it wasn’t the world’s end. I am inclined to take such passages as teaching that there is a recurring pattern in history, foreshadowing the global grand finale when the Lord wraps everything up, and repeating itself on a lesser scale until then.
So what spiritual factors facilitate these recurrent bouts of social suicide? Personally, I don’t believe that God deliberately brings confusion on a society. But humans (and other rational beings) are free to choose courses of action that bring evil on themselves. This is the natural tendency of society, in fact. But God has also appointed agencies to restrain this descent into chaos, and since the time of Christ the principal inhibiting agent has been the Christian society. We are the salt of the earth, the preservative against social decay, and the light of the world, the exemplars of Christ. We exercise that role by personal righteousness, self-giving, and prayer. But when that ministry falters, God, for all his desire to protect humans from the consequences of their actions, no longer has a channel through which his power can hold back disaster. By our negative action, we effectively write the next dystopia.
Civilized social existence requires in all people a number of qualities that become vanishingly rare in dystopia, such as toleration, compromise, and forbearance. Paradoxically, essential as these are in the outward world, in the Christian’s inner life they are dangerous. The things we have a duty to cheerfully put up with in those outside the faith are the very things we should banish from our own lives: judgementalism, destructive speech, arrogance, duplicity, rage, lust, acquisitiveness, jealousy, self-indulgence, cynicism, apathy. When we allow ourselves to tolerate these evils in ourselves, I am suggesting, we start to block the channels through which God’s power restrains social decay.
I also suggest that we owe the relatively peaceful and civilized society we have recently been living in, not to our own goodness, but to the gracious, self-sacrificial, and prayerful lives of some of our Christian predecessors. I suspect that the decline in self-forgetful service to, and constant prayer for, the outside world may have undermined the church’s role as the channel of God’s restraining power.
A symptom of such spiritual decline is the tendency to turn inward virtues into outward restraints, and vice versa. The call to personal righteousness gets reinterpreted as a mandate to impose standards that we think are Christian on people outside the faith, while prayer for the world is replaced with a fixation on our own spiritual experiences. Scripture warns both against the erection of outward rules that allow the flesh to flourish and turn into an unbearable burden for others and against a worked-up spirituality divorced from agape.
I fear that we may be going to pass through dystopia, or at least its outlying regions. If by our neglect we Christians have aided the appearance of this enemy, how can we ‘un-write*’ dystopia? I suggest that what gets written in our own hearts is what will change things; certainly not what’s written on the statute books or the canons of the church. We need to become living tablets ourselves, on which the Spirit writes holiness, intercession, and service to others, and scratches out the hard thoughts and words we have ourselves inscribed.
*For information: the verb unwrite has been used since at least 1587 and by Milton, Keats, and Gladstone.