An attempt to strengthen the appeal of Christian realism and embolden the church towards a confident interventionist America that operates according to just war tradition must include an appeal to trust again in power brokers and institutions that have failed Christians and the church. At the center of the appeal will have to be a way of addressing the problem of broken trust in order to correct feelings of ambiguity towards America and her institutions.
My friend and mentor Mark Meynell—who among other things is an unofficial chaplain to a number of civil service departments in the UK’s Whitehall—has written a book that addresses this very problem for a global audience. A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World is by no means a defense of Christian realism, nor an appeal for a bold and strong America in the world, but it does offer a positive contribution to those ends by making a number of crucial observations about broken trust and its effects on society. He also points to a solution, but it’s a solution that calls for more than simply trying to trust the US government and American values again as individuals who happen to also be Christians.
Meynell helpfully reminds any Christian that our focus is on Jesus Christ, in whom we can trust. It is from this relationship that we can learn again to trust that there are values found in institutions in which many have lost trust. This can happen by participating in the community instituted for this purpose whose head is perfectly trustworthy and whose structure—perhaps uniquely in our society—allows for confession, repentance, and forgiveness when we have broken others’ trust.
Meynell’s book describes instances of broken trust in leaders, government, and other institutions, even the church. In seeking to “sketch conspicuous trends, drawing threads together from” his own observations and the scholarship of others, he argues that we live in a time in which a common feature is “our expectation of betrayal.”
The first two great modern wars led to “thinkers rejecting the very possibility of authoritative frameworks or ‘metanarratives.’ This condemned us to, or liberated us for (depending on your perspective), the limitless possibilities of personal choice” (p.17). Our age is therefore steeped in a culture of suspicion. After all, how can I trust you if the only value we hold in common is our own personal choice? The question becomes: “Who am I to say that some values are better than others?” But some values are better than others. Writ large, this affects the strength of society and its confidence in shared global values and in a Christian willingness to defend them.
In the first part, Meynell shows us over three chapters in short, bite-sized sketches how the betrayal of ruling authorities (leaders, the nation state, and subsidiary institutions), mediated realities (political spin, advertising, and the media) and caregivers (including the church) have created the climate of this broken trust that underlies our fear of institutions and leaders.
The second part of the book is perhaps more subjective than the first but is all the more compelling as it takes on a narrative mosaic form. Made up of two chapters, it’s a review of the effects that broken trust has on individuals and society. Here Meynell weaves in manageable strands of continental philosophy with stories, quoting anecdotes and authors such as Vaclav Havel and Graham Greene. This section shows how deep-seated alienation can come from living without being able to trust.
The final part is the most hopeful, and written not only for a Christian audience but also as an introductory apologetic for people who have been burned by the church, or who have never known her. It’s this section which allows the title of the book to include the words “trusting again.”
Meynell illustrates the reality that all human beings are made in the image of God. Quoting G.K. Chesterton’s character Father Brown speaking to a Police officer, he says: “All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.” Expanding on that thought because the police officer does not understand, Brown says: “We matter to God—God only knows why. But that’s the only possible justification for policemen… If all men matter, all murders matter. That which he has so mysteriously created, we must not suffer to be so mysteriously destroyed.”
Meynell interviewed John LeCarre on the psychology and resilience against cynicism of his most famous mole hunting character George Smiley. LeCarre paradoxically says that Smiley “starts with a deep human pessimism. He can’t go much lower in his expectations or disappointments at other people’s betrayal” (p.122). So even while all people matter, we know that all are capable of profound betrayal.
In some instances this betrayal is of evil towards the good. But what about the inverse? “LeCarre describes the most exciting encounter of his life as meeting the remarkable Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. He had been ‘king of the closed society’ (he was their nuclear weapons supremo), but he realized that what he was doing was wrong and so spoke up, showing true heroism and integrity, at great personal cost” (p.123).
What a model of integrity, to admit that you are wrong. Indeed this is the starting point for the community of trust that Meynell would love the church to be: a community of people that are willing to admit that they are failures and in doing so can build trust between each other because forgiveness is possible through Jesus. But that’s a problem for many of us, since: “In our pursuit of consumer convenience, we have sought to obliterate dependence on others, as if this is a bad thing” (p.158). But “we are meant to be dependent on one another; it is how we are wired” (p.159). Which is the point of the church, “the gathering of all believers in heaven, now!” In order that “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities.”
Meynell spends a fair segment of the book describing what a healthy church looks like, particularly in how it is led, outlining failures and also offering a critique for the church’s cooption for any party’s political ends. When he touches on the role of the church in relation to the state, Meynell reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between the church and other institutions because they do not always hold to the same values or culture.
It is at this juncture that Providence readers might start to get anxious, since Meynell warns that the role of the church is at its best when it can speak truth to power. “The closer Christian leaders have been to the establishment, the less prophetic their ministry has become. For it is not as if the lordship of Christ has no bearing on the political realm. If Jesus is truly the King of kings any other authority is unavoidably relegated and relativized.” Indeed: “Under the British Empire the church often looked to the twin London authorities of Whitehall (the head of government) and the ironically biblical-sounding road, Threadneedle Street (the Bank of England).”
However, Providence readers need not fear, Meynell acknowledges the good in these institutions and reaffirms they are worth trusting, particularly if they have checks and balances, but he urges his readers to trust first in Christ and learn to trust again through his church. I look forward to asking Meynell more specific questions about the book and trying to tease out a little more about his view of the church in relation to American intervention.
Lauri Moyle is currently discerning a call to the Priesthood in the Anglican Church of North America. He serves as transitional deacon in a small church in Chattanooga, where he is shaping a call to become a Chaplain to Civil Society. He is trying to recapture the traditional role of the Priest as active participant in the Parish community beyond the walls of the church. Lauri holds an MA in theology and politics from Kings College, London. Until recently Lauri lived and worked in London as a staffer to a Member of Parliament and as a policy shaper focusing on child online safety and online problem gambling. Having spent formative years in Central and Eastern Europe right after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he is keenly aware that he is a beneficiary of a strong America in the world.
Photo Credit: Interior of Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City by Steven Kelley via Flickr.