The Oppressiveness of Our Times

credit: VargaA, Wikimedia Commons

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah was featured this week in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the ancient diagnosis of Israel applies to our times as well.

And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor. The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable. … Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves (Isaiah 3:5-9).

When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … My people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow (Isaiah 3:6-12).

Let’s note four fundamental issues that God assigns to that age (and, I would argue, ours as well). Our culture and nation have become:

Dominating and Loud And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor.

These are indeed contentious times—so contentious that we cannot seem to have honest debates or disagreements; we just yell at one another. On college campuses, students shout down speakers with differing views and accuse them of hate. Demonstrations both on campuses and elsewhere often devolve into a kind of mob violence, which has included vandalism, setting cars afire, breaking windows, looting, and even murder.

Pope Benedict XVI warned of the tyranny of relativism. By this he meant that as relativism and subjectivism have shifted the source of truth from the object to the subject, from reality to opinion, there is no longer any basis for reasonable discussion.

In such a climate, whose views win the day: Those with the most money, power, and political clout or those who shout the loudest or are best able to intimidate others?

Dishonoring and Low-brow The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable.

What is described in this verse has been going on for a considerable time. Those of us who are older remember a time when disrespect for elders was not tolerated. Beginning in the 1950s and picking up speed through the 1960s, our culture devolved into one centered on youth. Youthful vigor and youth itself were esteemed over maturity. Young people were “hip” and relevant; “old people” were out of touch and had nothing to offer. If something was old, it was bad; if something was new it was good. Rock music emphasized rebellion and the rejection of tradition. Television sitcoms featured children who were all-wise and parents (especially fathers) who were stupid and buffoonish.

All of this has led to a breakdown of respect for elders and those in authority. And, frankly, elders and authority figures have not helped matters, as many of them have fearfully declined to insist upon proper respect.

When there is no respect, there can be no teaching. When there is no teaching or handing down of what has proven best and most worthwhile, what is base and low-brow too easily appeals to those who are schooled only in their lower passions.

Rap stars, Hollywood actors, and other pop-culture figures have more influence than Scripture, faith, literature, and tradition. Much of popular culture presents that which is base and most of those who represent it reject the honorable and time-tested traditions that have built our culture. Cultural iconoclasts dominate; those who build on what is honorable are fewer, both in number and influence.

Destructive through Lust Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves.

Today, promiscuity of every sort is celebrated. Again, those of us who are older can remember a time when living together outside of marriage was scorned; it was referred to as “living in sin” or “shacking up.” Now, not only is it widely tolerated; it is even encouraged.

Movies and popular songs since the 1960s have depicted and spoken of illicit sexual unions of every kind as normal, acceptable, routine, and even beautiful. Homosexual acts are now celebrated, made the matter of pride. Contraception, widely rejected by every Christian denomination prior to 1930, is now called virtuous or responsible by most. Divorce, once considered shocking and discouraged by our very laws, is now common; it is often encouraged as a way to happiness.

God warns through Isaiah in this text: Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves. In other words, if we don’t get marriage and sexuality right as a culture, it will kill our civilization. Sexual distortion leads to distortions about marriage. Distortions about marriage lead to broken families. Broken families lead to broken children. Broken children become broken adults. Broken adults have a hard time leading or making good decisions.

The breakdown of culture and civilization continues. In our sins we deal out evil to ourselves. We sow the wind and we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). We sow in the field of the flesh and we reap a harvest of corruption (Gal 6:8).

Declining in Leadership When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the LordMy people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow.

This is an especially controversial part of the text. Yet, honestly, there is a crisis of leadership in our culture at nearly every level. In families, many parents do not lead their children, choosing instead to try to be their friends. Many priests and bishops timorously hide, speaking in abstractions and generalities rather than teaching clearly. Too many do not vigorously summon the faithful to a proper moral vision.

In terms of social and political leadership, many of the best in our country do not want to assume leadership of a people who are increasingly surly and incorrigible, who demand everything but are not willing to sacrifice even smallest of benefits.

When qualified and capable leaders do not step forward, people will latch onto any leader at all, no matter how corrupt, morally questionable, or inexperienced. This decline has been going on for a long time in our country at every level.

Isaiah’s “politically unapproved” lament about having women rulers requires of us a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text. Today, we accept and have women who are capable leaders; no one would compare a female leader to a “babe in arms.”

Today, the problem lies more in the lack of traditionally described “masculine” virtues such as engaging the battle, fighting for what is right, competition, and necessary contention. Our age is more steeped in traditionally described “feminine” virtues such as tolerance, acceptance, getting along, understanding, respecting feelings, and “emotional intelligence.” These traits are not bad in themselves, but today they are not properly balanced; in our culture, the feminine predominates. This imbalance is not healthy. A culture in which femininity predominates is no healthier than one with too much masculinity.

I would argue that this text from Isaiah need not be understood as excoriating any or all feminine leadership. Rather, I see it as reminding us that in leadership, masculine virtues are needed to balance feminine virtues and instincts.

The current imbalance, in which the feminine dominates, affects leadership in families and parishes. Parents and clergy are often hesitant to make challenging demands or to insist on what is true because feelings might be hurt or offense taken.

In the political arena, the current imbalance results in a kind of hypersensitivity to the feelings of aggrieved individuals or groups of self-described victims. Many leaders are more preoccupied with not giving offense to certain popular groups than with making difficult decisions that may demand sacrifice and that will not please all, but are still the best answer. What is best can sometimes be hard; the truth is not always pleasing to everyone.

Disclaimer: Without a doubt, some of what Isaiah said was controversial in his day. And without a doubt my application of the text to this day and age will likewise be controversial. But what if ensuing conversations and debates are the result? What if you get a chance to register your comments and complaints in the comment box here and other people get to respond to you? What if my imperfect post is meant to encourage conversation in a culture that increasingly wants to shut down conversation and forbid “politically unapproved” speech?

Finally, remember that biblical passages have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We’re all a little of both and we need both.

This song, recorded in my parish church, was performed by the St. Luke Ordinariate Choir:

14 Replies to “The Oppressiveness of Our Times”

  1. Thank you, Monsignor for your continued work. I share your posts often. Especially to those trying to find their way back to the Church. There is so much depth in the Catholic religion. I’m always amazed how you can write such a powerful piece almost every day.

    As for debate, I find a few challenges attempting to productively engage someone on difficult issues. (1) There is no common foundation of principles any longer. You almost have to start at square one reconstructing basic virtues which is incredibly tedious. Most don’t have the luxury of time or patience to do this, and move swiftly to conclusions. (2) Arguments (if you can call them such) often sound more like serial sound bites as they don’t logically connect or build but rather skip from point to point like a stone on the water. There can be three to seven hops before you can begin exploring the truth of the first. Most don’t have the luxury of time or patience to go through these and analyze them step by step. In fact, on a couple of occasions the person I was speaking with said outright they reject using logic (not my logic, but logic as an approach). I can of course switch to an emotional appeal, but I wonder what victory achieves using such an alternative method. (3) One of the more puzzling experiences that I encounter often is that even if you do patiently work through (1) and (2) and eventually get to what you think is a solid place, rather than it becoming a milestone, the conversation returns back to the very first point and begins anew, often with vary little new substance if any. (4) The hardest part through all of this for me, is to manage my own emotions and pre-notions. It is very easy to get passionate and stumble. (5) And finally, once in a while, I do get through (1) (2) and (4) while avoiding (3) and arrive at a milestone with someone. It is a moment to pause and be thankful. And I usually hope that moment serves as a door to a new place.

    1. I didn’t want to read your comment because it is so lengthy, but I was glad I did because often I have had similar experiences that you describe well.

    2. Excellent commentary. You are exactly right. None to little common philosophical ground on which to stand together. From some scholars, philosophical and psychological, I have gleaned that this is largely due to postmodern philosophy, which has permeated universities for some time now. A suggestion is to review the work of Stephen Hicks, who is a philosopher and critic of postmodernism – his book is downloadable as a pdf file, which you can obtain free of charge. Also there is Jordan Peterson, a psychologist, who is critical of pm. The two recently did a video together on the subject. It is available on youtube. Blessings.

    3. Msgr. Pope’s piece is profound…and so is your post, Paul. Thank you for all the time and energy you put into it. Every sentence you wrote resonates in my head and in my heart. May God bless you.

  2. Authentic leadership has many and various necessary characteristics to it. I believe at the core of this the leader must have authentic masculinity given to him by grace. He must truly “care,” about those he leads, protects, and serves (often “provides for” in various ways) and most importantly he must be willing to die for his people that they might have life. One of the best definitions of kindness I have seen is “concern for,” in other words “caring whether your people live or die.” This death may be in small ways such as having some not like him, in larger ways such as a willingness to risk and even lose his high rank or position to do what is right. And in the largest ways – physical death.

    Morale has nothing to do with material things (what have you done for me lately?) Men do not follow self-seeking, self promoting, looking out for number one, kind of guys who provide them with trinkets. They follow “men with chests,” who they know will be out front when things get messy and they know that if they’re acting rightly their leaders will have their backs. If they act wrongly they know their leaders will expect and require them to stand up like a man and take their medicine. Leaders – like slaves – like “servants,” do hard things that nobody else wants to do! Leaders who really are leaders will at times drink deeply from the cup of loneliness and unpopularity. Morale is about just this: fighting spirit! Esprit de corps! The will to fight, and the will (not feelings) to encourage and strengthen your brothers in arms. When you’re up against it and all looks bleak – show up, put out, and let God claim the victory! Victory is the Lords – he doesn’t need our success – He only needs our fidelity. The Marines got “Semper Fi,” from God. Always faithful, trust in the Lord, and fight against the lies and evil!

    I believe that God can and does at times, raise up women here or there to lead when the men fail to do so. I also believe that both men and women, are called as part of the Royal Priesthood through Baptism (not to be confused with the Ministerial Priesthood), to those priestly, prophetic, and kingly “dimensions.” However, I also believe that God has called men to act in an authentically manful way – specifically to lead, protect, and provide. Families need fathers – who seek the Lord. You and I will only “lead,” by the power of the Holy Spirit becoming more of a “Man,” like Jesus. The price of leadership is self-sacrificing Love. When the bill comes due in small or large ways the “man,” is to step up and pay it. Adam failed, I have failed many, many times. That is not happening without grace. What gentleman, what knight, should desire the woman or child to pay the bill for him? Does this mean men are better than women? Of course not – different yes – better no.

    Men and women are truly complimentary not contradictory when we become what we’re called to be – holy. The natural gifts God gives to men serve a noble and holy purpose if embraced. The gifts God gives to women serve a noble and holy purpose. The gifts are different. As just one for instance: thanks be to God women tend to mitigate for – to excuse. Men need this to be reminded they put their child in time out twenty minutes ago, and forgot. We have confused these gifts – and “responsibilities,” in many cases in our upside down world today. Men will never be truly happy trying to women and women will never be happy trying to be men. Political correctness is indeed a curse and a pox on our nation – on our world.

  3. Many men in the U.S are not fairing well. Whether it be declining workforce participation rates, incarceration, low educational attainment, substance abuse, homelessness, the picture leaves a lot to be desired. Another area of concern is the violent crime rates increasing in most major cities with young males being the prime offenders.

    As far as marriage is concerned there is a bright spot. Highly educated, professional couples appear to have successful marriages with a very low divorce rate. Otherwise, with some demographic populations it is a disaster with high rates of children born out of wedlock.

    Much of this data is taken from Charles Murray’s “The State Of White America: 1960 – 2010.

  4. There are many reasons why we find our culture in the spot it is today. A simple response to the mess we have made is: Strive to know, love and serve God faithfully through His Church here on earth, handing ALL I am to Him. A simple response, but a difficult task.

    As a woman of 65, one of the problems I see is the way the Church (man in the Church, not Christ’s bride), has rolled over and agreed with too much of the feminist movement. If we would of held to Jesus’ teachings of equality (which does not mean we all get to do what the other gets to do) man and woman would continue to work at being one in a Church that has always taught that male and female are equal, different roles but equal, imaging the Trinity. Christ’s Church has never marginalized women. Maybe some none virtuous souls have made life difficult for women, but that is a matter of imperfection of man, not of his Church. The teaching of “husbands love your wives as Christ loves his Church” and for the wives to reverence their husbands has not been cultivated in our Church recently. As a result of our failure to embrace the roles of husbands and wives, we fail to image the Trinity that created us. It is the beginning spot for man (and by “man” I mean male and female).

    We got a long way to go, but our hope is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth and the prayers of Our Mother, Mary :o)

    Thanks for the post, Msgr.

  5. While I think I have stayed faithful to traditional values and truths, it is a constant questioning of where have I been tainted by the current culture which frankly I grew up in and did not always challenge like I should have. I think letting one’s light shine is more important today than it ever was.

  6. So many of the old testament texts apply today. It’s when we mistake ourselves as the “prophet” or the good guy in the story that we miss the point. Our times are as vulgar and sinful as any of the “bad old days” we know. So many are fearful of speaking out because they see any who do speak out called all sorts of names. Our Catholic faith calls for beliefs and actions that are counter to some of our laws and policies as exemplified in the most recent healthcare law requiring private plans to cover abortion and contraception. We are all too set on feeling good than asking God to make us good.

  7. As a former football player, commercial fisherman, US Army officer, and entrepreneur – in other words, as someone steeped in “manly” pursuits – I find it absurd to reduce the “masculine” virtues to engaging, fighting, competing, and contending. But even if one accepts this definition, the notion that these are lacking in this violent, porn-saturated, dog-eat-dog society is equally absurd. We could use more of the “feminine” virtues in our politics, our communities, and yes, even in our Church.

    1. People in our age are willing to engage, fight, compete and contend for the cool and winnable things in our society. It will make them look good and acceptable. But very few are willing to do those things for the right things. For example, people whose task it is to speak out against gay marriage or the decadent culture but will not do so for fear of social and economic repercussions.

      The characteristics listed above only become manly when displayed for good – at least in the context we are talking about. And that is what our society is lacking. Gangsters, tyrants and warlords are described as manly by some for displaying these qualities. But for us they are not manly since they don’t use it for the right end results. And of-course these are not the only manly characteristics.

  8. In bible times, in Israel, at least one woman was a judge, Deborah, and a brief search said that five women were prophets, or prophetesses. A judge in the bible was a big deal.

    Even if we lived in non-oppressive times, we would probably look on them as oppressive.

  9. Isaiah would have known about Deborah and the prophetesses.

    Therefore, this verse is not to be taken as a literal warning against women rulers. It means when men are weak, they children will be spoiled brats and they will be hen-pecked by their wives.

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