The title of this article may strike some readers as a tad melodramatic. Nevertheless, I think it may be appropriate. After President Roosevelt used similar words to describe Pearl Harbor Day, history validated his assessment. Dec. 7, 1941, changed everything. It put into motion events and movements that permanently altered the face of the globe. Similarly, I would like to tentatively propose that 2015 changed everything. The happenings of last year may well go down in the history books as among the most formative events of early 21st-century history. So, in the grand tradition of “year in review” TV specials, I draw your attention to several of the most momentous events and trends of 2015.
International Events and Trends
Nature abhors a vacuum. With the toppling of megalomaniacal dictator Saddam Hussein and the subsequent withdrawal of most U.S. military forces from Iraq, a power vacuum was created. Under these circumstances, it was only a matter of time before someone rushed in to fill it. The only question was who would rise to the occasion.
A year and a half ago, many Americans were hearing the term ISIS for the first time. Throughout 2014 the jihadist state loomed large in news broadcasts as it solidified its power and spread like a cancer across the Middle East. Grotesque images of the group’s barbaric execution techniques told us all we needed to know about who these relative newcomers were. They were extremist in their ideology, merciless in the pursuit of their expansionist agenda, and totally committed to the subjugation of the planet.
Looking back on the further developments of 2015, it is difficult to assess ISIS’s fortunes. On the one hand, U.S.-led military efforts against ISIS have been somewhat effective. The terrorist state has lost a significant portion of its previously held territory, and targeted airstrikes have killed thousands of the group’s fighters and leaders. On the other hand, some of ISIS’s gains in 2015 were strategically significant. The group’s May 17 seizure of Ramadi—one of Iraq’s most important hub cities—and its May 21 seizure of Palmyra were especially noteworthy. (Ramadi was later retaken by Iraqi and coalition forces in late December.)
Another extremely significant development occurred in March, when Nigeria-based terrorist group Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS. The pledge was accepted by ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who publicized it as a validation of ISIS’s aspirations to establish a global caliphate. If ISIS is able to bring other terrorist groups under its banner in the near future, the results could be catastrophic.
Finally, it is worth noting that quite a few devastating terrorist attacks were either directed or inspired by ISIS throughout 2015. These include shootings in Paris, Libya, Tunisia, and California; bombings in Yemen, Egypt, and Turkey; and the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt. This capacity to direct and inspire violent jihadism sends a clear signal to the rest of the world that, insofar as the War on Terror is concerned, there is no clear light at the end of the tunnel.
Iranian Nuclear Developments
On July 14, an international nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Shortly thereafter, the agreement was formally approved by the United Nations and the European Union.
In theory, the JCPOA prevents—or at least delays—Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities. It does this by significantly reducing Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium and the number of its installed centrifuges, limiting its enrichment capabilities to a single plant, and initiating monitoring procedures by the International Atomic Energy Agency. On paper, all of these restrictions look promising.
The problem is that the agreement is overly reliant on the unrealistic expectation that Iran will operate in good faith. Critics have pointed out that the inspections process called for by the JCPOA is lumbering and inefficient: if the inspectors suspect that Iran is concealing something from them, the prescribed response allows for a period of up to 24 days to pass before the process of reinstating economic sanctions begins. As for the likelihood that Iran will honor this agreement, it is almost amusing to note that just a few days before the agreement was reached, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani participated in an Al-Quds Day demonstration at which Iranians burned American and Israeli flags and chanted, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” Hardly a reassuring gesture.
Furthermore, it must be stressed that the cost of this deal is very high. By removing economic sanctions on Iran, the international community is in effect giving the Islamic Republic an initial cash infusion of over $100 billion and the opportunity to secure additional flows of revenue and resources for years to come. Insofar as Iran is one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism, this should be cause for enormous concern—there can be no serious doubt that a significant portion of these new resources will be used to directly support violent jihadism. And given Iran’s continued belligerence toward the nation of Israel, that should be of concern to all Christians who make it a point to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6). (Unsurprisingly, the Israeli government has been, and remains, harshly critical of the agreement.)
Domestic Events and Trends
On the front lines of the American culture war, social conservatives were dealt a devastating blow by the Supreme Court in June. Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. It will doubtless go down in history as the most socially impactful Supreme Court ruling since Roe v. Wade.
The reaction from the conservative Christian world was, for the most part, unabashedly critical of the ruling yet restrained and sensitive in tone. From many quarters, ministry leaders called on Christians not to react with hostility or vitriol against the homosexual community. At the same time, they expressed serious concerns about the moral condition of our nation and fears about Christians’ continued freedom to practice their faith when it requires them to reject the validity of all homosexual activity. (It is a concern that Chief Justice Roberts seems to share: “The majority [of the court] graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage,” he wrote. “The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”)
I believe these concerns are well founded. At some point in the near future, it is altogether likely that churches refusing to accept homosexuals into membership or declining to perform same-sex marriages will be threatened with the termination of their tax-exempt status. An even more immediate threat concerns conservative Christian educational institutions. When their hiring and matriculation policies are deemed to be discriminatory, will their nonprofit status, their accreditation, or the eligibility of their students to receive federal financial aid be threatened? Given the current ethical climate, I find it almost impossible to envision a future in which these scenarios don’t play out. Christians need to prepare themselves now for these eventualities.
At the same time, I think this is a teachable moment for the church. Rather than simply throwing up our hands in dismay and lamenting the current state of affairs, we should be asking ourselves some very pointed questions. For instance, How did we get here so quickly? (The rapid sea change of public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage is absolutely astounding.) Or, Why are so many of our own young people so easily swayed away from the traditional marriage-only position? I think one of the answers is that we have done a poor job of articulating our message on this subject. The principal shapers of public opinion have spent decades portraying social conservatives as hateful bigots, when in actuality our message is predominantly one of love, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. How have they proven so successful in this venture? In our zeal to speak the truth, have we neglected to speak it in love? I fear our unguarded and insensitive rhetoric has at times only served to further the narrative that Christians are hateful and judgmental. We desperately need to become better and more intentional about articulating our message to a largely unsympathetic audience.
Another thing that this issue has brought to the forefront of my attention is the necessity of teaching and living a consistent worldview. In the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling, I began to notice that quite a few of my Christian friends and acquaintances had no qualms whatsoever about professing loyalty to Christ and belief in a high view of Scripture on the one hand, yet simultaneously supporting (and even celebrating) same-sex marriage on the other. (On a recent stroll through my neighborhood, I came across a very visual representation of this trend: one of my Catholic neighbors had decorated his house for Christmas with a light-up cross on the roof and a large nativity scene in the front lawn. He had also decorated his car, which was parked in the driveway, with a rainbow-colored gay rights bumper sticker.) Now it seems to me that these two positions are mutually exclusive and that holding both of them conjointly should produce some serious cognitive dissonance. But consistency, it seems, is in short supply these days. In an era of widespread ethical relativism, far too many of us—including quite a few sincere, well-meaning Christians—have become comfortable with maintaining glaring inconsistencies in how we live, think, and view the world. We need to be reminded (and, whenever possible, to remind others) of the virtue of consistency.
Two stories in 2015 illustrate that, as important as the same-sex marriage issue is, it has basically already become yesterday’s battle. Transgenderism and related issues concerning the total autonomy to define one’s personal identity are the new battlegrounds across which the culture war will be fought.
To many Americans, Bruce Jenner was the epitome of masculinity. Not only was he an Olympic gold medal–winning decathlon champion, he had even graced the cover of a Wheaties cereal box! Yet in June 2015, Bruce announced that he now identifies as a woman. A month later, he legally changed his name to Caitlyn. In a very brief span of time, Jenner has become the most recognized face of the LGBT community. The publicity and sympathy that this has generated for transgenderism is utterly unprecedented.
Before the news of Jenner’s transgenderism had even begun to fade from the headlines, the national discussion about identity autonomy took a bizarre and unexpected turn. Rachel Dolezal, a civil rights activist and president of a local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, came under scrutiny for portraying herself as a black woman despite the fact that both her parents are white. Dolezal’s defense in the court of public opinion involved a claim to total autonomy in the area of personal identity: “I acknowledge that I was biologically born white to white parents,” she said, “but I identify as black.”
These events raise a whole host of hairy issues that society will have to grapple with in the days ahead. Just how free are we to forge our own identities? For many years parents have told their children, “You can be anything you want to be”—but heretofore they haven’t really meant it literally. Where would this sort of identity autonomy end? If a man decides to identify as a cow or a boiled egg, must society bend to accommodate his fantasy? Recently a 52-year-old father of seven made headlines when he announced that he now identifies as a 6-year-old girl. So if he commits a crime, should he be tried as a minor? Or take it one step further: Suppose a convicted murderer announces that he now identifies as an innocent, law-abiding citizen. Should he be acquitted? (Granted, that last example sounds outlandish. But then again, just a few years ago the entire discussion would have sounded outlandish! Yet here we are.)
As society wrestles with these identity issues, the church will need to do so too. The most immediate concern that churches are likely to face will be related to their restroom policies, but far deeper and more complex questions also need to be raised. How should a pastor go about counseling a transgendered person? (I suspect most pastors will find that their seminary counseling courses did not even begin to prepare them for this eventuality.) And, more broadly, how do Bible-believing Christians address these issues in a way that is unswervingly faithful to Scriptural teaching on gender norms and the Lordship of Christ, but that also embodies the compassion and mercy of Jesus to those who are wracked with confusion in these areas? I submit that serious Christians should give earnest attention to these types of questions, and soon.
Planned Parenthood under Fire
Last year saw a galvanizing of the pro-life movement when the Center for Medical Progress released a series of undercover videos implicating Planned Parenthood in the crime of trafficking in aborted baby parts. A spirited debate ensued, in which the battle lines were mostly drawn along familiar partisan divides: those on the right tended to react to the videos with abhorrence and with a call to strip Planned Parenthood of its public funding; those on the left tended to downplay the videos and defend Planned Parenthood against the allegations. Congressional Republicans threatened to defund the abortion provider, while the White House promised to veto any such legislation. The saber rattling came to a head in September, when the Senate voted on a bill to discontinue Planned Parenthood’s funding. Pro-life activists watched the unfolding events with guarded hope, desperately wanting to see some movement on this issue but doubting that the bill would receive veto-proof support. In fact, it ended up receiving considerably less: the bill did not even pass the Senate. As 2016 opens, the movement to defund Planned Parenthood seems to have lost almost all of its steam.
I found this whole turn of events deeply disturbing. What does it say about the moral character of our populace when, even with this much scrutiny turned upon the travesty of abortion, we cannot clear the relatively low hurdle of defunding a single private organization? Never mind the loftier goals of shutting down the abortion provider in question altogether, or of criminalizing the murder of unborn children—our nation is so morally bankrupt that we can’t even convince our lawmakers to stop giving public funds to those who perpetrate and champion these monstrous practices. In response to these developments, Franklin Graham opined, “I believe we are perilously close to the moral tipping point for the survival of the United States of America.” It’s a frightening thought. But I’m inclined to wonder, given the current state of moral decay, whether it’s remotely possible that we haven’t passed that point already.
Run-up to the 2016 Presidential Election
Presidential elections are almost always colorful affairs, filled with entertaining pomp and pageantry, and the current one has proven no exception. As 2015 fades into history and 2016 dawns, the candidates are busy crisscrossing the country in full-on campaign mode. Their fortunes will be decided in the months to come, but I believe what we have already witnessed throughout the primary season offers profound insights for understanding the current political landscape.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Hilary Clinton’s nomination has seemed almost totally inevitable. Even when her campaign was beset by the juiciest and most scandalous allegations imaginable, few commentators ever seriously questioned the likelihood that she would secure the nomination. Bernie Sanders has been the only candidate to have even come within striking distance of Clinton—and that is a story in itself! That an avowed socialist could fare this well in a United States presidential primary is utterly unprecedented. It is reflective, I think, of an almost unimaginable degree of political polarization in American today. The partisan divide has become more of a partisan chasm, and it seems to be rapidly growing wider.
On the Republican side of the aisle, the primary race has been dominated by the bombastic billionaire Donald Trump. When Trump officially announced his candidacy for president in June, many commentators dismissed him as a serious candidate, predicting his campaign would fizzle out in a matter of months. To their astonishment, Trump has proven he has staying power. As of the time of this writing, he has held undisputed front-runner status in the Republican primary race for just under six months. Against all odds, Trump has managed to retain this coveted position despite coming under fire for making multiple incendiary comments and despite being subjected to an all-out assault by the GOP establishment. Whether or not he can go the distance remains to be seen, but so far Trump’s longevity has surprised just about everyone.
Trump’s closest competition up to this point has also been quite revealing. If we were to give the 2016 Republican primary race a catchy title, “Rise of the Political Outsiders” might be most appropriate. The second and third places in the national polls have tended to vacillate almost entirely between “outsider” candidates, such as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, and—to a slightly lesser extent—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Candidates who are widely viewed as being Washington insiders (e.g., Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich) have tended to languish at the bottom of the polls throughout the entire primary process.
These observations seem to indicate that the two major political parties in America are currently going in entirely opposite and totally incompatible directions. The Republican Party has contracted a case of populism. Its members are absolutely fed up with the professional political class and are looking outside the Beltway for answers to America’s problems. By contrast, the Democratic Party is doubling down on big-government, progressivist policies. Under these circumstances, if neither party manages to attain a landslide electoral victory in 2016, we can probably expect to see little more than political gridlock for the foreseeable future.
We are living in strange and unpredictable times. While one would not want to perpetrate unnecessary doomsday alarmism, it is difficult to escape the impression that the world is on extremely unsure footing and that things are unlikely to become more stable in the coming year. If that is true, how should we as Christians respond? I offer four suggestions:
Stay informed. With so much uncertainty in the world and so many layers of complexity to deal with, it is vital that Christians not bury their heads in the sand. Granted, it is possible to become overly obsessed with keeping current on the news of the day. But I think, for most of us, the greater temptation will be to check out mentally and leave the world to its own machinations. That is precisely what we should not do: we have been tasked with imparting a message of eternal significance to a world in darkness. The more aware we are of current events and cultural trends, the more intentional we can be about contextualizing that message effectively.
Stay on mission. Regardless of anything that transpired in 2015, and no matter what comes to pass this year, several important facts remain constant: God is still sovereign, Christ is still faithful, the gospel is still effective, the fields are still “white for harvest” (John 4:35), and the church’s commission to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19) remains in full effect.
Look for fresh opportunities to do the work of evangelism and apologetics. In an era of widespread instability, uncertainty, and confusion, people are longing for something permanent, trustworthy, and hopeful. It is my sincere conviction that only Christ Jesus can satisfy that longing and bring lasting significance. He is the answer to all the doubts, fears, and questions of every apprehensive heart. Quite plausibly, the opportunities to share the gospel have never been greater.
Pray for the soon return of Jesus. Admittedly, every generation of Christians tends to think that it is the terminal generation, and I want to be careful not to fall into the trap of sensationalizing the Bible’s eschatological passages or setting dates for the fulfillment of specific prophecies. Even still, it is difficult to read passages such as 1 Timothy 4, 2 Timothy 3, and 2 Peter 3 and come away without the instinctive feeling that the end is near. Our attitude should be one of watchful expectation, diligently laboring in the work that God has given us, but all the while looking to the sky and praying, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
David Gunn is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.