godfather problem: when everyone is a milkshake duck

In June 2016, America had a brief love affair with an affable, rotund, sweater-wearing power plant operator from Illinois named Ken Bone. It was the middle of an ugly, contentious campaign season. We were looking for any reason whatsoever to feel better about humanity. So when Ken Bone asked the presidential candidates during the second debate about energy policy, for reasons only people who lived through 2016 can understand, we found our hero. Bone with his red sweater and disposable camera became overnight sensations. He appeared on ESPN’s College Game Day and Saturday Night Live. He was even in a commercial for Uber.

But alas, it was too good to last. Seems like the only thing we enjoy more than building idols in our culture is quickly demolishing them. As quickly as Ken Bone ascended to hero status, he came toppling back to earth when it was discovered that he had maintained a troubling presence on Reddit. So, this person went from unknown, to famous, to reviled in a matter of days. Bone became one of the first, but certainly not the last in a long line of Milkshake Ducks.

The Twitter account, Pixelated Boat created the viral meme in 2016 to describe the Ken Bones of our new hyper-connected culture that makes and breaks celebrities at break neck speed.

Milkshake Duck

Everyone has some skeletons in their closet. But because of technologies like social media that have coincided with other cultural shifts (including, more recently, the #metoo phenomenon), it seems like we are increasingly a society without closets. Your past will find you and everything will be on display eventually – especially if you are unfortunate enough to gain sudden notoriety.

I’m not arguing in favor of closets or “the good old days” when it was so much easier to keep scandal under wraps and personal foibles, personal. This is the world we live in where the words of Jesus in Luke 8:17 are inescapably true. What is concealed will eventually come into the light. This reality has also served to amplify our Godfather problem in the Church. Today, there is simply no hiding impropriety – at least not for long. Just ask the Catholic Church.

Yuval Levin has argued that the dominant worldview of our culture is “expressive individualism” where a person’s authenticity and self-expression matter more than much of anything else. Such a culture will have little time for posturing and hypocrisy. And frankly, as much as I despise this worldview, a follower of Jesus should be similarly predisposed against hypocrisy (albeit for perhaps different reasons). Jesus certainly had little good to say to the public posers (we might call them “virtue signalers” today) and hypocrites.

This is my fourth post on what James K.A. Smith calls the Godfather problem. You can check out the previous posts here, here, and here. This post is probably the most important one. The previous two were about interpreting the problem, namely avoid hasty generalizations and avoid arguing that hypocrisy somehow negates the gospel. This post is about what we must do about the Godfather problem.

My answer is simple and biblical. Repent.

There is no better answer that honors the gospel than to name our sin, repent of it, and cling to the good news of grace and reconciliation in the midst of it. Jesus is not willing for us to be fake; posers in the faith. To a culture of expressive individualism, we must also say that He is not willing for us to be “our true selves” either. The Gospel is no self-help message calling us to access the truth within. Jesus is willing for us to come and die. And such a call is only answered in repentance.

The best place to start when reflecting on the need to repent would seem to be with the two greatest commandments.

Have we been guilty of not loving God well – whether in word, or deed, or belief? Have we been guilty of the type of practical atheism that treats our Creator and our Lord as a mere afterthought in our lives? Have we allowed foreign gods – like consumerism, nationalism, individualism, and a host of other -isms – to split our allegiance to our God? These are not the type of indiscretions that are often noticed by the world. But they are noticed by God. We don’t repent before the authority of cultural fashions. We will not and should not repent for the “sin” of being culturally unfashionable. We repent before the timeless truths of an infinite God. When we are guilty of not loving God well, we must repent.

Have we been guilty of not loving others well – whether in word, or deed, or belief? Have we been guilty of or passive to destructive and dehumanizing -isms like racism and sexism? Have we been guilty of stripping sacred personhood from any group of people because of age, race, gender, nationality, sexuality, income, ability, or whether they are yet unborn? Have we been guilty of allowing the tribalism of the world disrupt the unity of the Spirit? Have we been guilty of sins of omission in neglecting the “least of the these?” Have we used power to manipulate or abuse? Have we created straw men of our opponents or turned them into what Alan Jacobs calls “repugnant cultural others?” Have we been guilty of loving humanity while being negligent of our responsibility to love individuals? Have we been guilty of submitting our primary call to love God underneath the call to love others? To any of these circumstances and many more, we must repent.

Our repentance is no mere performance art or virtue signalling. Our repentance shows that we take the gospel seriously. It shows that we recognize that we have fallen short and are in need of forgiveness and healing.

But repentance extends beyond merely our willingness to repent of our individual sins. I believe that corporate repentance is also in order. There have been dark chapters in the Church’s history when we did not follow Jesus well. There have been dark chapters where the body of Christ has trampled under foot the two greatest commandments. And to that I say, we must repent. Not because the world demands it, but because commitment to the gospel does.

I understand the objection. “That’s not my mess. Why should I clean it up?” Why repent for sins that I didn’t commit? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Some are guilty; all are responsible.” Maybe part of what it means to be the body of Christ is that when one part hurts, we all hurt; when one part celebrates, we all celebrate; and when one part sins grievously, we all grieve. “Bearing one another’s burdens” might also require us to bear in some way one another’s Godfather moments. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but it is good for us to remember that there are some scoundrels in the stands. We shouldn’t, at least in my opinion, celebrate the faithful legacy of those who went before us without also recognizing those moments where those who went before us didn’t live up to their calling. What I’m saying is that we should not only own and repent of our personal Godfather moments. We should also own and repent of the Church’s Godfather moments both in the past and in the present because we are one body. Or, to go back to the Michael Corleone metaphor, we are Family. It would be yet another form of hypocrisy to shift all of the blame to others (“That was Michael, not me!”) without recognizing that in some way we are a family of scoundrels. But our repentance is not to revel in our failure but to testify to the sufficiency and necessity of God’s grace both now and forever. We are sainted scoundrels.

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