When Francis Schaeffer looked at our modern society, he saw a lot of apathy. He would trace the ebb and flow of Western Civilization, highlighting achievements, revolutions, and the longings of mankind. Many idealists, revolutionaries, and power-hungry people have changed the course of history—some for better, some for worse. But when Schaeffer looked at his own generation in the twentieth century, he didn’t see a whole lot of ambition either for good or for evil. Instead, he saw mostly apathy.
Schaeffer identified what he called “two impoverished values” that dominated the middle class in America and in other Western nations: personal peace and affluence.
Our American society is shockingly rich. Of course, we’re too used to it to feel the shock. But you’ve heard it before. As science was put to practical use in the Industrial Revolution, we began producing goods and therefore creating capital on a scale that the world had never known. We take our single family residences, our ratio of at least one car per adult, our electric everything, and our endless supply of running water for granted. We even protest when state colleges raise their tuitions, claiming higher education on our terms as a right.
So to Schaeffer’s point: affluence became one of our highest values. We want to be well off. We don’t need be as wealthy as the Wall Street execs (and we’ll occupy their sidewalks to show how money-hungry they are), but we’re not okay without a specific level of wealth-derived comfort. We take our stuff for granted, and we’ll hang on to our stuff and defend our right to own it, even if that means that other people will have to go without.
Schaeffer referred to this as a “noncompassionate use of wealth.” When we have more than we need, we subtly raise the bar of needs vs. wants. Other people are suffering, and we have the means to help them, but we’re so committed to affluence that we’re not willing to part with our money. We don’t use our wealth compassionately. Look around at our modern society and tell me you don’t see that as a trend.
And then there’s what Schaeffer referred to as “personal peace.” By this he meant that people simply want to be left alone. I’m okay, you’re okay. Let’s avoid all conflict. Even if it means that injustice prevails, I don’t want to get dragged in to any controversy. Just leave me be.
Schaeffer traced this into the political realm, saying that our society would vote for any candidate that could promise them their personal peace. I’ll give you my vote as long as it doesn’t upset my lifestyle. As long as things can stay the way they are, I can get behind anyone.
I err on the side of agreeing with (almost) anything Schaeffer said, but I really think he’s spot on with his analysis here. Apathy does prevail in large swaths of our modern society. The only thing that will get people riled up is a tanking economy or a threat to their personal freedom. It’s probably not wise to try to decide whether an evil regime would be preferable to an apathetic mass populace, but Schaeffer is certainly right to call these two values “impoverished.” Much of what plagues our society stems from our unswerving allegiance to these two values.
Schaeffer’s voice was prophetic. We should use his warning as a wake up call to our society as a whole. But beyond that, Schaeffer’s warning should be heard by individuals as well. How are you living your life? How much do value affluence? What is your level of commitment to personal peace?
Don’t be too optimistic about yourself in this regard. A vague passion is not enough. A generation rose up during the 60s and 70s to protest their parents’ commitment to these two values. They vented their passion, but in the end they took these values as their own. Tomorrow I’ll explain what this movement was about, why it collapsed into personal peace and affluence, and why that is important for the way we live our lives.