There are some supermarkets and shops which make their staff wear large badges with a slogan proclaiming that they are “happy to help”.
Personally I find this faux cheerfulness and sincerity grating. After all, why would a store employ someone who didn’t want to help customers? Or is there a secret coterie of grim-faced “unhappy to help” staff locked away somewhere?
This might seem a million miles from the appalling, evil events that have unfolded in Ukraine at the behest of that dangerous and delusional fascist Vladimir Putin. Well, let us come back to “happy to help” in a moment.
But let’s begin by acknowledging that commentators on both left and right of the political spectrum have been united in pointing to the weakness of the modern liberal West as a fact which gave Putin confidence in launching his invasion.
On the right, for example, Charles Moore in the Telegraph writes: “We have pursued a politics which is almost proud of its self-indulgence … A luxurious world where we can all become picky about dietary preferences, micro-aggressions, well-being, pronouns and carbon neutrality.”
On the left, here’s Simon Tisdall in the Guardian: “The West fights with one hand behind its back. It does so by choice, out of timidity, greed and sloth.”
Back to the right, with Zoe Strimpel declaring: “The whole edifice of woke politics … has finally been birthed as a mainstream tendency towards inward-looking delusion about what really matters… [And] it’s not just the woke: the favouring of mad chimeras over decency, urgency and action is also apparent on the Right, particularly in America, where pro-Trump conservatives have incoherently and persistently minimised the threat posed by Putin in order to score points.”
And to the left, one more time, with Andrew Rawnsley saying: “Putin’s greatest strength has been the weakness of the West … The democracies repeatedly gave him reason to believe that they only pretended to care about naked violations of the rule of international law.”
Whatever one makes of the specifics of their arguments, there is no doubt they are all on to something. The West is weak. But as Christians we know the diagnosis is at heart a spiritual one, for when people turn their backs on God as many western Europeans have, and north Americans are increasingly doing, all sorts of things follow.
Firstly, they lose their moral moorings. How to judge right or wrong, for example? Well, you have your truth, I have mine … There are no absolutes; every truth is fine, just so long as it doesn’t involve denouncing mine or telling me how to live. Consequently, the whole notion of truth is devalued and cheapened.
Secondly, once you lose sight of truth, you start to drift into all sorts of alternative factual fantasy lands. To situations where, for example, more US Republicans have a negative view of Joe Biden – weak, ineffectual and wrong on some issues as he may be – than of megalomaniacal madman and violent suppressor of freedom, Vladimir Putin. Confusion and fog around quite basic issues of right and wrong have become the norm.
And, thirdly, money becomes everything. As Jesus says, you can only serve God or Mammon – you can’t serve them both. But turn your back on God, devalue truth, become befuddled over basic issues of good and evil, and Mammon becomes your overlord – whether it is in Russian dirty money in the UK or people in Belgium simpering about the damage to their diamond trade that sanctions on Russia might cause, as they were a few days ago.
Ultimately, when Truth is whatever you want it to be, Facts are flexible, and Money is god, then something crucial happens: you no longer have anything you believe in strongly enough to be willing to die for. If you lose sight of life’s real purpose, then what is worth dying for or truly self-sacrificing oneself for?
And that is why the West has been so weak in combatting Putin for so long. Simon Tisdall reminds us that Putin has already “murdered Alexander Litvinenko, invaded Georgia, abetted Syrian war crimes, annexed Crimea, sent mercenary killers to Libya and the Sahel, subverted America’s elections, waged cyber warfare, weaponised the internet and poisoned the Skripals …”
And yet the West’s response has consistently been feeble.
Because the West has forgotten how to live – with God at the centre – it has over time demonstrated that it has nothing it feels strongly enough about to die for – even metaphorically.
Tackle Russian oligarchs and dirty money in the UK properly? That would hurt us too much. But we are “happy to help” by speaking out strongly. Embargo Russia’s vital oil and gas exports to western Europe? Sounds a bit painful (as it would be). But we are “happy to help” by belatedly sending some arms to Ukraine (what took so long?) even as actually getting them in there becomes much more difficult.
“Happy to help” – but not willing to die to self; not willing to really make self-sacrifices. After all, that might cause us pain!
Quite a few Western churches reflect this weak Western secular culture too, of course. Many ministers will tell you they have many members who are “happy to help” – but rather fewer who are willing to serve. Many are “happy to help” – but the sacrifice involved in committing to something every Sunday is, well, too much.
And so we return to Jesus who teaches us that in order to live – to truly live – we must die to self. It is in giving up our lives for His sake that we find eternal life (Matthew 16v24-25 and Mark 8v34-35). If we are unwilling to sacrifice our lives we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14v27).
Will the West wake up and return to the Lord? Will it recover a sense of right and wrong? Will facts once again trump fantasy? Will ethics guide money rather than the other way around? Maybe; maybe not.
But what about us as Christians? Are we noticeably different from the culture around us? Or is it the case that as long as we have Netflix on our tellies, livestreamed church we can watch from bed, and toilet rolls in the supermarket, that’s fine. In the meantime, we remain, of course, “happy to help”.
David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now www.e-n.org.uk in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.