Performance-Based Culture Is Killing Us

Grateful for this one written by The Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase, whose book Done and Left […]

Guest Contributor / 10.26.17

Grateful for this one written by The Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase, whose book Done and Left Undone: Grace in the Meantime of Parish Ministry hits in January.

When I preached at the closing Eucharist of our recent Cursillo on Sunday, I reminded participants that they’d just been gifted with a cross on which was written: “Christ is counting on you.” I told them (to a few gasps in the congregation) to please forget about that for now. They should rather be “counting on Christ.” Later, when they’re a bit more mature in faith, they might heed the words on their crosses, while never forgetting to always first “count on Christ.” In today’s church, “What have we done for Jesus lately?” seems to be more important than “What has Jesus done for us on the cross?” I say that because much of Christianity today is more and more mirroring the worst parts of our “performancist” culture and that culture is literally killing us.

In the August 2017 issue of the journal First Things, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, wrote an essay we all should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. His article, Dying of Despair, documents our culture’s state of health. He writes: “Depression is now the most common serious medical or mental health disorder in the United States. Sixteen percent of Americans will have an episode of major depression at some time in their lives, and six percent of all Americans—14 million—have suffered from major depression in the past year. We are witnessing a rising plague of melancholy.”

Along with depression, we’re also experiencing rising rates of suicide and opioid abuse. Dr. Kheriaty connects these to our increased social fragmentation. He writes: “Since the 1980s, reported loneliness among adults in the U.S. increased from 20 percent to 40 percent.” Loneliness increases our risk of heart disease, premature death, and, yes, violent behavior (pay attention to that one). Add to that the declining rates of religious participation and we see why many have lost meaning and hope. Church used to be a place for people to develop not only a relationship with God, but also social cohesion protecting them from the medically-documented disease of loneliness. Today, however, the religiously unaffiliated account for 23% of all adults, up from 16% ten years ago.

But that’s not the most alarming aspect of his essay. Whether we’re referring to wealthy folk in suburbia or poor ones in Appalachia, the message of our “performacist” culture is now this: We’re valuable only when we perform well in this economy. Dr. Kheriaty writes: “When the useful replaces the good and efficiency becomes the highest value, human beings are instrumentalized. Rather than opening new vistas of freedom, economic and social liberation has made [us] subject to a logic of utility.” The social Darwinism of our current socio-economic model is making us sick. Only those with the greatest utility and capability can survive and thrive.

The unmerited grace of the Gospel of Jesus is the only medicine that can cure this socio-economic disease. That Gospel tells us that we’re not valued for what we produce. We’re valued because God graced humanity in Jesus and the imputed righteousness of his cross declares we all have infinite worth. But such a Gospel can only be taught by a church that sees our “performacist” culture clearly. And our culture is literally killing us.