Michael J. Chan: Return to Normalcy and Other Fleshpots

Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34, CEB).

In the current political environment, many Americans are hoping for a “return to normalcy.” Such a pitch plucks at the heartstrings of many who are ready to vomit after too many sharp turns on the 2020 roller coaster.

Many of us just want to get back to the way things were—when masks were just a curious feature of foreign travelers, when visiting family didn’t require risk assessment, when self-scandalizing tweets didn’t hijack our news cycle, when church participation didn’t require a Zoom account, when outlets weren’t so clearly fueled and funded by rage, and when we didn’t have to squirm under the constant accusation of racism.

The return to normalcy argument derives its power from the common (and often beneficial!) human impulses to avoid conflict, stabilize life when it gets knocked off balance, resolve contradiction, organize chaos, and believe that we are good and decent people with upright intentions.

On its long trip from Egypt to Canaan, Ancient Israel experienced a similar urge to return to a more familiar and comfortable past (see Exodus 16:3).

The only problem was that their memory of the past was distorted. They remembered the fleshpots but not the chains.

Ironically, the promised “return to normalcy” means that 2020—like 2016—will be an election about nostalgia. But one thing sets 2020 apart from 2016: clarity. 2020 has seen the sins of generations washing up on the shores of our nation in ways that are profoundly public and profoundly painful. 2020 has been a year of judgment, when sinful seeds planted long ago are coming into maturity in ways that have compounding effects.

If divine judgment does one thing well, it brings into focus what was previously obscured or even ignored, separating wheat from husk and sheep from goats (Matthew 3:11-12; 25:31-46).

The fire of God’s judgment allows us to see ourselves as we truly are before God’s law of love. We are in a painful process in which our national eyes are slowly and reluctantly opening to truths that some in our population have suffered under for ages.

2020 has brought clarity about many particular things: clarity about racial disparities, clarity about the dangers of poor leadership, clarity about the weaknesses in our social fabric, clarity about the importance of robust free speech and assembly rights, clarity about the deficiencies in our health care system, clarity about the disrepair of the international order, and clarity about how lines of discrimination can exist in reality, even if they don’t exist legally.

But clarity is painful and costly.

It stings the way Nathan’s words to David must have stung: “you are that man” (2 Samuel 12:7). It crashes down on us like the waters crashed down on Pharaoh’s armies at the Red Sea. And it brings us face-to-face with one of the most disturbing aspects of Jesus’ ministry: confrontation.

Jesus’ ministry was inherently confrontational, as Matthew 10:34 indicates: “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”

Matthew’s Jesus is an apocalyptic figure, whose conflict with the powers of sin, death, and the devil are borne out through the Gospels. He recognized that true peace, shalom, requires confrontation.

Like the late John Lewis, Jesus was a troublemaker. When Jesus came to town, the powers of sin, death, and the devil surfaced. The demons showed their faces—not because they were powerful, but because they were vulnerable.

As the apocalyptic sword of divine judgment sweeps through our own land, ancient demons are emerging from their lairs with the kind of ferocity that comes only from desperation. In the apocalypse, the last thing we need is a return to normalcy.

Americans face an important question: Are we willing to exchange the moral clarity of this moment for a distorted memory of the past?

Is a “return to normalcy” really what is called for?

We ought to be concerned when and if “return to normalcy” is heard as a summons to a time when we saw less clearly, when we more easily overlooked our neighbor’s weathered face and scarred hands. The precious gift of moral clarity at this time of judgment is utterly invaluable.

And we ought not substitute that clarity for a morally dull sense of comfort.


Dr. Michael Chan

Dr. Michael J. Chan
Host: Gospel Beautiful Podcast
Assistant Professor, Luther Seminary