The end of an era: Living through the gray zone of our changing world

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The end of an era: Living through the gray zone of our changing world

May 3, 2022 -

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The following is an adapted excerpt from A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders by Mark Sayers.

We are in a time of significant and rapid worldwide change. Political scientist Randall Schweller notes that “the world is undergoing transformation. . . . . a chaotic period where most anything can happen and little can be predicted; where yesterday’s rule takers become tomorrow’s rule makers, but no one follows rules anymore; where competing global visions collide with each other; where remnants of the past, present, and future coexist simultaneously.” The lightning change was happening in politics, technology, culture, and the global order, hinting at a new and different future.

These changes only seemed to accelerate with the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. “This virus, like many before it, is just such a history-accelerating crisis,” note journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, illuminating the way that pandemics launch us into new epochs. Yet as the third decade of the twenty-first century begins, we find ourselves in an unnerving transitory state—the gray zone.

Confusion is the dominant sense we experience during transitional moments of rapid change. Therefore, it is vital to understand where we are and what is going on.

We need a new interpretive framework to understand the abnormal conditions that are emerging in the world. The framework I would like to offer to help us understand this moment is simple. The world is moving into a transitional phase—a gray zone.

A gray zone is confusing and contradictory, filled with change and conflict. Everything seems to be up in the air.

I have borrowed the term gray zone from the study of twenty-first-century warfare. Traditionally, there were clear definitions of what war was, when it started and ended. It was clear who was fighting and what rules of combat were. However, it is becoming less apparent in the twenty-first century when war has begun and when it ends.

When mysterious soldiers in unmarked green uniforms turned up in the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014, no one knew if this was a local insurgency, an invasion from Russia, or something new. It was the start of a new conflict, yet no one could tell exactly when the war began. This shows how the boundaries between war and peace are blurring. Military strategists now differentiate between kinetic war—essentially shooting and blowing up the enemy—and other forms of war such as cyber, information, legal, criminal, psychological, and economic.

Understanding this background helps us understand why gray zones are confusing places. The term gray zone has a broader application than just as a military term. Many Christian leaders—who have been formed by procedure, clear boundaries, and sharp definitions—find this moment challenging to comprehend and operate within.

Historians arrange passages of time into eras. Eras traditionally are shaped around the rule of an empire or ruling class, which establishes an overarching big story or narrative. Big stories are created and communicated primarily by those in power to justify their rule. Eras also contain a defined set of rules and promoted patterns of life. History shows us that an era tends to be dominated by influential individuals who shape its thinking, key events that determine its direction, movements that embody its longings, and artists who capture its mood.

However, there are moments when ages overlap and eras mingle in a hybrid transitional moment. Thus, gray zones contain the influence of more than one era. Historian Peter Gay captures this in describing the interwar years of his childhood in Germany, which was marked by a mood that “was both old and new. The striking mixture of cynicism and confidence, the search for novelty and for roots.” For people living through the years in between the world wars, it seemed to many like a new beginning. To others, it felt like the end of an era. Thus, gray zones are bridges in between eras.

So how do we know when we are in a gray zone or living through an era? Let’s dig deeper.

Gray zones exist in the overlap between the passing era and the era to come. One can be fooled that the old era is still dominant. Often as eras pass, their traits intensify. We have seen this dynamic at play during the pandemic. The effect of lockdowns created a radical break with routine. No longer could we look away from the realities of the era we had been living in. As the British novelist James Meeks reflected on the lockdowns, “When you aren’t going anywhere, the danger is that you might start seeing the way things are going.” Without the daily distractions and routine of our lives, the concerning trajectory of the era we lived in became clearer. The crises under the surface became impossible to ignore.

As Dani Rodrik writes, “The crisis seems to have thrown the dominant characteristics of each country’s politics into sharper relief. Countries have in effect become exaggerated versions of themselves.” The pandemic was serving to “intensify and entrench already-existing trends.” In nations across the world, a range of social issues that had been simmering under the surface burst forth—bringing forward a raft of issues such as racism, religious tensions, sexism, and the environment. The problems of the era were intensifying at the precise moment that the era was passing.

At the same time, however, we could also see a new world being born. For most of the last decade, a series of impending shifts have been visible on the horizon—trends that will have a far-reaching impact on our world. The globe, in the words of Richard Robb, James Manyika, and Jonathan Woetzel, stands

poised at a set of historical, technological, economic, political, and social inflection points. The transformation we’re living through has sometimes been likened to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the Industrial Revolution pales in comparison to today’s convulsions, because the shifts today are happening much faster and on a much bigger scale. Because they are so interlinked—urbanization and consumption, technology and competition, ageing and labor—and because they amplify one another, the changes are harder to anticipate and more powerful in their impact. And they challenge our imaginations as much as they do our competencies and skills.

One of the impacts of the global pandemic was to accelerate us toward that horizon and those inflection points. The pandemic didn’t change the world. It was a signal of the change already happening in the world. British historian Adam Tooze described the pandemic as “a way station on an ascending curve of radical change,” noting that “for better or worse there is no escaping the fact that ‘big things’ are going to happen. The continuation of the status quo is the one option we do not have.” The world was already a change-rich environment; the pandemic was a harbinger that the continual and accelerating change was here to stay.

It’s clear that a new era is being born. Its contours are unclear, yet its influence is still palpable. This is what it feels like to live in a gray zone.

We may not know without hindsight when the gray zone will end, yet it is the environment in which we are called to lead. To live out the kingdom of God. For those who have found themselves overrun by the sheer pace of change over the last five years, who anxiously try to find their bearings in this time—you are not alone. Gray zones are challenging places that operate under different rules. However, we follow an unchanging God, who is advancing His kingdom in this gray zone moment.

Adapted from A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders by Mark Sayers (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

More by Mark Sayers

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