I think it means hard, practical work. Christians who are engaged in conversation about what the morally good is that will work for all the people, that will permit human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed as equitably as is currently possible, and is most likely to work out well in the long run, must employ their best understanding of how that can be done through public policies that reflect love of God and love of neighbor in the ways that Jesus demonstrated it. And that means knowing the ways Jesus demonstrated it. And that means doing what we can to lay aside the filters of our prejudices so we can hear what God is saying now. It does not mean putting the Ten Commandments on the court house lawn, nor does it mean forcing public school students to read the bible. It does mean using one’s individual autonomy in as close to the way Jesus used his as one is able to do. Doing that is anything but meek and mild. It may not even be safe, but it is good.
Kirstjen Nielsen tried to dine, inexplicably, at a D.C. Mexican restaurant where she was assaulted by persons who entered the restaurant to yell, jeer, and shout shame, shame. Rep. Maxine Waters of California endorsed that kind of behavior, and encouraged others to do the same whenever they spotted a Trump administration official out in public doing whatever ordinary people do when out in public. I can understand why. Moral outrage over so many lies, corruption, abuse of power, and rampant acts of injustice can bring it out. But that kind of brutally confrontational harassment is morally wrong and politically inept. Knock it off.
It’s the Trumpian sort of behavior we abhor, and is a near cousin of criminal assault and battery with intent. Trump’s name calling, insults, ridicule, and calls for supporters to “rough up” protesters are part and parcel of the trumpian way that should offend every decent person. They should not, cannot, be adopted as a tool for use by those of us who oppose him and what he stands for. We want a country more deeply committed to personal freedom, rule of law, restorative justice, and respect for the dignity of every person. We can’t advocate for that if we embrace the very worst of trumpian contemptuous behavior when confronting him, his supporters and their sympathizers.
As for the Red Hen incident in which Sarah Huckabee-Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant because people like her are not wanted; it’s not much different from the baker refusing to sell a cake to a gay couple, or, not so many years ago, the deli owner who kicked Vice President Biden out of his place because he didn’t like Joe’s politics. Not that a store can’t have standards for who can come in. They’re free to have all kinds of standards, as long as they apply to everyone equally, but there are limits. If you have something to sell in the public market place, you have to be willing to sell it to anyone regardless of race, creed, color, etc. You can’t make up a new standard, unknown to others, and apply it to one person. True, most states have commercial trespassing laws that allow, under rule of law, for a disruptive person to be barred from entering. Could Sarah be trespassed? Maybe. What’s the law in Virginia?
Playing tit-for-tat with Trump and his minions is to fall into the slimy gutter with them. Why do it? It’s grade school taunting and bullying. The best way to defeat Trump (and trumpians) at his game is to not play it.
As for those of us who claim to be Christian, it’s insubordination of Christ’s direct command to love even out enemies. Which is not the same thing as laying down to be stomped on like a door mat. We may be instructed to love our enemies, and yet know full well who they are and how dangerous they can be. We’re not fools. Jesus wasn’t shy about confronting the sins of society and the persons who commit them, from the most evil to the boorish banality of his disciples. Matthew says he called certain religious leaders a brood of vipers, not once but twice (Matthew tended to exaggerate), but Jesus always kept the door open for them to enter into God’s kingdom. He confronted evil without resorting to mud slinging. It left room for repentance, and pointed to a better way. Martin Luther King did the same thing in our time. He was bold in naming injustice and those who acted unjustly, he confronted evil with radical nonviolence, but he didn’t wallow in the mud with them.
Political reporting and commentary must continue to be hard hitting, as it should be. Country Parson’s certainly will. Trump must be held accountable. His senior advisors must be confronted boldly on the issues, and in the places where confrontation is appropriate, but without the kind of harassment that borders on criminal assault.
If we are to return the nation to its better self, political organizing and campaigning must continue to be vigorous and unafraid to spell out issues and name evils. Non violent demonstrations and protests are needed. But don’t let them become imitators of the very things we find so disgusting. And don’t expect any of it to change the minds of Trump supporters. Jesus never convinced a single one of his most rabid opponents. King never changed the mind of a single hard core segregationist. But each had a thunderous impact on the greater number of those whose hearts and minds tilted in the direction of goodness, freedom, justice, and hope for the future. Aim there. Leave the tar and feathers behind.
The Fourth of July is only a few days away. Newspapers and the internet will publish copies of the Declaration of Independence, and communities will celebrate, but this year with deeply conflicted emotions. It should be clear by now that we are engaged in a battle for the soul of America, the outcome of which is yet to be determined. What nation will be celebrated on July 4th in years to come? Will it continue to faithfully live into what the Declaration could but vaguely hope, and the Constitution promise, or will it adhere to another, darker vision?
There was another time when our nation was at war with itself, army against army, family against family. By late fall of 1863 it was not at all certain what the outcome would be. On November 19th, Abraham Lincoln began his brief remarks on the Gettysburg battle field, saying; “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
We have endured through another seven score and fifteen years. Wars, domestic violence, and economic hardships threatened, but the nation endured, grew stronger, more confident, and prospered. Then it changed. It began slowly with outrage over Vietnam and civil rights. Government became suspect. Decades of pointless wars shook our confidence. The rumble turned to eruption with the overwhelming popularity of a two term black president who helped set the stage for a new America in which white men would no longer be the nation’s undisputed thought and opinion leaders. The fragile equilibrium of the social and racial hierarchy had been shattered.
Now we are engaged in a battle for the soul of America, not with armies, at least not yet, but with words and actions. Social and racial anxieties coincided nicely with a tea party/libertarian movement demanding an emasculated federal government limited to national defense, and a few transportation and interstate commerce functions. Fierce opponents of anything they can label as socialism, many feel compelled to be as heavily armed as possible, claiming it their constitutional right.
Other Americans believe the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, regardless of race or condition in life, requires a federal government more deeply involved in securing them. They trust in the resilience of the traditional ideals of our constitutional democratic republic to enhance personal freedom and quality of life for all persons in the increasingly complex conditions of life on this planet. For the most part, they have no interest in being heavily armed, and abhor the violence emanating from an unrestrained gun culture.
It might have remained a vigorous political debate, but Trump was elected president. He’s been publicly clear and unrepentant about intending to be a ruler, not a president. His lack of knowledge about, or interest in, American history, its Constitution, the rule of law, and our shared political traditions have abetted his single minded intent to rule, and so far he’s had his way. As chaotically unpredictable as he appears, his dogged determination to win on a narrow agenda of issues by causing others to lose has served him well. His methods are eerily like those used in 1930s Germany. His rallies whip up the enthusiasm of angry supporters who are told their personal troubles are caused by hordes of illegal immigrants, while the nation is beset by disloyal allies and a rapacious China. Whatever is left of the Republican party has submitted with the whimpering of frightened puppies. Democrats huff, puff, and bluster, but have little power, so Trump doesn’t care.
His supporters and sympathizers imagine a prosperous, self sufficient America of hard working people enjoying a good life. A nation free of welfare dependency. A nation unentangled from global commitments. A nation uninfected with brown aliens upsetting the demographic balance. A nation united by traditional values culled from 1950s nostalgia. A nation free of government limitations on personal autonomy, and regulations limiting business practices. They are convinced that unchecked immigration across the southern border has flooded the nation with people who are a danger to their safety. They are convinced that America has been betrayed by its old allies, and is under economic attack by China. They willingly and stubbornly put their faith in Trump as the strong, decisive leader who will cut through red tape and congressional blathering to make things happen. They are unaware that their libertarian values of personal autonomy are at risk. They cannot be convinced otherwise.
The other side is not a side, but a conglomeration of sides who have difficulty agreeing or coordinating with each other, but there are shared links that bind them together, however loosely. They see signs of a move toward fascism in which the state, in the name of defending workers, subjects them to state control. They recognize that social and environmental issues have no respect for state and local boundaries, and must be addressed at the federal level. Big government is not a threat to them, but ineffectiveness through inefficiency is. They understand taxes to be our collective investment in the well being of the nation, and expect them to be fairly collected and efficiently used. They have a high regard for education, science, verifiable data, and reliable public policy analyses. The growing ethnic diversity of the population delights them. They believe that border security begins with fair, simple, more easily navigated immigration laws. It continues with diplomatic work to aid in restoration of safe, stable, free home countries of those seeking asylum. They understand that the economic future of America depends on immigrants. They recognize globalization not as a policy that can be reversed, but as a reality to be lived into. They treasure old, established alliances. They recognize the challenge of Chinese economic practices, and the best way to meet them through tough, good faith negotiation. They are deeply concerned about income inequality, the need for universal affordable health care, and the eroding effects of corporate socialism. They know that expansion of power through military conquest is no longer a realistic threat to any major nation, and that local armed conflicts are wasteful and immoral, but profitable for arms dealers.
July 4th is coming up. The two sides will walk together in parades, and face off against each other across town squares, each wanting what they think is best for America’s future. Tweeting away in their midst will be a president committed to his own power and authority, which he will try to sell to willing buyers at the cost of their freedom and the soul of the country.
We don’t live in due time, Out for dinner with friends a few nights ago, we talked about America’s history of lurching against the status quo toward greater freedom and justice for greater numbers of its people. The carnage of civil war, lynchings, burnings and beatings backed by laws of exclusion and prohibition existed along with optimism for a future in the vastness of a continent in which opportunity abounded for those willing to take risks and work hard. The contradictions were not easy to resolve. They haven’t yet been fully resolved.
Nevertheless, the nation has lurched forward, not without great effort on the part of courageous people who stood for a better way, leading others to stand with them, sometimes at the cost of their lives. It has made us unique among all nations, a marvel of civil instability that defies historical logic: one of the great wonders of the political world. As dinner conversation went on, one of us wondered if progress in civil rights would have happened in due time. Maybe it didn’t need wars, protests, and rabble rousing leadership to egg it on. In due time it would have happened.
“We don’t live in due time,” said our host. Very little of real worth happens in due time. It happens when forces of change have enough strength to overcome forces of the status quo. It takes a lot. Change is always disruptive, and sociopolitical change may be the most disruptive of all. If we know how to get along with the way things are, why risk changes that may not turn out well? Even if they do, how will we know how to get along in the strange ways of a new environment? Not all change is good. It can be bad. How is one to know? Why take the risk?
Still, America has a record of lurching unsteadily, violently, but consistently toward more civil rights for more people shared more equitably. And each forward lurch has been the product of courageous people taking courageous stands, against enormous odds.
There are vicious enemies of more civil rights for more people: the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists, etc. Within movements for needed change are internal obstacles created by radical extremists who would rather fight than win. Against all of it stands the most powerful obstacle to expanded rights; the passive resistance of those content with the status quo who are more upset with bad manners and ill behavior than by injustice. It’s something with which I’m quite familiar, having been a part of it at critical times.
Once again, the courageous among us are on the march, not to expand the scope of civil rights, but to defend ground gained against powerful counter attacks. Hard won rights are under threat from the current administration, backed by a large portion of the population convinced that their own rights and privileges are being taken away. Among them are passionate libertarians deeply distrustful of government interference in their lives, egged on, oddly enough, by a relatively small cadre of wealthy persons who appear to favor a more authoritarian form of government they hope to manipulate for their own benefit. Such turmoil is the perfect opportunity to dismantle regulatory structures that impede doing business as one desires, getting out from under intrusive government oversight, and all in the name of freedom.
In due time will the nation come to its senses, and restore legitimacy to government? It seems unlikely because we don’t live in due time.
Several years ago I wrote that the United States would benefit from getting over the need to be the leader of the free world, the biggest and best at everything, and learn to be one nation among others, doing what it does best while letting other nations do what they do best. I didn’t anticipate that we might get there through an administration intent on corrupting our national reputation, eroding our competitive advantages, and undermining the integrity of our democracy, doing it, they say, to Make America Great Again.
I don’t know how this will all work out. Now and then I run into Trump supporters. Some of them amaze me with the tenacity of their support. Others astound me with the grotesquely distorted convictions they hold about the world they live in. On the other side are dozens of opposition and resistance movements that have yet to say what they stand for instead of what they stand against. In between is a discouraging number who don’t vote, don’t intend to vote, don’t know what’s going on, and have little knowledge of American government and history.
I guess we’ll find out, in due time.
Trump’s advocates have ramped up use of an effective propaganda technique. In editorial comments, social media posts, and thence to barbershop and coffee conversations, the theme is that those who oppose Trump are elitists and haters who are not authentic Americans. It need not be said that authentic Americans are neither elitist nor haters, but it will be said in as many ways as possible to assure Trump supporters that they alone are the authentic Americans, while everyone else is an elitist hater, or one of their (duped?) sympathizers.
It’s a technique skillfully used with amazing success in the last couple of centuries to isolate dissenting opinions, making them unpalatable to citizens fearful of being labeled unpatriotically disloyal. More important, it’s been used to isolate whole populations from exposure to plainly verifiable truth.
Given the ubiquity of today’s social media, freedom of speech, and plethora of news outlets it’s harder to have the nation shattering kinds of success it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Just the same, it’s possible to use it with considerable success by relying on the self selected isolation of information sources. Thanks to algorithms, I, at least, am finding it harder to keep abreast of social media comments inconsistent with my political views, and I’m certain more conservative friends see little of what I write or the news sources I use.
What surprises me a little is the boldness with which commentators such as Steve HIlton use it, and operatives like Ed Rogers lean into its language. I doubt whether they care very much that it’s an obvious old technique. Rogers, for instance, is a gifted political strategist who knows how to push buttons without blowing things up, and this is a useful button. Hilton’s more of a semi-refined Steve Bannon who relishes pushing all the buttons to see if something can be made to blow up.
It would all be fun and games but for the barbershop and coffee conversations that reveal how well powerful techniques like this work to cement into otherwise decent people the certainty that they’re the only loyal authentic Americans standing tall against all those elitists who hate America. It’s a frightening game given Trump’s frequent, enthusiastic statements in support of authoritarian rule and rulers, and his administration’s moves to reconstruct the economy to favor unrestricted business practices for large companies, while endlessly teasing his faithful supporters with unreachable carrots.
It’s hard to know what effect his blundering trade war moves will have. They could be the undoing of his whole charade. Or they could create such a catastrophe that strong, authoritarian measures would be said to be needed. It’s worked for other dictators. Or he could do what he’s done before: teeter on the edge, back away, surrender, claim victory, and strut on.
In the meantime, his faithful followers will continue to believe he’s defending them against elitist haters. Their minds will not be changed by proving to them how wrong they are, how misled they’ve been. They will only be changed by messages emotionally driven, well crafted, evangelically delivered that lay before them an understandable pathway to their personal prosperity and security. It can’t be stage scenery. It has to be the real thing. I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe it’s coming.
Communities come in all shapes and sizes: families, churches, clubs, neighborhoods, towns, states, regions, nations, occupations, places of work, all shapes and sizes. They have values shared among their members, and some of them are core, essential to their identity as a community. When enough people recognize that community core values are being threatened, grass roots movements are likely to rise in their defense. Sometimes, those core values, however important they are to the community, are detrimental to their long term well being, obstructing alternative core values that could be even more beneficial to them. Changing core values is difficult because they are core, essential components of self identity. They are not easily given up.
The churches in Galatia were nominally Christian. Giving up old religions, or no religion, to follow Christ was, I think, sincere. They weren’t pretending. But being known as a Christian didn’t offer social or economic rewards. When it came to core values, their communities valued above all else public respect and recognition as seriously religious people. However important Jesus was to them, following him was not a core value. Paul’s letter, and his work among them, was meant to redirect their understanding of Jesus as the one above all who must be the most important core value in their lives. Public respect and recognition as seriously religious people were not.
What was true for the churches of Galatia remains true for us today. Within the Church there is tremendous tension between competing forces, each claiming the name of Jesus, and each suspecting the others of submitting to demands of popular culture. Some want their churches to be symbols of patriotic America within the context of culturally traditional Christian values. Others want them to follow Jesus by liberating the oppressed and restoring justice, proclaiming it the way of the cross. Among both are those who use the name of Jesus to clothe agendas dedicated to core values displacing from the center the Word of God made Flesh, in whom and through whom all creation exists.
Paul understood, and I try to understand, that Christians, by keeping Jesus at the center of everything said or done, discover there are always ways for conservatives and liberals to work their way through other issues, not always resolving them, but always maintaining the faith that binds them together as disciples. There are also those who can only win or lose, kill or be killed. For them Jesus is never at the center no matter how often his name is used. For them there is always something of greater importance. Whatever it is may be very important indeed, but when Christians allow anything to displace Jesus as the center, the center cannot hold. Interpreting Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” Christians who displace Jesus from the center can no longer hear God speaking above the hubris of their own voices. Whatever they’ve placed at the center cannot hold. It unleashes a form of anarchy that comes when human rules and regulations displace what God has commanded. With enough momentum, it leaves the best of us unsure about where our convictions lie, and fills the worst of us with “passionate intensity.”
No doubt that turns Yeats scholars apoplectically blue. They’ll get over it. In the meantime he described well the Galatian fallacy Paul worked so hard to correct. It’s the same fallacy that infects so many of our congregations and denominations today.
It’s not hard to understand why we easily fall into the Galatian way. Most of us want to live peacefully where a sociopolitical equilibrium predictably holds things together. Jesus was, and continues to be, what is meant by today’s favorite management buzzword, a disrupter. Jesus never ceases to call his disciples to follow him as he breaks down walls of separation, repairs damage caused by injustice, heals the sick and broken, doing it all in the name of God’s abounding and steadfast love. There’s a temptation to let it become a branch of secular progressivism, which is just another way to displace Jesus from the center. It can become the “passionate intensity” that defines the worst of us, both conservative and liberal. Is “all things in moderation” the answer?
The way out is not to be lukewarm. As Jesus said to the church in Laodicia, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot…because you are lukewarm I am about to spit you out.” (Rev. 3.15ff). To follow Jesus is to follow on the way of the cross, which is the way of life and peace, but it’s a turbulent kind of peace, not at all the sort of peace that comes with a comfortable sociopolitical equilibrium. As John cites Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14.27) It’s a strange kind of peace, a turbulent peace, but it’s God’s peace that Christians are called to live into.
Sociopolitical equilibriums are never in equilibrium. They’re always coming and going. Whatever they’re able to offer can be enjoyed for a time, but it can never be the center of all. The center of all must always be God, and God alone, whom we Christians know by following where Christ has led. The words Martin Luther King, Jr. used, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” describe the way of the cross. It exists as a part of whatever sociopolitical milieu it finds itself in, but it’s always pushing that milieu toward God’s justice of love and reconciliation. It will always be a disrupter.
Decades ago, tagging along behind work done on grass roots opposition movements by Luther Gerlach (U.of Minn.), I learned how grass roots movements, if they survive at all, gravitate toward becoming institutionally organized, finding their place in a sociopolitical equilibrium they helped establish out of whatever preceded it. Sociopolitical equilibrium never lasts long, a few generations, not much longer, often less. It means grass roots movements are always afoot, opposing or promoting change, and causing trouble among those who favor the peace of the status quo. The early church, illuminated by Paul’s letters, is a good example of how that works.
The first several generations of Christians formed a grass roots movement anchored in a shared understanding of who they were in relationship with God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Emanating from Jerusalem, but taking root in widely separated parts of the Roman Empire, each group took on locally appropriate ways of expressing the shared belief, but they couldn’t be easily synchronized with each other. It led to conflicts, and resolving them led in turn to more institutionalized discipline meant to codify and preserve the movement’s most important beliefs, preventing them from corruption. A good idea, but sometimes more institutionalized discipline is another source of corruption.
An example of the process is Paul’s letter tot he churches in Galatia. “You foolish Galatians,” he railed, “who has misled you?” The Galatian churches, desiring a more orthodox worship practices structured to be reliably passed on to the next generation, had adopted rules and regulations about how to worship, and who was in and who was out that imitated traditional Jewish practices, while no doubt also having some resemblance to the pagan practices surrounding them. Paul recognized two parallel threats. First, in using old models to define a new orthodoxy, they were surrendering the most important elements of who Jesus is, and what that means to follow him. Second, they were closing doors that Jesus had forced open, and erecting walls that Jesus had broken down.
New moons and sabbaths, circumcision and ritually acceptable foods were anathema to Paul’s version of what it meant to follow Jesus. The Galatians had to be reminded forcefully that for followers of Jesus there can be no Jew or Greek, no free or slave, no male or female. All are equal in God’s presence, and they are to be equal in the community of the church as well. The Galatians were rebuilding the walls of separation that Jesus had given his life to tear down. By his resurrection he revealed that it was God’s will and by God’s doing that they were torn down. An outraged Paul demanded to know by whose authority they were being rebuilt.
Grass roots movements tend to follow the same pattern, no matter what their origin or cause. If they mature, not all do, they work on ways to sustain themselves, and that requires rules, organization, and hierarchy. Can it be done and yet preserve the foundational values of the movement? It isn’t easy because a part of the pattern is to ossify under leadership that aspires to power and authority exercised through rules and rituals of exclusivity.
Galatian churches are the rule, not the exception. Congregations, synods, denominations, they all follow the Galatian model. Maybe that’s why reformers like Luther called for the church to always be in the process of reformation. It’s not that they turn their backs on following Jesus, but in defense of following him with greater purity of word and deed, they craft rules and rituals that rebuild the walls he broke down. They’re rules and rituals that borrow heavily from the sociopolitical customs of the time and area, justified by a supposed connection to something biblical. It’s religiosity taking the place of religion, which is why grass roots efforts of reform, such as today’s Reclaiming Jesus and the revival of the Poor Peoples Campaign, are so important to the future of the church writ large.
The usual objection is that without the current rules and rituals there are no rules and rituals, so anything goes, and how disgusting is that? It was the accusation leveled at Jesus, and it’s the accusation leveled at those who seek to renew a core focus on Jesus within worship practices that facilitate it. If they are successful, they’ll help break down the old equilibrium to make way for a new one in which they will become institutionalized members. In time, a new grass roots movement will rise to shake it up again, and that is as it should be.
Here’s a break from Country Parson’s usual menu of politics, economics and religion. We travel a bit, and flew cross country on three flights yesterday. It brought up an observation my wife and have shared before. When flying, some people seem compelled to talk non stop, just loud enough to be heard rows away. What’s that all about? Is it nervousness about flying, unawareness of one’s surroundings, a need be the alpha dog in a pack of strangers? What?
One, with a sonorous radio voice, held a running staff meeting with colleagues seated in various places as he demonstrated his OCD about who was traveling where and when, complete with assorted details, and why did he have to check his bag: why, why, I don’t understand, why? Another regaled his seat mate, and the rest of us, with hours long descriptions of the advantages of charter schools. Gratefully, my own seat mate wanted nothing more than quiet.
Airplanes and terminals must be infectious agents. Not long ago a guy paced up and down the length of an airline lounge trying to close a big deal. We knew it was a big deal because he kept announcing the millions of dollars involved, along with most of the unresolved negotiating points. It reminded me of the old days when a colleague repeatedly arranged to get a phone call during meetings where he thought it would impress others with his importance. We would sometimes place nickel bets on how long it would take before the call came in. A few months ago on a long haul flight, a passenger held forth for six hours without taking a breath. About what? At some point it was just noise. Then there are ordinary conversations rudely held: the speaker phone or face time calls at full volume in those moments before everyone is asked to put their phones in airplane mode.
Logorrhea is a word sometimes used in psychology to describe a condition of uncontrolled talking. There is no Imodium for it. Nor is there for its less psychotic sounding cousin, talkaholism – yes, that’s a real word. I’m thinking about a new disorder: logoairplania, and it’s close relation: terminphonearrhea. Neither is medically treatable, but good parenting could have prevented it from developing in the first place. I wonder if even now a stern mom’s voice might be useful. As for me, I’ve invested in a pair of noise cancelling ear buds. Oh, one more thing: yes, I understand you’re a newly minted billionaire, and no, I don’t want to invest in your startup company.
Being a country parson who writes on politics and religion is a sure way to invite challenging insults. We live in a social media environment where disagreement is often expressed through emotionally driven attacks on one’s person rather than informed conversation about the issues. “You left wing socialist, you libtard.” It’s one of the nicer things I’ve been called as Facebook and Twitter have have become factory outlet box stores for obscene, insulting rhetoric. From the other side of the political fence come return shots demeaning every conceivable personality trait. I call it insult pingpong. It’s a game that descends with increasing velocity through the usual crude comments to each other’s scatology, anatomy, and sexual practices, after which it becomes nasty.
Ad hominem attacks are as old as human language. It’s bar room talk, coffee klatch talk, break room talk. Just for the record, it’s seldom men’s locker room talk. I have no idea what goes on in the women’s locker room. It can even be funny in the hands of a comic master like Don Rickles. For the rest of us, it’s just a cheap way to dismiss an issue as unworthy of further conversation because the other is unworthy of further conversation. It’s used to cover up our own embarrassing ignorance while demeaning the other to assert superiority over them. It’s cruel sarcasm. While there are many citations about sarcasm as “the last resort of…”; they all come down to it being bereft of anything helpful to say. Sarcasm clothed in obscenities and humiliating crudeness simply puts an exclamation point to it.
We’ve all fallen into the trap at one time or another, but thanks to social media, what was once an emotionally charged semi private ejaculation has become a publicly broadcast personal insult aimed at anyone who says anything one doesn’t like. It submerges important issues needing informed discussion into the muck. It isn’t hate speech. We’ve reserved that for racist and sexist attacks that incite discrimination and violence against whole populations of persons. I guess it’s speech protected by the first amendment, but it’s juvenile, degrading the already tattered reputation of the American character.
That said, there’s a fuzzy boundary between ad hominem attacks and observations about verifiable behaviors that are the issue, or essential to it. For instance, I’ve been hard on our current president about the way his egoism, racism, lack of empathy and integrity, combined with unrestrained disregard for truth have eroded the dignity of the office and the reputation of the nation. That’s not ad hominem. That’s the issue. They’re statements about plainly observable public behavior and their impact on our nation. His defenders, however, hear that as a personal attack, hatefully disrespectful of a man doing everything they hoped he would. Trump’s political staff understands well how that works. The other day I got a fund raising letter from them pleading that, in the face of all the hateful contempt for the love of nation Trump and his supporters share, would I please send a few dollars to help fight agains the lies and distortions disrespectfully leveled against him by the (lying) liberal press and extreme left wingers.
One Trump supporter demanded to know how I could write about Jesus and love in one column, and in the next say such awful things about the president. It was shameful that I could even call myself a priest. It’s a fair question. On the one hand we are commanded to let nothing evil come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up that which is good. On the other hand, we are commanded to stand boldly against injustice and oppression wherever it is found. Like fuzzy boundaries, there’s a thin line between being forcefully truthful about behaviors and policies that threaten the well being of the people, and succumbing to the temptation to make ad hominem attacks as an easy substitute for saying what needs to be said.
Contentious issues will always elicit emotionally charged responses. Right wing talk radio hosts have honed the art of framing everything in ad hominem terms that incite their listeners ire. It’s a tool they’re not giving up. But for the rest of us, moving toward more civil conversation about issues would be helped if popular television and radio hosts would clean up their acts to get rid of pointless obscenities as part of their schtick. As Jake Tapper told Colbert on air a few weeks ago, “Stephen, you don’t need to go blue.” Their popularity is part of what makes obscenity laced insulting language appear normal and acceptable in every day public speech. It’s part of what makes Rosanne and Samantha believe they can safely push the envelope of acceptable public speech further into humiliating degradation of the other.
So am I engaging in humiliating degradation of Trump when I say something about his megalomaniac behavior? Not if I’m describing what is easily and publicly observable that has a direct impact on matters of importance to the well being of the nation. I have no illusions about my sparsely read offerings influencing his behavior, but I hope they might cause a few others to recognize the damage done to the nation, give serious consideration to workable alternatives, and bend the arc of justice toward the most vulnerable among us. Constructive interplay in good faith between conservatives and liberals can make that happen, but good faith interplay has no place in it for ad hominem attacks.
I pulled out my old copy of Hans Küng’s On Being a Christian and was surprised at how many notes I had made such a long time ago. That I ever read it at all had eluded me. But to go on, he wrote in part that “the morally good …is what works for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.” (p.534) The morally good enabled, at least in part, by freedom and love, is a worthy goal that yet escapes our reach, but it’s worth the reaching.
Who has the right to do the reaching? Using Küng’s words, it depends on who “man” is. Küng has a strong commitment to the freedom of the individual, but recognizes that it can be defined only in the context of community, which creates political tension between individual autonomy and community restrictions on it. Given the time in which Küng wrote it’s easy enough to say that “man” is gender neutral, although some would argue. More important, it seems to me, is who else is to be admitted to the class of “man,” given that the subject is the morally good optimized for both the individual and the community.
For most of Western history, the “man” entitled to decide and enforce what would permit human life, individually and in community, to succeed and work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered, was a white male. The chosen among them worked out what that meant. With good intent and bad, they negotiated, and if the good of others who were not white men was ever given consideration, it was up to the chosen men to decide what that good was, and how it was to be distributed. It all began to change in the 20th century with new voices demanding to be a part of the negotiation. The new voices didn’t want selected white men to decide what was good for them, they wanted a place at the table to speak for themselves, and participate in the decision making. It hasn’t been smooth progress, more like being pushed, lurching into an unknown where footing has to be tested before trusting.
We shouldn’t be surprised that demanding new voices were not appeased by helpful, needed reforms offered as a gesture of good will by the historically recognized decision makers loathe to give up, or share, their prerogatives. Nevertheless, the new voices must be included in full, there is no alternative, and it does mean giving up prerogatives once held to be the exclusive domain of a few. Given the cognitive dissonance created, there’s no way to avoid conflict, although associated violence is inexcusable, even if explainable. Nevertheless, the prevailing attitude among people of good will, until now, has been “we can work this out.” That seems to have changed in the last decade. Current national leadership, and tea partying libertarian ideologues on the right, have made it a zero sum game in which there must be a winner and the rest losers. What about extremists on the left? They’re there but small in number and long ago dismissed as a serious threat to our society.
I’m looking forward to new leadership, and stronger voices, who understand that what is being worked out, given new birth, will not be the victory of one side and defeat of all others with nothing left over. It will be a new thing that may disappoint the most strident among the voices demanding to be heard, but will provide an acceptable rebalancing between individual autonomy and the well being of the community. Whom we choose to negotiate what that means will be broadly representative of the population as a whole.
Those with a libertarian bent will be suspicious. Individual autonomy has been both highly valued and a bone of contention for the whole of our history. Is it possible to be autonomous within the context of a community that defines what is allowed and what isn’t? That’s a sticking point for the individualism that Americans value so much. In fact, individual autonomy never has had an absolute claim. It’s always been understood in the context of social and political mores. It’s always been constructed from the society in which one was raised, which means that community of some kind always sets the foundation for what any person thinks autonomy is. So Küng is right that “the morally good …is what works for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.”
That’s helpful, but doesn’t resolve crucial questions. For one, human interpretation of what is morally good is never unconditionally valid, which is not to say it is invalid, only that it can never be more than provisionally valid. Is there an authoritative guide against which provisionally valid truth can be measured, not once for all, but again and again?
Speaking as a Christian and to Christians, that ultimate and unconditional authority is God, as we know God in Christ Jesus. I can almost hear my theologically conservative friends jumping on that saying, “Aha, so you admit there is absolute truth.” To which I reply, “Yes, but we don’t know what it is.” The bible doesn’t reveal it, but it does point us in the right direction. How one understands the truth of holy scripture is itself conditioned by how one was raised and educated, so it’s always a matter of trying to hear what God is saying now through the filter of our prejudices. I think that’s why Paul wrote that we must “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2.12)
I can’t say how the nation should proceed, but I can say how Christians must proceed as members of the communities in which they live. We have only one choice: to follow where Christ has led. It means above all that we are to make our decisions about the morally good within the context of loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving others as Christ has loved us. We’re not without help in learning how to do it. Scripture guides us through two millennia of successes and failures. It ends with the nascent church struggling to find its footing in a new world, just as we struggle to find ours. We have two more millennia of Christian history illustrating progress, regress, and dead ends. They have much to teach us, but everything always comes back to loving God, loving neighbor, and loving others as Christ has loved us.
Michael Curry, my denomination’s presiding bishop, gave a rousing sermon at the royal wedding in which love was the word of the day, and he would say the word for all days. It had an impact on the entire world, and one version of it was overheard in the barber shop a few days ago. “You know that bishop guy at the wedding? All he ever said was love, love, love, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t mean anything.” Is that what love of God and neighbor is: blah, blah, blah?