If, as my previous column argued, the practice of looking down on each other is a destructive force in American society, the question becomes; what would it take for us to stop looking down on each other? It’s a problem in every culture on earth going back for centuries. Like other social issues, it’s only one facet of a complex ever mutating structure of beliefs, attitudes and values (Rokeach, 1968) that defines peoples and places.
How the question might be answered by others, I’ll leave to them, but as a Christian pastor and priest, I believe God has given us answers we cannot ignore. Are we destined to put each other down, trying to salve egos, claim status, and gain the advantage? “He has told you O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6). It’s not a platitude. It’s a definitive answer to the question. Jesus said do it this way, “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13). They are commandments, not suggestions. If we want to live in harmony and prosperity with one another, it is the way, there is no other.
The hard part for each of us, and especially for Christians, is our deep attachment to the beliefs, attitudes and values with which we were raised. They’re so familiar to us that we’re hardly aware we have them; they run in the background of daily life, invisible but powerfully influential. As people of faith, it’s easy to assume they must be God’s ways also. And they seem to be as long as they go unchallenged. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, our ways are not God’s ways, and it is God’s ways that give life to creation, and God’s words that will accomplish what they intend (Isaiah 55). God’s ways will always challenge the social values of our times and places, because our social values will always be corrupted by our need to claim power and status at the expense of others.
For Christians there is no other place to start, no other way to go, and no higher authority to whom one might appeal. It is not ours to impose our faith on others, but it is our responsibility to demonstrate our faith by following as best we can in the way of Jesus:
- Be unpretentious about status and power
- Be honest about our part in the world’s problems
- Thirst for righteousness
- Give mercy priority over retribution, reconciliation over revenge
- Seek peace not war
- Show courage in the face of persecution
- Be persons of integrity
- Live daily life to the glory of God without being a jerk about it
- Let yes be yes, and no be no without elaboration
- Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
- Pray for enemies
- Live into generosity
- Avoid rash judgments of others
- Maintain conversation with God in simple words
- Show respect and honor for that which is holy
Christians, taking seriously their obligation to follow Jesus, are not going to fix the nation’s problems of polarization. We are not going to eliminate “looking down” on others as a pervasively divisive practice. But we can be more intentional about not participating in it. We can demonstrate a better way. Following in the way of Jesus requires the courage to confront unrighteousness and injustice with conviction. Christians are not anybody’s doormat. But neither can we claim inerrancy for ourselves, nor for our understanding of God’s will. Our claims to truth must always be provisional. The best we can do is work with others to do better than we have done to care for creation as stewards responsible for handing it on in as healthy a way as we can to those who will follow. It’s the best we can do, and we have often failed to do our best.