Black Lives Matter, Me Too and related movements have boldly confronted conditions embedded in American society that have made it difficult for non-whites and women to enjoy all the rights and privileges America epitomizes. It’s been a century and a half since the Constitution was amended to extend our treasured “unalienable rights” to all persons; a century since women were included in all persons; nearly the same for American Indians; and over a half century since civil rights legislation was supposed to enforce what the Constitution had guaranteed. Yet unalienable rights have been denied until those in authority were forced to cede them.
In the meantime, movements espousing white nationalism, white supremacy, and white militias tried to make common cause with conservative populists under the crude umbrella of Trumpism. They have formed an anti-democratic, authoritarian coalition that endorsed storming the Capitol to incite an insurrection and upend a presidential election. Sadly, many claiming the label of conservative evangelical Christianity have traded following Jesus for following them. It’s been enough for some to question the liberal principles upon which the nation was built.
On the sidelines, folks steeped in the lore of American exceptionalism, proud of the communities they’ve built, and proud of their own hard work under challenging circumstances, have become deeply concerned about the moral degeneration they believe is all around them. They’re perplexed about why being white and proud of hard earned accomplishments has become a bad thing. Worse, they wonder why America’s dirty laundry has to be aired in public, displacing all the good things the nation stands for.
It’s created a cacophony of angry voices amplified by pundits and news media trolling for ratings, that relish doing what they can to keep it going with repeated calls to “Lets you and him fight,” punctuated with “Ain’t it Awful.” Some media outlets have become megaphones for blatant falsehoods. Are they part of the coalition of anti-democratic white nationalists, or are they just pursuing profits without regard to ethics and the public good? It’s hard to tell. Maybe both. Media mouths claim innocence, point fingers, and vengefully attack whoever questions them.
On Main Street, around the block, and in families, it’s come down to this: if I think you are disrespecting me, I’m going to disrespect you and then some. Anything you get that’s more than I think you deserve is going to cost, and I’m going to make you pay dearly. If you’re going to cause trouble, you’re going to get trouble. It’s a dangerous perversion of school yard taunts waged with words and actions that can only lead to destruction of all we hold dear, unless the cycle is broken. King, Lewis, Parks and others avoided the trap of exchanging disrespect with more disrespect, thereby gaining ground in recovering denied rights. That was a long time ago. Whatever the lessons learned by it were forgotten when the Trump era demonstrated you could get away with ever more aggressive mud slinging, accuse the other guy of starting it, claim first amendment rights, and build a popular following in the process.
The only certain path to progress is to break the cycle of escalating, aggressive disrespect. It can be broken while continuing to call out injustice and falsehood. It doesn’t take everyone, but it takes enough to make a difference. Breaking the cycle depends on following the principles of non-violence demonstrated by King, Lewis, et al. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, advised: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals (shame) on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12). God’s vengeance is never revenge; it’s always in the direction of healing and reconciliation.
Paul’s counsel, wise as it is, is always subordinate to Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us (John 13, 15). It’s a little too easy for today’s Christians to say they love Jesus in the context of familiar surroundings and the comfort of shared world views. Claiming to love Jesus has little credence unless it’s lived out by following Jesus. To live into Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us means to “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…” (James 1). To be a doer includes, but means more than, engaging in good works that heal and restore those who are most oppressed and in need. Every social service organization does good works. Being doers of the word also means doing the work of orienting one’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in a more Christlike direction. That requires commitment to godly justice that respects the dignity of every human being. It means calling out without putting down. It means refusing to engage in zero sum gaming. It means recognizing that somewhere in the opposition’s most repulsive argument, there is a spark of truth that needs to be heard. It means those appearing most unjust may be the ones most in need of healing and restoration. It means fearless self examination of one’s own tendency to claim unwarranted righteousness. It means rejecting violence even when surrounded by it. It means having the courage to face the consequences of standing firm, not in Jesus’ name, but as Jesus did.