I have been involved for several years now with an organization that seeks to reduce the political polarization that seems to be growing in our society. The group is called Braver Angels. It specializes in hosting conversations between people on opposite sides of the political spectrum. One of the notable things I’ve observed is that prior to these conversations, the participants tend to have an extremely low opinion of the people with whom they disagree. They assume they are probably bad people. They can’t imagine they would ever be friends with them. After they spend several hours together with a moderator who works to keep the conversation constructive, things seem to change. They don’t come to a place of agreement. That’s not the goal of Braver Angels. But they do seem to gain a new appreciation for their conversation partners as people. And that is the goal. Genuine conversation, as opposed to the series of battles we constantly stage on television and on social media, helps to rebuild connections.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world is very different from a Braver Angels workshop. We have a long way to go to cultivate civic virtue in which we view each other as friends and countrymen with political differences instead of as opposing armies occupying the same land. Instead, we have become comfortable dismissing entire groups of people. Worse, rather than merely dismissing them, we are building them up into demonic figures. The truth is that human beings are those made in God’s image who are afflicted with sin, rather than demons. The appropriate spirit to take toward them is one of sympathy and patience rather than war.
This phenomenon of demonization has unfortunately reached virtually every part of the American political community and into many churches. Whether it is Q-Anon conspiracies, the dismissal of “soy-boys” and “snowflakes,” the blowtorch rhetoric of President Trump, or even something like President Biden’s prime-time jeremiad against “MAGA Republicans,” American political discourse has moved in the direction of villainization as a preferred mode.
Serving the Lord of the Beatitudes
But Christians serve the Lord of the Beatitudes. Within those passages in Matthew 5:2-12, we see the praise of meekness, mercy, and long-suffering in the face of trials. Further in the chapter, Jesus counsels reconciliation, turning the other cheek, and loving enemies. There is a worthwhile and longstanding debate on the degree to which these teachings apply to individuals over against our broader political lives. But it would be strange indeed if we were to believe there is no connection. Let us accept that Martin Luther was correct in seeing those commands directed toward individuals, the kind of person formed by obeying them will not be one who is quick to anger, who lacks empathy, who cultivates strife, and who inflicts damage with no regard for the need to make peace again in its aftermath.
One of the major deliverances of Christian teaching in the Bible has to do with the problem of sin. It is not something that can be conquered habit by habit such as by extinguishing drug use or overeating, though it is highly laudable to do so. The problem of sin is far greater than committing more good acts than bad acts or even eliminating bad acts. Sin is something that is universal in its application to human beings. Every person is afflicted by a sinful will that ultimately, without God’s help, cannot avoid seeking to remove every obstacle to the fulfillment of our desires. If we accept that the situation of the sinful creature is applicable to all of us (which is certainly the teaching of the Bible and the consistent message of the church), then it should be easy for us also to believe that humility is utterly essential. We must always be aware of the innate battle we are all fighting. We must be wary that at the moment when we most greatly revel in our own rectitude, we may be in tremendous danger of surrendering to sin.
When politics fails in its social role, war rears its head. However, we in the United States do not live in a society where politics and civil government no longer function. Our courts still operate. Our legislatures still meet. Governors and other executives carry on their work. There have been some tremendous tests, such as the COVID pandemic, the financial crisis of 2008, and terrorist attacks such as 9/11. It would be a lie to say that our response to any of the crises we have faced has been truly satisfying. Instead, we have seen sinful human beings struggling to manage the public interest, their self-interest, the constant influence of political opportunism, and our general failure to be omniscient even in a world of rapidly expanding information.
To fail to acknowledge the problems of human sinfulness and limitation will be to amplify our growing sense of unease. What we must all do, from the highest technocrat, to the most powerful policymaker, to the corporate analyst, to the blue collar worker, to the church member, to the father or mother, is to be humble in our recognition of what we can really know and what we can really do. With greater humility will come greater room for love and understanding. The way to keep political violence at bay is to remember who we are and that the only king who will not disappoint (whether a person or a movement) is Jesus Christ, himself.