By Bill Wilson
One of the most painful parts of our political process is the heated rhetoric of the campaign season. Most of us are so disgusted by the vitriol of political ads that, by election day, we are willing to vote for Daffy Duck if we can just have no more political ads!
Someone has decided that the way to win a political election is to smear your opponent, rather than promote your agenda. Every election season, I am stunned to watch Bible-believing, committed Christian candidates uncouple their campaign from biblical truths and commands and violate numerous principles of ethical behavior. Engaging in half-truths, distortion and deceit, they turn political campaigns into juvenile contests of name calling and borderline slander. I’m sure there are numerous statistical studies that confirm the wisdom of this tactic. However, as my dad reminded me often, just because something is true, doesn’t make it right.
The waning of “social capital,” and the rise of incivility in our culture is a primary concern for any thinking American. My deeper concern today, however, is not politics; it is life in the local congregation. Unfortunately, clergy and laity alike are proving better at conforming to the ways of this world than transforming it. Time and again I hear fellow Christians engage in two practices that are dark, evil and sure to bring chaos to a community of faith.
The first is the temptation to demonize our opponents. When others disagree with us, one of our first reactions is to discount and invalidate their opinion or idea. One way we do that is to create a caricature of that person or group that is exaggerated and negative. We see them, not as needy fellow believers, but as a dark, sinister opponent. We begin to associate that person or group with evil, assume they are seeking our harm and are opposed to God and his spirit. Our caricature of them supersedes who they really are, and when we look at them, we see an evil presence. If we allow this demonizing to continue unabated, we will eventually excuse all sorts of inappropriate behavior toward them. After all, they represent the Prince of Darkness, and we must be firm and forthright against such a foe!
Sadly, in demonizing an opponent, we lose the ability to look beyond our differences and see what is really happening. Often, we both want the same thing, but are going at it in very different ways. Demonizing allows us to rationalize our position without ever taking seriously the possibility that we may not have as firm a grip on truth as we hope. We lose the chance to learn from someone who has a different opinion than ours. To resist the temptation to demonize an opponent requires spiritual and mental health, depth and courage. For the finest example in history, read the Gospels and watch how Jesus deals with those who oppose him.
The second great temptation that snares many of us is the lure of assigning motives to those we disagree with. This is that wonderful game we play where we make up what a person is thinking and create scripts and scenarios that portray them in a negative light, with us as the victim or hero. In assigning motives, we usually assign the most insidious and evil intent to our opponent, while naively assuming that our motives are pure and beyond reproach.
Unfortunately, that is never the case. We are all a mixed bag of motives, and our opponents are as well. When we choose to assign motives rather than engage our opponents in thoughtful and open-ended conversation, we lose the chance to gain insights that elude us otherwise. Rather than assigning them a nefarious motive, a much more mature and Christian approach is to ask, listen and seek to understand what is at the heart of their concern or conviction. Again, such a Christ-like way of relating to others is not easy or popular.
To choose the narrow path of Christ-like behavior in relationships is to avoid the broad path temptations that plague our social culture and that have infiltrated our congregations. It is to seek to transform the way we treat one another, rather than to be conformed to the way our world encourages us to act. When we choose to be civil and mature, we become salt and light to a generation that is rapidly losing the ability to engage in helpful conversations about things that matter most.