Where will you draw the line on America’s current political and cultural challenges? Lately, every day seems to bring new surprises, new revelations, new moral tests. How far will be too far for you?
America’s business leaders have drawn a line on talking about racism and standing against resurgent Nazi ideology. America’s leading charities have taken a similar stand, cancelling events at Trump-owned properties to avoid being stained with the label of supporting racism. Meanwhile, the president’s evangelical advisors have remained silent, except for one New York pastor who a full week after Charlottesville declared, “There was a line for me.”
In the past, Americans — particularly American evangelicals and Catholics — have expressed clear lines on moral issues such as abortion. One issue became a litmus test for all political candidates, a kind of bright line that could not be compromised.
We’re accustomed to socially conservative pastors and persons of faith declaring that presidents or other politicians have crossed lines of demarcation on economic and social issues. This has been the bread and butter of the Religious Right for 30 years. Until recently, we’ve not seen the same clear-cut lines drawn by mainstream Christian leaders. And seldom, if ever, have we seen left and right unite to declare, “We will not cross this line.”
We now have in the White House a president who challenges us daily to consider how far is too far. I was startled last week to see a normally cautious and centrist pastor friend declare publicly, “I do not like this president.” This pastor serves a large church full of both Republicans and Democrats, and he normally walks a careful line to keep peace in the fellowship. But something has happened in his mind that crosses the line. For him, the line falls along issues of truth-telling, of respecting the dignity and service of others, of being true to the witness of Jesus Christ, of actually believing “all men are created equal.”
Charlottesville and its aftermath may have changed the dialogue in America. But it may not have for long. Because even the blatant racism on display may not have crossed the line enough to turn the tables on those who are determined to justify their past voting history. And because debating about statues and monuments doesn’t resolve the root problem of racism as a lived experience for persons of color.
Growing up in a conservative Baptist environment, one of the clear lessons we were taught as teenagers was that you had to decide in advance how far would be too far for you. This lesson most often was applied to sexual relations, of course. The idea is that when in the heat of passion, no one makes good decisions unless they’ve laid down a reasoned line in advance: I will go this far (if hopefully given the opportunity) but no further. And we were taught to have a clearly determined exit strategy when we faced the line we had vowed not to cross.
This would be good advice for all elected officials. Regardless of who is president or which party is in power, they need to figure out and be able to articulate where is the line that even partisan politics cannot justify crossing. How far can they go in pursuing their political agenda without compromising the moral no-fly zone? We have seen recent examples of this in persons like Sen. John McCain on health care and Sen. Ted Cruz on racism.
This also would be good advice for American Christians. We — individually and collectively — need to figure out where is the line that cannot be crossed. Rather than fawning over access to politicians of either party, we need to ask of all elected officials: What could possibly happen that would go so far as to demand that people of faith stand up and declare, “No more.”
For many of us, that line was crossed months ago, and we keep wondering why others don’t see that we are dangling by a thread in the moral danger zone. If lying, cheating, narcissism, womanizing, demeaning the disabled, showing no evidence of a spiritual life, war-mongering and failing to protect vulnerable people haven’t crossed the line, surely defending Nazism, slavery and white supremacy should have crossed the line, right? But maybe not, it seems.
Sadly, for too many people, the line begins and ends with their own family or tribe. Once an insult reaches them personally, suddenly they awaken and want everyone else to help. Even though they have dismissed the cries for help from others because they didn’t know them or weren’t like them. But until then, it’s someone else’s problem. Or not a problem at all.
We must remember that the overarching message of the Bible calls us to community, not to isolation or self-protection. We must be our brother’s keeper. Both because it’s the right thing to do and because infection that begins in one part of the human race inevitably will reach the entire human race.
A friend recently developed a wound on his foot that required medical attention. As the first signs of infection set in, the doctor took an ink pen and draw a circle on the man’s foot and gave this warning: “If the red streaks of the infection cross this circle, come back and see me immediately. Do not let the infection cross this line.”
It’s time to ask yourself where you will draw the line. And beyond that, what will you do when that line is crossed? Will you speak up, call your elected officials, change your vote, become proactive in your community? The best way to respond appropriately is to know in advance what are your limits and what will be your plan of action.