Our latest post is from Dylan Pahman.

The end of our long, tiring, and often vitriolic presidential election season in the United States came last Tuesday when Donald Trump became our new president-elect. Trump won more electoral votes but lost the popular vote, the fourth time in U.S. history such a result has occurred. The race was close, tempers were high, and reactions have ranged from apocalyptic despair to unexpected jubilation and everything in-between. How should Christians – regardless of how, or even if, they voted – respond?

Writing to early Christians in Rome, St. Paul the Apostle offered a succinct summary of the Christian ethic in the twelfth chapter of his epistle. It is worth reading the whole thing with the events of the last week in mind, but here I’ll just look at one verse: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Many are weeping and rejoicing after last Tuesday. A Christian who weeps ought to know how to rejoice with those who rejoice. One who rejoices ought to know how to weep with those who weep.

I realize that this is hard to do. Rejoicing with those we agree with is easy. Weeping with those we agree with is easy. Weeping with those who mourn the very thing that we celebrate – that’s hard. Rejoicing with those who celebrate the very thing that we mourn – that’s hard. But that is “the way which leads to life.”

This way is especially difficult, given the self-aggrandizement and demonization of others that have so often characterized this election cycle. Do you think everyone who voted for President-elect Donald Trump is racist, xenophobic, misogynist, Islamophobic, and homophobic? If so, I doubt you are rejoicing with those who rejoice right now. Do you think everyone who voted for Sec. Hillary Clinton is a pretentious, radically pro-choice, uber-progressive, out-of-touch, sore loser? Then you probably aren’t weeping with those who weep today.

All of this is compounded by the many narratives being woven together – by people of various political persuasions – that even while containing some truth often obscure the total picture. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his best-selling book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion that we often use our reason simply to justify the beliefs we already hold or want to hold. He wrote,

The social psychologist Tom Gilovich studies the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then … we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

This works the other way as well:

In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.

Basically, if we already want to believe (or disbelieve) one story or perspective on any given issue or event, we will find the evidence we need to support (or disprove) it. If we know before looking what we expect to see, we will probably see exactly what we expect.

Withholding our judgment and resisting self-justifying narratives, by contrast, is a rare and difficult skill. It requires the ascetic practice of watchfulness, regularly taking time in prayer and meditation to observe and evaluate our thoughts and passions before allowing them to shape our decisions and judgments. Watchfulness would mean adding to the questions “Can I believe this?” and “Must I believe this?” the question, “Do I just really want this to be true or false?” It encourages skepticism towards our own motives and thus, hopefully, critical thinking toward the media we consume.

To be clear, this does not mean that evidence and arguments are always self-serving. Rationality is a gift that can be used well or poorly. My point is to encourage its use for the sake of virtue. You likely have already read a news story or an editorial that confirms your beliefs about the presidential candidates and their supporters. There is probably some truth to it too.

But it is not the whole story, and you throw your reason – and thus your freedom – aside when you allow it to serve the passions of smugness, condemnation, indignation, or despair. Even when indignation, for example, is righteous or reasonable, it may still be harmful. As St. John Cassian put it, “Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision.”

This does not mean there is no place for emotion. Just like reason, emotion is a gift that may be used for either virtue or vice. It’s good to be happy over what is good. It’s good to be sad over what is not. It’s not okay to be happy at another’s sadness – that’s called mockery. It’s not okay to weep at another’s joy – that’s called envy. Are you angry? Do not forget that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Are you gloating? Do not forget that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). These vices eat away at the soul and pollute the heart, obstructing our ability to love.

Take a long look at the exit polling data from last Tuesday – many different people voted for each candidate. Stories of rich vs. poor, white vs. non-white, men vs. women, elite vs. everyday people, native-born vs. immigrant, fear vs. love, simply do not tell the whole story. Many are frightened and anxious right now, and not without reason. Others are rejoicing that their long-ignored voices were finally heard, and not without reason.

The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper warned against the false uniformity he called “the curse of modern life.” “[S]in,” said Kuyper, “by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death.” When we homogenize our views of ourselves or others, we embrace that false uniformity of sin. By contrast, “multiformity is the undeniable mark of fresh and vigorous life.” It is easy to overlook that diversity in others – and ourselves – but the easy way is the road that leads to destruction.

Politically, the United States has grown more and more polarized every year since at least the early 1990s. But we need not be. It is difficult to do, but we can – if only by God’s grace – choose to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. And in so doing, we can take a step toward overcoming our divisions through the life-affirming unity-in-diversity that characterizes the love of God.

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture.

Featured image via Gage Skidmore

Posted by Guest Writer

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  • I agree with the overarching tenor of this piece. Yes, it’s good to seek common ground and to love people, wherever they are coming from on the political spectrum. A hearty amen on that score.

    On the other hand, though, it seems that this principle of weeping/rejoicing is a crypto-Anabaptist move. What I mean by that is that an ethic of individual Christians and the local church seems to have been expanded to a public ethic in the logic of this post. For instance, is weeping with those who weep about politics the same thing as weeping with those who weep over the death of a loved one?

    The counter-example(s) to this public weeping/rejoicing effort that kept coming to mind as I read this piece were the major prophets, who regularly seemed out of step with the prevailing political wisdom. They would have abdicated their prophetic stance, to a degree, had they been weeping with those who weep (ie about the destruction of Jerusalem, the invasion of Assyria, etc.) or rejoicing with those who rejoice (ie the false prophets who said Israel had nothing to worry about, etc.). No doubt, Jeremiah weeps about the destruction of Jerusalem, but he always prophesied it in a way that belied his absolute belief in its forthcoming. On the whole, though, it seems the major prophets carry through a work in which they are doing the opposite of what is commended, simply because the political elites were wrong about what to rejoice/weep over.

    So, can we really take the ethical prescription of Romans 12 (which occurs amidst dozens of other prescriptions for the church) as a political prescription? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the first principle is that we should weep/rejoice over what is biblical to rejoice and weep over, and then join others in the appropriateness of their happiness/lament. It’s much more convoluted that way, and makes for a harder public ethic. If that’s true, there are still aspects of the election that are appropriate to weep/rejoice over, but it might not be the same things that people are actually weeping/rejoicing over.

    But I ramble. I haven’t worked out the clarity of thought here, quite yet. I’m open to correction. I just find that the hysterics of joy on one side seem very misguided and the hysterics of fear on the other side seem a tad overwrought (though there is legitimacy to issues on both sides, to be sure). I could be wrong, though. Maybe I’m just an even-keeled guy.

    • Dylan Pahman

      Well, I can give a short answer:

      1. This advice is meant to be personal, like how to handle that awkward upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. I presume St. Paul meant his advice for any relationship a Christian has. He doesn’t specify an occasion. Many *Christians* are reacting to the election in opposite ways. So even if one takes the advice to be just for the Church, it would still seem to apply.

      2. I have no doubt that St. Paul understands rejoicing and weeping to mean rejoicing over what is virtuous/righteous and weeping over what is sinful/vicious. Think of his advice not to grieve without hope, for example. So part of the challenge is to see what is truly worth rejoicing or weeping about, by that standard. Perhaps someone is grieving Trump’s win for all sorts of reasons you think are irrational if not harmful. Even so, their hurt itself is something to be grieved, even if (especially if?) it is misplaced. Jeremiah, as you mentioned, is a great example of this. Or perhaps they are celebrating Trump’s win for any number of terrible reasons. One can, if only with difficulty, see something good in the fact that they feel their voice has been heard, that someone has valued them for once, even if one would not want their wishes to come to pass. People and their opinions are valuable, even when they’re wrong. That doesn’t mean you never voice your own, opposing view and try to convince them otherwise. Rather it’s a reminder not to jump to that stage of the conversation without examining oneself first and striving to be open to the other person. In some occasions one may come to the conclusion that such an exchange will be of no spiritual value. In others, however, better opportunities for dialogue may present themselves that you might have otherwise overlooked.

      To me, this is the antithesis of an Anabaptist approach. The Anabaptist withdraws from such things as too worldly and narrows his/her community to those most like him/herself. What I’m advocating requires seeing the spiritual opportunity in responsible engagement precisely with those who are most different from ourselves.

      • Yes, I see. I think the context of the specifics you line out here provide a good framework for the overall ethic you outlined in the original article.

  • Dave W

    I’m not sure I’m understanding here, so I’ll walk carefully, but it sounds like the author encourages us to weep with those who weep the loss of Hillary Clinton. But it seems to me this would be to weep the loss of extremely pro-abortion policies, anti-religious freedom policies, etc. And the author says such weeping is the way that leads to life. Since I respect this blog I’m going to assume I’m getting this wrong, but could we get some clarification here? Of course the presidency of Trump brings with it plenty that a Christian must mourn, but please tell me how mourning the loss of Hillary Clinton is the way that leads to life?

  • hoosier_bob

    I too agree with the overarching tenor of this piece. Political decisions are largely binary, yet that binary decision rests atop a continuum of opinions concerning a variety of issues. In recent decades, we have fallen all too guilty of ignoring that continuum in favor of postulating the existence of binary and antagonistic worldviews.

    In that sense, I find it interesting that the author quoted Kuyper, and represents Kuyper’s views accurately. Even so, most of Kuyper’s American prolocutors–especially among the New Calvinist crowd–misuse his notion of worldview to do exactly what Kuyper criticizes. I’ve often found it interesting that the “biblical worldview” promoted by Al Mohler and others fits almost exactly with the platform of the Republican Party, and that the so-called “cultural Marxist worldview” fits almost exactly with the platform of the Democratic Party.

    Yes, we Christians need to show empathy with those who weep. Then, again, we could start by acknowledging that reality is more complicated than the political platforms of our two major political parties permit. We need to be more concerned about telling the truth and less concerned with the truthiness of political platforms. That starts by speaking the truth, even when it makes our political allegiances less comfortable. Then, again, if evangelicals spoke the truth a bit more, maybe they’d cease to be the cheapest date in American politics.

  • >> Rationality is a gift that can be used well or poorly. My point is to encourage its use for the sake of virtue.

    Being hypercritical here, but doing anything well is better than doing it poorly. Therefore it seems to me it introduces ambiguity to say it should be done “for the sake of virtue”, as if to admonish us to do it “for the children”.