Human moral growth is partially measured by a human being’s desire to live in the truth. This involves accepting the truth about ourselves – or put negatively – refusing to avoid unsavory realities about our own lives. The same could be said of human communities who seek to live toward a common good. If human communities avoid confronting the truth about themselves, they will (to that extent) internalize their own sickness. Such disease will ultimately kill their capacity to achieve and enjoy even the penultimate goods that they have turned into an idol. Moreover, the avoidance of a moral self-encounter will inevitably mean that we scapegoat and project our obvious vices onto others.
The “Agenda” of “the Left”
There has been a significant amount of commentary about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s tweets concerning the recent tragedy in Sri Lanka. It was observed that they used the term “Easter worshippers” rather than “Christians” to describe the victims of the attack.
This, it has also been correctly noted, stands in sharp contrast to their rhetoric, and the rhetoric of the left in general, when the victims of such attacks are Muslims, homosexuals, or any other minority group. Moreover, many have noted that whatever we call “the left” will tend to speak quite explicitly of Christianity when Christians are the perpetrators of the attack, but are correspondingly silent when other minorities (Muslims) are the attackers. The conclusion drawn from this is that the left is anti-Christian, and will stop at nothing to put Christianity in a bad light, and to put everything non-Christian in a good light. This is the “agenda” of the left, usually depicted as a tactic in relation to larger strategy of the left’s allegedly neo-Marxist endgame.
I think it can be granted that there is some plausibility to this narrative, however convenient or inconvenient it is for those assessing it. But we cannot speak of the left as possessing a singular collective psyche. In fact, all of the above actions can (and should) be more accurately assessed as proceeding from a rather different set of principles.
It is not that the first account is wrong. It is that it is very likely not the only narrative that plausibly explains this modus operandi. And if we are to be truthful, we need to recognize that, however convenient or inconvenient for us, the left is entirely capable of its own complications and cobelligerencies, and therefore of being read in a more charitable light (at least in part) on this score.
How so? It is important to note that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are liberal Christians. And whatever eye rolls and groans that description of those two might elicit from conservative evangelicals, it is nevertheless a simple fact of reality that liberal varieties of Christianity remain parasitical on some of the vestiges of true faith. We might rightly note that this stops short of what the Reformed tradition would call “saving faith,” but our doctrine of common grace permits us to note the manner in which the word of God, even when mixed with foreign elements, nevertheless has power to shape and orient souls on its own immediate and compelling merits.
What’s the point here? We should take liberal religion seriously as a sociological and psychological shaper of human action. Moreover, we should take seriously the extent to which it can (perhaps accidentally) have a restraining effect on sin as the smallest vestiges of God’s word remain in its teachings and communal expectations.
What might these vestiges be? The rhetoric of the left is full of language concerning the stranger, hospitality, admitting our own cultural sins, being charitable towards groups who might be at risk by our characterizations, etc. And it is of course the case that there are plenty of times when this rhetoric should not be taken seriously.
But it is equally true that there are times when it should. And I suspect that this is one of those times. Here’s why. The strategy described above could just as easily be explained in terms of a secularized Christian ethic of hospitality, charity toward others, and brutal honesty with one’s own sins.
Corresponding to this might be the charitable disregard of of the sins of others, especially when over-emphasizing them puts those communities at significant risk in a way that we (in this view, at least) are not put at risk when our sins are emphasized. Precisely because “Christian” is “us,” we should name our own sins. And precisely because “Muslim” and “homosexual” is not the status quo, we should be cautious about cultivating a scapegoat for the majority. That is to say, we should name and deal with the sins of our own house, and we should be loose-handed and forgetful about the sins of our neighbors.
Three qualifications are immediately in order:
- Again, this behavior could also be explained by the more cynical reading, and the truth is probably that it is explained by both.
- This charitable reading does not equate to agreement with the political prudence of such a strategy. It might be that this is a well-motivated but unwise way of handing our problems.
- None of the above need exist at the level of individual motivation. It is very possibly exists at the level of “moral instinct” rather than conscious motivation. This instinct, as well, is not an individual thing, but a moral posture that has been shaped by a community of practitioners and rhetorical emphases. Very possibly, Clinton and Obama are simply appropriated by inherited emphases from the Civil Rights movement as inflected in their particular ecclesiastical homes.
The Problem of Self-Avoidance and Projection
But so far, what I have claimed is not particularly illuminating. Two possible interpretations of single actions. We can all be more charitable. Great. The way of truth, however, cannot permit us to stop here.
The love of truth, and the willingness to know the truth about ourselves (to be exposed before it), forces us to ask why we tend toward the first interpretation in the first place. If we grant that the second interpretation is possible or plausible, then our tendency toward the first interpretation is not just a miscalculation, but a projection. And if a projection, it is a projection of ourselves. And that is an uncomfortable truth.
It is, as it turns out, we (conservative Christians invested in the culture wars) who are often ill-willed, often delight in the downfall of our enemies, often feel smug self-love when we imagine our enemies as some great moral inverse of ourselves. Of course, this is not always true of persons on the right and the same could be said for plenty of the persons on the left.
But the fault lines of ill-will do not exist between us and our ideological “other,” but rather in the mysterious chasm of our deceptive hearts (Jer. 17:9). Truth exposes us, and forces us to confront the fact that we (all too often) do not love our enemies. And we need to recognize that anger, resentment, pure will, etc – often masquerades itself (and even strategically hides itself) in the safe haven of rational argument. I would be surprised if anyone actually denied this. One need only know what it is like to be in a fight with one’s spouse to know how this works.
And the example I just used (of marriage) is an important one. Imagine what marriage would look like if we took this posture toward our spouses. In point of fact, we know what this looks like. In a culture where many marriages end in divorce, where there is more marriage counseling and less self-humility and awareness than we would expect in an age allegedly obsessed with the self, we seem rather to live in an age of self-projection and avoidance. We are all experts at carefully crafting scapegoats in order to avoid our own selves.
To put this in the worst way possible, we refuse to see God in others. But the participation of our apparent enemies in the good transcends boundaries of ideology and even self-presentation or understanding. That our neighbors are agents of God’s dominion on this earth is a more fundamental truth about them than that they are fallen, that they believe certain things, or even their own understanding of themselves.
Moreover, that they are our neighbors in fact, rather than our enemies in theory, is a more fundamental truth about them (and by implication, about us!) than our own projections. And these fundamental truths constantly break through the cracks of these additional layers of identity – with the same mixture of purity and distortion that we can easily observe in ourselves.
The marital metaphor could be extended to account for larger aspects of our collective behavior. One of the problems with our ideological fault lines is that, when we’re losing the cultural argument or cultural influence, we (in our frustration) tend toward retreat. Because these are not seen as our neighbors, but rather our enemies, we sulk off into our own enclaves of mutually affirming teammates and justify a dhimmitude that is as much self-imposed as forced by the other. Once again, this is similar to the husband who retreats from the resolution of marital tension in self-pity rather than seeks to resolve the tension in love.
The Healing of Self-Confrontation
One obvious response to my argument is that there must be limits to such charitable readings. And because we all know how this rhetorical line of inquiry ends, we can skip to the inevitable question: What about the Nazis? Would I argue that we should read them charitably? No. It is true that there are limits to the judgment of charity.
But, first, the identification of those limits should itself be evaluated in charity and wisdom – rather than in willful cynicism that is closed to seeing God or to being surprised in the other.
But secondly, and more importantly, the Nazis also serve as a warning about refusing to confront ourselves within the culture wars – the deathly end of being willing, little by little, to live in, speak, and project lies for the sake of some “common good.” The Nazis did nothing that we are not all capable of doing. That is a truth we must confront.
Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that one considers the Nazis completely “other” that they avoid what incubates in their own heart. Contrariwise, it is precisely by observing how normal German people committed such heinous acts that we are given pause about our own capacities.
This confrontation with truth is painful for us, but it is good and healing, and it is only in this painful confrontation that we are ready for the grace that gives us the dignity and strength to be the kind of Christian leaders that we ought to be, to reign and have dominion in a way that brings that life of Christ to bear on this world. Though much could be said about this, I can only suggest briefly what this might look like. And as the comparison with illicit husbandry was useful above, so the consideration of good husbandry illuminates us here:
As those who are called to lead their homes are instructed to live with their spouse in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7), so we are to live with our neighbors writ large in an understanding way. And it can be very difficult to perform this task well – even (perhaps especially) in cases where the spouse is virtuous.
Truly negotiating and crafting life with any human in a way that does not instrumentalize them (i.e. where power serves rather than crushes) is a challenge. But the urgency of listening and understanding (lest we abuse) is put into refrain by the fact that we are unimaginably finite, limited in our perspective, and in the case of marriage at least, co-navigating this world with someone who is a whole “world” unto themselves.
Figuring out how to lead in that co-navigation process takes a lot of wisdom. Sometimes one’s spouse, for instance, expresses a frustration or a grievance in a torrent of words and arguments that can technically be “refuted” on paper, and unwise husbands often think they have “dealt with the problem” if they have answered all their wife’s arguments in an explicit way.
What is missed here is that most people’s grievances often exceeds their own self-understanding, not to mention their ability to express it articulately. In the same way, we should not dismiss the collective anger, or frustration, or anxiety of the left (or any particular group) in terms of its own self-understanding and discourse. Rather, we should seek to know the problem behind the problem. In my experience, literature and film are sometimes better media to get at this than discursive analysis.
Christian leaders should be at the forefront of our efforts to understand the complexity of our injustices and the difficulty of our proffered solutions. If the popular nomenclature of the academy is unhelpful in this regard, our task must be to come up with something better rather than merely falling back upon the “status quo” of dismissive and reductionist platitudes that make us the most comfortable. Again, nobody takes the husband seriously who merely “refuted his wife’s arguments” but leaves her feeling uncared for. The good husband helps her find the words.
The connection between marriage and the shaping of culture can be captured in the old term “husbandry,” which can describe our activities in the home as well as outside of it in the world. In learning to cooperate and negotiate in the intimate space of a home, we are trained to overcome the postlapsarian enmity that exists between man and woman.
It is from this space that we have the vantage point to negotiate and understand our neighbors as well. Culture wars outside of the home, with neighbors that are as non-negotiably themselves as our own family members, will not be solved by different tools (writ large) than make a healthy home of flourishing individuals. Cultures are no more rendered healthy by the mere possession of power than homes. If one does not manifestly and truly have the good of their neighbors at heart, they are but noisy gongs living in smug avoidance of their own inner darkness.
As the above comparison would suggest, we need not preclude the confrontation of one’s neighbor’s sins anymore than we preclude a similar confrontation between spouses on occasion. But as in the home, a good husband, a good “cultivator,” deals with their own heart first, is charitable toward the actions of their wife, seeks to put them in the best light, and only when it is manifestly in the wife’s interest and for their good do they lovingly help them see themselves for the sake of themselves (and vice versa).
In culture as in marriage, our tendency in the midst of frustration and fear is to conceive of our closest neighbor as our closest enemy. But also in culture as in marriage, the antidote to this is (in addition to dealing with ourselves first) to be open to surprise. Despite their sins and problems, people are surprising. Cultures are surprising. And it is precisely to the extent that we refuse to consider this that we refuse to see the truth about God, about ourselves, and about our neighbor. It is to live in a lie masquerading as truth. As C.S. Lewis once wrote,
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
It is important to reiterate, precisely because it is possible that this be read as some attack on the right as opposed to the left, that I am precisely attempting to avoid describing the above behaviors along ideological fault lines.
Certainly the left has its own version of this as well (the projection of a totalitarian tendency on the right – ironically mirroring its own behavior). But, as the recent debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek demonstrated, there are persons of good will on both sides. There are those who seek to live in the truth , and those driven by pure will, on both sides. Moreover, both tendencies exist in our own souls. We need God’s own good-will and mercy to love and to live in the truth. And only then can we speak it with true power and poise.
Only then will we win arguments not merely by outwitting our opponents, but by the kind of good-will that disintegrates enmity and offers instead the intimacy by means of which real negotiation is made possible. If it has been overused and invoked in all sorts of ways that miss the point, the words “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” still come from the mouth of our Savior. It would be a great shame if those who bore the name of Christ were worse at this than their “enemies.”
And let it be noted that this scary possibility has precedent in the New Testament – where those who were ethically and theologically “closest” to Christ were the objects of His greater denunciations than those who were (on paper) “further away.” To invoke another biblical truism, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” May it be that our hearts are never far from His. God help us.