Public discourse today is a fetid and bubbling swamp. Half-truths and outright lies have become the stock-in-trade of once-trusted news outlets. Trolls no longer confine themselves to online comments but spread their brutish distortions and angry accusations openly.
Like a virulent cancer, party spirit has metastasized from the opinion page to the front page. Television news seems designed to project seething rage. Decent people on all sides of the debate are disgusted just to be around it.
Multitudes of kind and gentle souls opt to seek escape in mindless entertainment. Valuable voices of reason have simply quit the conversation and left the field to the trolls and their handlers.
Many of these same decent people have discovered that, in their absence, the Overton Window has shifted. Public life has degenerated from perverse to insane. In a desperate attempt to re-enter the conversation, they find themselves sucked into the swamp. Breathing the poisoned air threatens to transform them into the very trolls that they came to battle.
This column is for those decent people. It is a word of encouragement and advice--encouragement to enter the fray; advice on how to stay above it. This balance is not easy, but it is necessary.
My Christian readers might notice that this balance is precisely the life of Christ in the world. There is a famous icon of Jesus — at which I am looking as I write these words — called “Pantocrator.” In it, Jesus holds a book in his left hand while his right hand is raised in blessing. But it is his eyes that draw my attention. His left eye gazes directly at me. But his right eye looks toward heaven.
This is the face of faith and love. Love looks always toward the good of your neighbor while faith looks to God. Both are necessary for keeping one’s footing while walking in the swamp. Neither a loveless faith nor a faithless love can keep him upright.
Anyone who would enter the public discourse beneficially, must begin with an eye toward the neighbor. Selfishness is poison in the public square. While there are certainly many valid reasons to fear the future, every thought of self-preservation must be driven from the mind. St. John the Evangelist wrote, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Fear makes a person frantic. It paralyses the heart and blinds a person to the needs of his neighbor.
Love, on the other hand, motivates engagement in a completely different frame of mind. If you have ever participated in a March for Life, you know what that is. “Nobody in attendance is marching for themselves,” wrote Matt Walsh. “Nobody is demanding rights or privileges for themselves. Everyone is marching on behalf of those who cannot march.”
That’s why the March for Life is devoid of angry rhetoric. It is a great example of how civil engagement need not debase the participants. Rather, when focused on the neighbor it is truly uplifting and a source of peace and joy.
While anger breeds ever more anger, love brings ever more love. What begins as love for those too weak and small to speak for themselves, grows into a genuine love for every single neighbor that you have. This love is not based on ideological agreement. It is based on a common humanity.
The terrible poison of identity politics is that it sorts people into a thousand different tribes and then demands that they hate one another. People are no longer viewed as people but as problems. Individuals are identified with their sins — whether imagined or real.
In the world of identity politics, there is no such thing as a person who happens to espouse a certain idea. There is only a “deplorable,” or “Trumper,” or “Never-Trumper,” or “hater.” Identity politics invents new sins for the purpose of identifying and isolating political opponents by their “sins.”
In this caustic atmosphere, it is impossible to see people. The invention of new sins is only part of the problem. The deeper problem is when people are identified by their sins. This makes respect and love impossible.
For this reason, Christian thought has always distinguished sin from the person. “Hate the sin but love the sinner,” is one way of expressing that distinction. This maxim has undergone withering attack in recent years. Purveyors of identity politics loudly claim that it is hateful and disrespectful even to think that something is a sin.
But not only is this distinction legitimate, it is vital to civil discourse. It allows people who disagree to love and respect one another during the conversation. Lock-step conformity is not a prerequisite for respect. Rather, mutual respect is the meeting ground that allows for meaningful discussion.
The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. Without this distinction, opposing sides in every conversation are faced with an impossible choice. Either they must hate each another or have no conversation at all.
All this means that the first step for tranquil and fruitful engagement in the public square is to renounce every impulse toward identity politics. It is not about destroying the ideological opponent but helping him see what you see. That alone will change the tone drastically.
What will change it even more is the eye that’s turned to heaven. One of the main reasons that politics have become so caustic is that, for many, politics has become a religion.
It is impossible for human beings to exist without a god. Growing numbers of fellow citizens reject any notion of a transcendent creator who is the source of every good thing. As a result, they look more and more to the power of government as the source of every good thing. This is what makes politics a new religion.
Those who feel that political engagement is the end-all and be-all of life cannot help but feel desperate and frantic in the face of evil. But those who remember that America is “one nation under God,” can engage in the public discourse with a confident tranquility.
In love, all people have a duty to speak and act for the neighbor – especially those that cannot speak for themselves. But that duty is not burdened with the god-like need to right every wrong. Only God can do that. You do not carry the world on your shoulders. He does.
This means that you can sleep at night knowing that God will take care of the big picture. It also means that your worst fears of the future are only the product of an over-active imagination. If your policy preferences do not come to pass, it is not the end of the world. You can go to sleep knowing that God has something even better in mind.
This is true for both sides of every debate. It does not mean that the winning side is right in God’s eyes. Nor does it mean that God only cares for the godly. He rules the world with a perfect love for everyone whom he has created.
Knowing this enables people to focus on their neighbors — both the weak and the strong, both those who love and those who hate. The eye that sees God in heaven enables an ever clearer view of the neighbor on earth.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.