A Battle Between Good and Evil?

Wesley

A friend posted this meme, a quote attributed to John Wesley that seemed quite appropriate to our mid-term elections. I am writing this on Tuesday afternoon, while the polls are still open. So I don’t know anything about winners and losers and whether there has been a shift in political power between the time I am writing this and you are reading it. Actually, it really doesn’t matter to what I’ve been thinking about.

What I want to question is whether we will continue to frame our political discourse as a battle between good and evil–with those in opposition the “evil” party? These thoughts have been sparked not only by the Wesley quote but also by a book I’ve been reading, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They talk about three bad ideas that have crept into education that actually undermine both personal and societal well-being. The third of these is life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

It seems to me that this has been the thesis of much of the political advertising and rhetoric in recent elections, and particularly this one. The knight in shining armor in one party’s ads is the incarnation of evil in the other’s. This is not particularly new.

What does seem new is that we have extended the penumbra of evil to cover the supporters of these candidates. It troubles me that there is an increasing perception that America consists of two opposing sides, each seeing the other as evil and detrimental to the nation’s future. The sides mirror the views of the candidates they support. One sees it in the ugly images of angry faces shouting at each other across barricades. More quietly, it sometimes means that someone decides that another can no longer be their friend.

The reality, of course is far more complex. People who vote for different candidates actually have many common concerns and aspirations–a desire to make a living, to see their children educated well, to have good heath care when we need it, to live meaningfully. Many of us struggle when voting, because there are some emphases in each party with which we agree, and we must choose between them. Most of us don’t see one party as all right, and the other all wrong, when we assess the policies they advocate against our own deeply held values.

What concerns me is that the narrative of a battle of good against evil may not end with words. In fact, some, whether in violent confrontations, or violent acts have taken the battle beyond words. For now they are outliers–kind of like John Brown was prior to the Civil War. The question that disturbs me is how long we can continue using this narrative in our national discourse without increasing instances of our social fabric descending into civil disorder–or resorting to authoritarian measures to maintain order.

We cannot stop politicians, advertisers and political advocacy groups from using this rhetoric. But we can stop enabling it. We can refuse to support appeals that divide us from our fellow citizens, or even our fellow human beings–that propose that some particular class of humans is evil and ought to be opposed. I wonder what would happen if we wised up enough to turn our backs and walked away from any politician who turns their opponents (and their constituencies) into evil enemies.

Any of us who have worked on teams realizes that good teams use all the different skills and perspectives within the team. Differences can be good, because none of us is as proficient, strong, or smart as all of us. I’ve sometimes been at loggerheads with another until we did the hard work of understanding why the other thought the way he or she did. Not simply or quickly, but often, in the end, we ended up with a better solution or program than either of us could have designed alone. I would contend that it is unpatriotic to rob our country of the gifts and contribution of all of us, just to favor a particular political base.

You may ask, “are you saying there is no evil out there?” Hardly. Rather, apart from sociopaths and the corrupt, I would contend that a truer portrait is the one that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offered when he said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” The most dangerous people, I believe, are those who fail to reckon with the line of good and evil running through their own lives. I become that person when I attribute that evil to a political opponent, and virtue to myself or my party. A far saner approach, it seems, is to see all of our parties as imperfect human structures, striving for proximate rather than ultimate goods, which belong to God alone.

For those of the Christian faith, I am also reminded of Paul’s word to the Ephesians when he said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV). Paul reminds us that we make a great error when we battle against other people, because that is not where the real battle is.

At bottom, these are my reasons for refusing to adopt the narrative that life is a battle between good people and evil people.” I neither want to be found blind to the evil in my own life, nor be found to have misspent my life fighting the wrong battles. Will you join me?

 

Is Collective Insanity Possible?

Ecstatic NationI’m in the midst of reading Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877What the book raises for me is whether it is possible for a nation to descend into a fit of collective insanity, or at least ecstasy, in which it takes leave of its senses, with dire consequences to follow. In the first part of the book, she chronicles the increasingly incendiary rhetoric of political leaders and advocates both for slavery and abolition that seemed to stir a growing spirit of fear and anger in the nation that overwhelmed calmer voices like Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and even Alexander Stephens from the South who recognized the terrible conflict toward which the United States was headed.

Certainly, a survey of recent history suggests other examples of national collective insanity. The massacres in Rwanda stand out, where neighbors turned on neighbors in a horrific bloodbath of tribal warfare. People I’ve talked with from China speak with muted tones of the painful experience of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

This makes me wonder whether it is possible that this could occur once again in our country and what form this might take? There is anger and fear and even deep resentments or hatreds in many quarters against ethnic minorities, immigrants, the majority culture, and over those who differ with each other in matters of sexual expression. Efforts to work toward some form of a more perfect union are often trumped (!) by the soundbite smackdown.

I have to admit to being personally concerned that much of our national discourse, and the social media discourse that parallels this is indeed an exercise in playing with fire. We don’t seem to think that words can be dangerous or that speech freedoms might be abused. I will always defend our speech freedoms as a special gift and privilege. Yet the use of that freedom to sow fear and anger and intransigence contributed to the American Civil War and drowned out other voices like those of Lincoln who made this plea in his inaugural:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I don’t think another Civil War is likely, but I think that civil anarchy is possible, a situation akin to the Wild West where power comes from the end of a gun and the rule of law is increasingly impotent to check disorder and violence. Do we realize that the American experiment of the past 239 years can quickly descend into either anarchy or into a reactive tyranny of repression?

I believe the way forward is to listen neither to the voices that foment fear and anger, nor to the voices of easy solutionism that promise that America’s greatest days are before us (which is why I’ll never be elected to office). I wonder if we need more voices warning of the abyss toward which we could be heading and calling on us to stop, and lament what has been or is in danger of being lost. I wonder if we need voices calling us back to both our highest national and spiritual values–the recognition that all are created equal and have dignity, and all are gifted contributors to our national greatness.

Our words matter as do deeds of justice, mercy and compassion. Those who play with fire often don’t realize they could burn down the house until they do. And that includes our national house.