“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:3-5
According to one story, a newspaper once asked G. K. Chesterton what was wrong with the world. With his typical insight, he replied simply, “Dear Sir, I am.” I think he was onto something. When it comes to social problems, the Christian Worldview demands that we begin with ourselves, but it does not say that we have it in ourselves to fix what ails us.
We all know that we’re in a mess, but we don’t seem able or willing to do anything about it. Our age is characterized by rancor, invective, and mutual disdain. None of us like it, or at least none of us admit it, but, like a child trying to mend a broken glass, all our efforts to make things right only make things worse and leave us bloodier for our trouble.
We live in a world where we’re in total agreement. We’re in total agreement that our discourse is no longer civil. The problem is, we’re also in total agreement that it’s the other guy’s fault. We bemoan the failure of our day to speak with respect or even basic decency, but we always seem to find reason that in “this” instance or in response to “that” provocation, respect and decency will just have to wait. “They’re [fill in the blank ‘other’] so they don’t deserve respect.”
We’re not the first group of people in history needing to learn that “If you can’t say something nice …” Winston Churchill was famous for his acerbic wit, at one point saying of Charles De Gaulle, “He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath,” and of his fellow Brit, Clement Attlee, “He is a modest man with much to be modest about.”
Americans are not immune. In fact, we seem to specialize in it. The invective between the Adams and Jefferson camps 200 years ago make today’s rhetoric sound like a child’s cartoon. A half-century ago, President Johnson’s campaign set the standard for uncivil discourse when it released one of the most notorious TV spots in US electoral history with the infamous “Daisy Girl,” a commercial which must be viewed to comprehend its histrionic glory.
This flawed history doesn’t let our present-day failings off the hook. We may recognize that those in the past struggled with this, but we still have to address our own problems ourselves and the fact that it all seems particularly bad today. We seem less inclined to say anything positive about those with whom we disagree and listen only to those with whom we already agree.
Things like Facebook and Twitter play their part, as do the anonymity afforded by the internet and the rise of polarized cable networks. But one of the most potent forces driving us to disdain one another has nothing to do with the newly ascendant technology of social media but with our own lack of self-awareness.
We don’t see our own role in lowering the rhetorical bar because we focus all our attention on the way others have dragged it down themselves. As the temperatures of public invective have risen ever higher, we notice that “they” have made things worse but we cannot accept our own participation. To paraphrase Kipling, all about are losing their heads and blaming it on everybody else.
So, what now? Do we just throw up our hands in despair, hopeless of any answer to this very real crisis? A solution is to follow the wisdom of an American bard. Like Michael Jackson, we need to start with the man in the mirror. We cannot change the way others practice discourse; we can and must change the way we do it. We must ask ourselves tough questions.
When you think of yourself, do you consider that you might be wrong? I don’t mean, do you think you’re right? Of course you think you’re right. Once you think you’re wrong about something, you don’t think it anymore. I mean, do you think that you could be wrong? This doesn’t mean giving up on your principles, but it does involve giving up self-delusions of omniscience.
When you think of others, do you think of them fairly? Do you obey the Golden Rule by treating them the way you’d want to be treated? Do you describe their positions in a way that they can see themselves in your words? Does your summary of their ideas make you feel smarter or more moral than them?
When you interact with your opponents, how much do your political disagreements govern your interactions with them? Could you enjoy having dinner with them after a political argument? Could they enjoy a dinner with you? Can they tell that you see them as more than an object of argument, that you see them as a valuable, image bearer of God? Are they a human being, or merely an opponent?
If you have trouble with these, if you can’t articulate their views sympathetically, if you feel superior to them, if you can’t imagine dining with sinners like them, then you may have to wonder whether it is really them that you oppose, or if it is merely a figment of your imagination, a conversation within your own mind designed to inflate your own ego.
We all recognize the importance of these questions, but, do you know what? Doing this is hard, really hard. Asking others hard questions is easy; asking them of ourselves, not so much. It’s much easier to lash out at others for the dismal state of public discourse, and coming up with the wherewithal to be constructively self-reflective is a tall order.
That’s why it’s really sad if all we have is Mr. Jackson’s magic mirror to guide us. You see, all he had to offer was a mirror, the reflection of who we are. That’s an important first step, but a mirror can’t tell you anymore than you already know. It can’t offer you aid that you don’t already possess. This is the answer of secular moralism and its therapeutic deistic counterpart. They offer neither challenge to our own self-impressions of what is true nor power to change our hearts from within.
Though at first their analyses sound similar, as they both call us to look within, the path towards healing for our fractured, partisan age follows Mr. Chesterton’s way and not Mr. Jackson’s. The latter, along with all the authorities of the watching world, would offer only what you already have. They stop at the mirror. Mr. Chesterton would point you in another direction, the direction of the God who speaks with authority and pours out His Spirit in our aid.
We are not alone. In God’s word and God’s work, we can have hope to heal the problems afflicting us, both as individuals and as a society. In the Bible we read of God’s creation and that it was good, that human beings are made in the image of God Himself and therefore are worthy of your utmost respect. We read of the Fall of Adam which is the ultimate source of all our problems in this life and reminds us that we are all liable to sin’s effects and guilt. We read of God’s redeeming work and that we are called to participate in this redemption as individuals and groups. We further read of God’s final restoration of all things as new and that we can therefore have hope that, despite our despair, the dissension of our present age is not the final word for humanity.