“The wise observe folly with humility.” Umberto Eco
Sometimes I am asked why I rarely comment on political conversations. And by political I mean the Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, red state vs. blue state business that is so forcefully present in our culture. It’s what everyone is talking about at least half of the time. The other half of the time we are usually transfixed on what one celebrity is doing with another celebrity and how much another celebrity spent on their latest vacation. Honestly, when you set the modern political obsession alongside this celebrity worship it almost makes sense that folks want to give their time and energy to political discourse. At least that seems like a fight for the true, the good, and the beautiful. Seems is the key word here. I’m not buying it. Sure there are some amazing men and women who have gotten into politics to do good. And much good has been done in the name of politics. I am not denying nor disparaging this. However, I am convinced that the modern political climate and conversation is more of a problem than a solution. It’s a smoke and mirrors game of “gotcha!” It has become a tired and rehearsed production of a sad play that has no end, and much worse, no point. In the split-screen world of political conversation no one is listening to their opponents. The goal, it would seem, is to be more arrogant, bombastic, obnoxious, and self-unaware than your opponent. It has become pure and unadulterated fiction of the worst variety. And so, in my humble opinion, it’s a complete waste of time and energy. It’s a distraction posing as righteous indignation. Worse than that, it’s a stealer (sometimes in increments of 6 hours a day on talk radio) of precious time. However, none of the the things mentioned above compares to what I believe is the most sinister and destructive element of the modern political enterprise. None of them are even close.
I think the most dehumanizing and deleterious part of modern politics is this: it demonstrates (ad nauseam) and encourages scapegoating. More on this in a minute.
One of the things I stress to my students is the importance of honesty. If you have done something you shouldn’t have done and you are asked about it, tell the truth. This is something that has to be taught. It does not come naturally to humans to fully confess and ask forgiveness for doing wrong. We will go into all kinds of irrational contortions and verbal gymnastics to avoid admitting the most universal of human errors. Confession and apology are not easy things. When you stand before another human being and admit that you have hurt them or lied to them or have done them wrong in some way, you are taking a huge risk. You are stepping into an extremely vulnerable space. You could quite possibly be rejected. It’s true. You might be misunderstood, made fun of, laughed at, or abandoned. But probably not. Most likely you will be forgiven and embraced and held and loved. However, you won’t know unless you dive in. It requires intimacy and emotional nakedness. Sounds fun, right? In fact, it’s not. However, before there’s resurrection death is required. Before there is restoration there is brokenness. Before there is an embrace there has to be an approach. And it is so good for us. Asking for forgiveness is a spiritual exercise of the highest order. To surrender this primal need to be right is one of the most soul-cleansing and humanizing things a person can do. And it only requires humility.
It is true that this need to be right comes naturally to humans. However, it is one of those natural things (not unlike crying and screaming to get your way) that needs to be overcome rather than cultivated. If we allow this need to occupy an elevated place in our spiritual consciousness we will be much the worse for it. It will hurt us. It will damage us. It will make intimacy and genuine connection extremely difficult. The need to be right fuels our reticence to confess and apologize when we are wrong. Over time, if we are not careful, we can become persons who are almost incapable of admitting that we are wrong. And worse than this, because not admitting we are wrong is a form of deceit, we become people who are not zealous to be honest. So, when we are confronted with something that challenges our rightness, we lie. We make something up. We construct an alternate version of reality. And in this way we deface and dehumanize ourselves.
I tell my students this: when we lie we are hurting ourselves. When we refuse to confess we are holding onto things that need to be exercised from our consciousness. We are keeping things inside that are not worthy to occupy space in a human creature. And when we keep those things on the inside not only are we robbing ourselves of the beauty of apology and restoration, we are also inviting a destructive element to take up residence in our souls. And this alien presence hurts us. It moves and grows and mutates in ways that we can’t control. Over time it can make a human incapable of telling the difference between the truth and a lie. I have seen this. And it is one of the scariest realities on the planet.
So. What does a person do when his chief concern is being right? Where does he point? How does he handle the uncomfortable moments when he is confronted with something he did wrong? Easy. He blames someone else. He passes the buck. He throws someone else under the bus. I am always amused (briefly) when I ask one child what he has done and he almost universally begins his answer with another students name. “Johnny, what did you do to the tire swing?” Then Johnny says, “Dillon walked over and….” It never fails. We are born wanting a way out. A way to be perfect. A way to be right. A way to avoid the consequences of our actions. A way to keep the upper hand. The word for this is scapegoating.
Scapegoating is when we project all of our sins and errors and whatever else you want to add to the mix and put in on someone else. “There’s the problem over there!” “It’s him!” “It’s her!” “Can you believe what he did?” “Can you believe what he said?” “I know I’m not perfect but I would never have done that.” “He needs to pay for what he has done!” And on and on and on. We love a scapegoat. It provides us with a momentary (and illusory) distraction from our own sins, weaknesses, and screw-ups. If we can focus on the sins of someone else we don’t have come to terms with the reality of our own weakness.
Scapegoating is fun. It feels good. Sort of. But deep down, way down to the core of what it is that makes us human, we know it’s wrong. That it’s not good for us. Further, we also know that we have said things and done things that we would be horrified for the world at large to know about. We are all human. We are all in need. We all think things that we shouldn’t. We all judge others. We all hide. This is the reality.
Another lesson I try to drive home to my students is this: there are two kinds of people in the world. There are broken, needy, scared, and hurting people who know that they are broken, needy, scared, and hurting. And there are broken, needy, scared, and hurting people who don’t know that they are broken, needy, scared, and hurting. Or at least the second category is pretending they don’t know.
Back to the opening paragraph about politics. We are constantly being presented with “Gotcha!” moments. Some senator was with a mistress. Some politician was embezzling. Some celebrity was recorded saying whatever. And the popular media (and this media most certainly does not have our growth and flourishing as a priority), encourages us to condemn and mock and ridicule and malign.
Let’s not fall for it. Let’s not be a part of the rabble. Let’s be reflective humans who understand that brokenness and frailty is our plight. Let’s not join with this crowd. If we are not careful we will be shouting, “Crucify him!” along with everyone else. And by that time we won’t even care if the charges are true. We will only be concerned that someone is guilty and someone needs to pay. That’s a dangerous place to be.
The words of St. Paul are instructive here. He writes, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ…”(Gal. 6:1-2).
Our actions have consequences. Of course they do. If we sow evil we will reap evil. Sometimes it is necessary to lock someone away for life to keep them from hurting others. Of course. This is always sad when it happens and we should weep for such folks.
However, let’s not be sucked into this attitude of looking for a scapegoat. Or, in the words of Jesus, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3) There is only one person in the world I can change. And it’s me. So, when I am fixated on the transgressions of my neighbor I am avoiding spiritual growth. I am robbing myself of positive change. I am pointing in the wrong direction.
I am worth more than that. So are you. Let’s ignore (and turn off) the voices that are seeking to manipulate us into looking for a scapegoat.
We have a merciful kingdom to live in and add to.
Grace and peace to You.