Every election cycle seems to stoop lower than the former one, as candidates and their promoters savage their opponents with ever-sharpening venom, evidently unconcerned for truthfulness in their depictions of them. It has become so prevalent that it feels shamefully normal, and its spirit runs rampant through the populace. How quickly we close our minds and harden our hearts to the apostolic injunction to think only the best of each other!
The Westminster Catechism picks up this theme powerfully in its exposition of the ninth commandment’s required duties: “…speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever, a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them … studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.” Go back. Read it again. Dwell on it, phrase by phrase. (Book of Confessions 7.254)
Assuming and proclaiming the worst in each other has become standard fare among us, not just by politicians and not just in election seasons. Broad swaths of our social order have succumbed to the reptilian sensibility that the only way to assure a secure place for ourselves is to tear others down.
The virulent vituperative spirit that has spread across society has also infected the church. The pandemic season has exacerbated this corrosion of godly goodwill, resulting in a spiking of conflicts within the church. Members have accused each other maliciously, pastors have been assailed by parishioners and staff, and presbytery leaders have been charged with ill will towards congregations and pastors alike.
It is ungodly, and it must stop.
This is of course not a new problem. From its inception, the Christian community has had to be reminded constantly of its calling to love one another. No command is more widespread through the apostolic writings, and the reason for its prevalence is that the early believers so easily fell short of living up to the prayer of Jesus that we all be one just as he and the Father are one.
One of the great themes of the Bible is that God has given us a world marked by abundance rather than scarcity, and that we are called not only to receive but to share God’s abundance with others. We are blessed rather than impoverished by being generous toward others, as I noted in my recent letter, “The Politics of Generosity.” Life in God’s world is not a zero-sum order where every time you gain something I lose something. Jesus declares that when we give, we reap abundance, and surely our experience bears that out. “Blessed to be a blessing” is a slogan that rings true for all of us.
Politicians and pundits alike warn of disastrous consequences if we elect the wrong party to office in this week’s elections. I personally believe that how we vote matters greatly because the policies advocated by opposing parties are vastly different over things that deeply matter. Yet I also believe that winning at the price of slanderous debasement of our opponent is utterly contrary to the Gospel.
Years ago, as a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan famously asked us, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” It seemed like an innocent and reasonable question, but it introduced a calculus that has burgeoned into something that is choking our soul, namely that it is right and good to vote and act purely out of our own self-interest. It is manifest in myriad ways, from voting my pocketbook rather than considering how our policies can benefit others, to depicting those who don’t look and think like me as threats to be beaten down rather than neighbors to be lifted up.
The Bible consistently admonishes us to be generous to those on social margins, or whose interests may differ from our own, rather than withhold from them. Jesus’ most famous saying models this ethic, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Paul urges us to follow the pattern of Jesus in putting others’ interests ahead of our own.
Appealing first to our own interests, whether nationally, economically, ethnically, or religiously, runs directly counter to the ethic of the Hebrew prophets, the Christian apostles, and of Jesus himself.
Let this mind be in us, the mind of the One who gave away all that was rightly his, for our sake. Think like this, speak like this, and act like this – and like him we will ultimately be exalted, rather than diminished.
Yours in seeking a better way,