Disregarding the Rest

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” —Paul Simon, “The Boxer”

I am implored by my friend to “do my own research,” usually a tip-off that that person rejects all mainstream media, including the major newspapers, magazines, and networks. Instead, I am to find the truth in the myriad of alt-right blogs, websites, and Twitter accounts.

I will not do that. He knows it, just as I know he will not accept any of my references to The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic, and Guardian. We are at loggerheads, yet we continue the discussion on Facebook, each of us reluctant to write the other off as a former friend.

He is unfailingly courteous, unlike so many others across this divide. In fact, our discourse is for him a battle of spiritual warfare in which I am in grave danger from principalities and powers. He hopes to save me, a fellow Christian and a friend, whose bonds of friendship stretch back over fifty years to high school days.

As I write, in a few days he will vote for Donald Trump, believing that God has appointed the President to save the country from the hell of socialism that the Democrats will bring. I believe the opposite, that the country cannot bear another four years under an administration seemingly bent on destroying the fragile framework of democracy.

In our exchanges he lets me know he is praying for me that the Holy Spirit will convince me of my error and help me to find my way back to truth. In a flash of pique, I tell him I appreciate being prayed for, that I need all the prayers on my behalf that I can get, but no pleas for my conversion to his position will be effective.

I believe, just as he does, that this is bigger than either of us. Something fundamental is at stake here and it calls for clear thinking, moral conviction, and a willingness to search for truth. He asserts that we are living in the Last Days and that prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes. I reply that people in every age think theirs is the last one and that prophecy is like Cling Wrap: it can be stretched to cover almost anything.

He wonders if I believe that God doesn’t care what happens here on earth. I counter that Jesus’ life and death and resurrection mean that God was willing to die to change the horrific state of affairs in our world. But, I add, I don’t believe that God is telling me to vote Republican — or Democrat, for that matter.

We retreat to our corners for the time being. I ask myself for the hundredth time why I do this. I wonder what it means for our friendship. And I question what has happened to my sense of humor. Incongruously, an image of a freckled Alfred E. Neumann comes to mind with his cheerful comeback to anything serious: “What, me worry?”

***

What I find so poignant about this situation is that it really matters to both of us. Neither of us can easily walk away because we care about the issues at stake in this election. And in some way not clearly defined, we care about each other’s spiritual welfare.

As the saying goes, the personal is the political, and never more so than today. The saying captures the urgency with which our individual concerns of race, gender, social class, educational opportunities, and health become policy issues. The unavoidable smashup of personal = spiritual = political is the conundrum behind my disagreements with my friend.

What are we to make of such deep divisions between Christians over social and cultural issues? Conventional wisdom says that culture beats religion in most societies with a Christian history. Given crises like war, famine, and plague, people retreat to their enclaves and their tribes. In the extremes, morality gives way to survival tactics, a narrowing of scope rather than an opening up of inclusion through compassion. Religion, that is, the worship of God in and through community, may survive such a test, but often enough it becomes another powerful means of exclusion.

“Purity,” says Annie Dillard, “is one of the two most attractive ideas the human race knows. The other is perfection. Purity is absence; perfection is fullness. Purity seeks to eliminate; its worshipers from the right or the left wage war with swords… Purity seeks to eliminate inessentials.”[1]

We imagine we can achieve purity with the right combination of astringency, incisiveness, and force. Force that presents first as derision, then as humiliation, and finally, as unveiled hatred.

At the micro level — the personal level between each other as adversaries — the world shrinks to our own blood sport, the ring in which we duke it out until only one is left standing. Purity is achieved by eliminating the other.

There is a practical consideration also, what we might call “The Rule of the Road.” You don’t flip someone off while in traffic lest you meet them later in the parking lot. Likewise, I shouldn’t post something I would be ashamed of later.

The disharmony of the present stifles our view of the larger context, but even more so, it distorts our understanding of the creations God has brought into being, which we call “I,” “you,” “them.” Under these conditions, we rarely get to “we” and “us.” Rather, we protect ourselves by asking if anything matters enough to bring about a permanent rift between people of faith, be they Christians, Jews, or Muslims.

One alternative available is the Casablanca response. Humphrey Bogart as Rick says to Ilse on the runway, “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that… Here's looking at you, kid.”

Back far enough away and the conflicts we carry shrink to nothing. The irony in that argument is that what Rick did was noble, precisely because he put the welfare of Ilse and Victor ahead of his own wishes, and in so doing probably signed his own death warrant. But we do not look at our world from the International Space Station; we are here, right now, in the midst of all our overlapping and sometimes discordant lives.

These things are important to us because they are in some sense matters of life and death. No conflict, no meaning. At least we’re alive enough to realize that the tearing of the fabric of the Christian community is serious. This brings up, as Rowan Williams says, “one painfully obvious thought… If we were really preoccupied with, really in love with our vision (of Christ), we’d have less time for fussing about someone else’s.”[2] After all, when Peter asked in John 21 what was to happen to the beloved disciple, Jesus pretty much says, “Mind your own business and follow me.”

But that’s not really enough either. Nor will cutting the other away through a demonic cult of purity suffice. And acquiescing to another’s position over things we cannot in good conscience believe tears away at our sense of who we are and what we are to do.

The difficulty confronting me is the battle over particulars versus universals, tactics versus principles, means versus ends. My Christian brother and I would likely agree on the principle that we love because God first loved us. We would believe that in some ultimate sense God-in-Christ has overcome the world and that now we live in the freedom to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Where we agree on principles there is hope that the particulars need not permanently divide us.

As long as we have the freedom in Christ that he unstintingly gives us, we’ll have differences between us that can tear us apart. But praise be for the God who takes us seriously enough to entrust us with such power. Praise be, also, that we can be constantly forgiven upward. I, for one, am quite often too tired, too distrustful, and too impatient to carry it well. There are times when I am deaf, dumb, and blind — and don’t even know it. I cannot see the world the way God sees it. I don’t see others the way God sees them.

Jesus once touched the eyes of a man born blind. “What do you see?” he asked. “I see men walking,” replied the fellow, “but they look like trees.” How about now, said Jesus, and he touched him again. That did it, said the man, and he began to praise God.

I am that man.

 

Notes & References:

 

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10840
3 Likes

Thank you very much for this most enlightening exploration of the our human situation as Christians eager to walk by faith but regularly failing to keep our vision on the God we wish to thank for the gracious ways in which He keeps lifting us up. Today’s election is taking place when the polarization of the citizenry seems to be based on incomprehensible human dispositions nesting in the depths of the soul. Your exploration of the tensions that are constant in our experience and of the temptations of purity and perfection is much appreciated for the insights it brings to the surface. Your final allusion to the healing of the blind man said it all. This was your best essay so far. Thank you…

4 Likes

You say “Nor will cutting the other away through a demonic cult of purity suffice” Maybe your position is demonic. You don’t have a problem endorsing the wickedness of your candidate. To unborn babies dying; to the perpetuation of the status quo under Biden. You insinuate that your vote is a vote for justice and you’re trying to convince others that it is, when others see that it is not. Perhaps, you are content with a pretense of justice rather than real justice. Maybe voting for ungodliness also motivates your vote.

It is not a moral virtue to choose to vote to endorse wickedness, and injustice. There is no Bible verse that requires you to do so. You obviously represent Spectrum Magazine’s position on this matter; they have other policy goals, obviously - which violate God’s law, other than justice goals on various fronts. Life and Death are at stake - yes you are right. You will be rendering more death with your vote. You’re trying to get people to believe that voting for Biden is exercising their voice, when the people have a right to say whether or not Biden represents their voice or not. Will you wash your hands of working to counteract the ill effects brought about by the candidate that you voted into office? Is voting where your “civic duty” begins and ends? The Bible says that “It is not good to be partial to the wicked and so deprive the innocent of justice.” Proverbs 18:5. Yet, this is what you’re doing with your vote; you should stop trying to justify this as virtue and as not being part of the “demonic cult of purity”. There are many who are perfectly happy with candidates like Biden. Now they tell other people that this is their chance to exercise their voice. They’re trying to circumscribe the voice of the people. The author is insinuating that others don’t care about the issues. Does the author care about justice and life? Does the author have little problem endorsing wickedness, injustice, immorality and death, when the Bible does not require him to do so?

1 Like

Both you and your friend are wrong. The reason God bestowed us with the cerebral cortex is to exercise reason and love, no matter what the outcomes may be, whether they be of opposite directions or shared positions. Each of us are in an individual journey. As it has been said, pop corns are cooked in the same pot with the same temperature, yet each corn kernel pops according to its time, and no one else.

8 Likes

Thank you, Herold, for reading and perceiving the message, and for commenting. I appreciate your insights.

I like that! But it seems to me that a vote for someone doesn’t preclude finding my own way through the issues and through life.

2 Likes

Thank you for taking the time to comment. I don’t find your comments persuasive nor are they coherent. Although I never mention Biden, I don’t see how people voting for Biden somehow prevents others for voting for their candidate. I think you give people who might disagree with your position more power than they really have. In fact, you sound afraid of people who disagree with you. Have confidence in your views if you hold them so fervently.

3 Likes

I simply love that. Following Jesus to me means that freedom to be myself and know that no matter how fragile my ego may be, I am also free to question anything that simply does not make any sense to me. And right now there is a lot going on with Christianity that does not make sense to me at all.

4 Likes

If birds of a feather flock together. some may be blinded by the shadows of their associates.

3 Likes

This topic was automatically closed after 7 days. New replies are no longer allowed.