“Can’t we all just get along?”
Rodney King uttered these iconic words after the riots resulting from the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers accused in his beating in 1991. These words were pilloried, as I recall, by a lot of conservative, talk radio types. But they turned out to be a far more accurate reflection of our situation than many of us realized. And the answer has turned out to be, “No, we can’t.”
It’s My Fault, Too
I have done a lot of soul-searching in the last few years. In a recent conversation with Russell Moore, David French argued that “animosity” has become the dominant feature of our national narrative, and I have come to realize I am as much to blame for that turn of events as any other American.
I grew up in a home where truth was valued more highly than anything else. That might have been an unmitigated good—except for the fact that I also grew up in a small, mostly white, southern town. My context was saturated with a palpable fear that “liberals” from the northern and western parts of our country were going to come and force their cultural and moral values upon us. And whether anyone would admit it or not, that fear was animated by the cultural memory of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
I have always been a people-pleaser and hate conflict. But my friends and acquaintances in middle school, high school, and college never knew that. Why? Because I was always ready, willing, and able to scrap over the political issues of the day. While other kids my age were listening to rock music and watching MTV, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching 20/20.
And the truth is I formed more “factional friendships,” as David French likes to call them, than I am ready to admit. Granted, my acquaintance with the gospel moderated some of my worst tendencies. Nevertheless, there was still an implicit expectation in the friendships I formed that these people would not only meet my emotional needs (which were many and deep) but would also go to war with me for the sake of the Kingdom of God—or, at least, what I thought was the Kingdom of God.
I don’t remember exactly when I began to question the way I was living my life. Subsequent events certainly did not encourage me to do so. I did a graduate degree at an extremely liberal divinity school during the years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the atmosphere did not exactly promote healthy dialogue. More importantly, I had friends who I thought would walk with me through the rest of my life turn their backs on me because I would not go along with their compromises on issues of profound theological and moral importance. I felt justified in my sense that the United States of America was destroying itself—and in my rage towards the Christians that were helping it do so.
Nevertheless, there was always uneasiness in my heart about the toxic nature of our public discourse—both inside and outside the church. That uneasiness began to come to the surface by 2016, and it had fully bloomed by 2019 (and maybe earlier).
So, I began looking around for help. What I found was not entirely satisfying. Twenty years ago, a close friend told me I needed to “learn how to let people be wrong,” and reading the works of Jim Wilder and Steve Cuss helped me confront the anxiety keeping me from doing that.
But, as helpful as the sociological analyses of people like Sen. Ben Sasse have been, I never found them quite satisfying as explanations of our current political and religious moment. And although Arthur Brooks’ book Love Your Enemies told some good stories about how people of different viewpoints can learn to work together, it was filled with questionable logic and vacuous platitudes.
The Trinity Forum, in particular, has tried to tackle this problem from a Christian perspective, and much of the work they have done has been worthy of respect. Nevertheless, the conversation they sponsored between Lacrae Moore and Michael Ware illustrates the problem I was having.
One moment, I would almost be in tears as I reflected upon the indignities Moore has experienced from conservative evangelicals. The next moment, my heart would cry out in rage against Moore for his betrayal of values which I hold to be sacrosanct and his willingness to subvert narratives upon which I have built (if I’m honest) my life and identity.
And then came the question at the end of the conversation. An African-American pastor asked about our responsibility to speak prophetically. As I recall, Michael Ware rightly warned all of us to take care when claiming that mantel, for it may not rightly belong to us. But in my mind, the damage was already done. Prophets aren’t nice. Prophets don’t treat people with respect. Prophets get in your face and call you out. They call you “parent-murderers” if they have to in order to make their point (see the instances in the gospels where Jesus or John the Baptist called their opponents “you brood of vipers”).
Russell Moore, Ben Sasse, Arthur Brooks, Cherie Harder, David French, Michael Ware, Lacrae Moore—these are honorable people. And they are right that outrage is threatening to destroy our democracy. But aren’t there things worthy of being outraged about? Aren’t there things even more important than democracy?
No Answers, Just Places to Begin
I haven’t made my way through this maze of conflicting assumptions, convictions, and emotions. I don’t know that I ever will. But the struggle has taught me some things.
I want to be a better disciple of Jesus, a more productive member of society, and a more faithful friend. These are the steps I am taking to try and make those things happen, and I hope they can help you, too.
- Focus on What Really Matters – For Christians, making peace and loving our enemies is just as much a part of who we are as working for justice. We all need to remember that, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over something we think is really important.
- Don’t Confuse Values with Outcomes – As Diana Glyer points out, “we sometimes get these two things confused. Granted, much of what we are fighting over is directly related to our values as a nation. Nevertheless, we can nip a lot of unnecessary conflict in the bud if we will simply decide we are not going to get worked up over disagreements about which policy will produce the best outcomes.
- Stop Feeding the Toxicity – We need to stop feeding the conflict with misinformation. Conspiracy theories about stolen elections or hoax cures do nothing to promote national healing or personal wholeness. They only serve the interests of those who want to acquire power for themselves. Let’s stop playing that game.
- Value Character – Just because a person is decent, thoughtful, and skilled does not mean they are always right. The recently deceased Gen. Colin Powell would be the first to tell you that. But I will throw my lot in every time with decent people like him over those who see the world through the lenses of their own dysfunction.
- Be Consistent – If we are going to say character matters, we must apply that standard to those we agree with just as much as we do to those we disagree with.
- Begin with me – All of us would do well to begin our crusade against evil in our own hearts. I hurt a lot of people because I was more interested in pointing out the “speck” in their eye than in addressing the “log” in my own eye (cf. Matthew 7:2-5). Even though our society is really messed up, I have plenty of my own dysfunction to account for and address. Doing so will keep me out of trouble, but it will also allow Christ to transform me into a more loving, less angry person.