Words thrown like bombs

One of my friends, a mentor of pastoral ministry, was a fully progressive liberal. She married a wonderful man who was as conservative as she was liberal. They reminded me of the famous political couple Mary Matalin and James Carville. My friend and her husband were both widowed, so it was a later-in-life marriage. I think that is worth noting as they entered their loving marriage with their views well cemented into the fabric of the way they thought and responded.

While having dinner with them one night I asked them how they managed the relationship, at least in so far as the realm of political discussions. Her husband, who had worked on Capitol Hill, said they were a couple modeled on the era before Newt Gingrich. In the era before his rise to the role of Speaker of the House in 1995, when members “across the aisle” would vehemently disagree, engage in a modest level of character assassination, and then go to dinner together with spouses or have an evening of cards with each other. They knew the political stage was just that, a stage on which played out important issues, but not one that became personal.

As the story was told, that all changed in 1995. The new Speaker let it be known that anyone consorting with the enemy – those “across the aisle” – would never be assigned seats on any career-enhancing House committees and would be assigned offices in “Siberia.” From that moment, the dominoes began to tumble in the Halls of Congress, across the internet, and into our consciousness. We are a polarized society of the post-Gingrich era in which the “other” is enemy, immoral, and we hurl words like bombs. If you read the paper or listen to the news since the Supreme Court opinion leak, this should sound familiar:

Those who think that balancing the rights of a pregnant woman with the rights of a fetus is difficult enough that decisions about whether to abort are best left to individuals, not the state, are smeared as “baby killers.” Those who believe biology makes it clear that a fetus is a human being who deserves protection from lethal violence are deemed “misogynists” … “full of hate, racism and white supremacy.” (Tish Harrison Warren, NYT)

It seems as though this current milieu exempts us from the responsibility to consider complex arguments or consider if we might be shortsighted or biased. We certainly don’t have to be open to persuasion, since to change one’s mind is to join “the dark side.” It is as though we have a free pass to despise those we judge to be morally contemptible. We are not so good at judging the changes within us. People notice we are bitter, sneering, intolerant and bombastic. They begin to avoid us. And that’s ok because, for our part, we silently think, “Thank God I am not like them!”

Jesus “then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

I don’t blame Newt Gingrich. He just lit the fuse, we supply the word bombs and bypass the Word of God.

I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2022)

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