Not a day goes by that we do not hear from someone lamenting the current divisive nature of our country. There are those who are tired of hearing of such a fracture. And there are those who fail to see how serious this division really is. There are those who believe that if the “good people” just live and love in their own arenas of life, that example will be enough to turn the tide. And there are those who insist that we must meet those with whom we disagree and seek some way to avoid the precipice we seem to be running toward pell-mell.
I agree that we should all be respectful of the humanity of those with whom we disagree. I agree that truth should not be distorted or whittled down only to the parts we embrace. I agree that we need authentic dialogue and not vociferous monologues, much less the demagogic cacophony so prevalent on Twitter and Facebook. I agree that as much as possible we should look for and embrace common ground. And I agree that we must look for solutions and policies that can help us rediscover our common humanity.
However, I do not agree with those who apparently suggest that we should meet somewhere in the middle and find a compromise with justice, goodness, truth, and compassion. And neither do I agree we should only respond to evil according to the maxim that ‘the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” Of course, we must practice the better. Not to do so would be hypocritical. And besides, once the dust settles over the tragedy we have created (if it settles), there must be something already in place which can serve as a paradigm for the future. But we must also “name the demon.” Jesus knew nothing of a love and compassion that would not confront and expose evil. That’s why he ended up on a cross.
In “naming the demon,” we must first strive to recognize and exorcise the demons within ourselves. Not to do so would also be hypocritical. Only the “pure in heart” can see God or truth. But confronting and exposing evil are critical and necessary steps in transforming the world into a better and more just place. William Sloane Coffin said the following in his defense of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr deserving a national holiday:
He [King] deserves a national holiday because more than any other public figure in this century he asserted his individuality in order to affirm community on the widest possible scale; because better than any other public figure he understood the nature of compassion, that it did not exclude confrontation. It was Martin’s message that it is not enough to suffer with the poor; we must confront the people and systems that cause poverty. It was Martin’s message that you cannot set the captive free if you are not willing to confront those who hold the keys. Without confrontation compassion becomes merely commiseration, fruitless and sentimental.(William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 43)
I would like to ask several questions of those who argue that within the present national debate we must meet the ones with whom we disagree halfway and work out a compromise. I also have some questions of those who assume that just living the best is an adequate response to the forces of evil in our world today. Of course, many who call us to live an alternative way without confronting evil maintain they are not suggesting compromise. They believe their witness of the alternative will be enough to bring about change in the world. But I am not convinced that the end result of their strategy will produce what they seek within the larger culture. Yes, we should and must live that alternative–but our being cocooned and insulated in such an alternative will not help the world recognize the evil that is poisoning society at every level. King recognized that evil must be confronted and exposed—with humility, yes; with love, yes; with nonviolence, yes—but it must be uncovered and called to repentance which means change.
But let’s return to the questions I would ask those who seek a compromise:
- Does compromise mean rolling back some of what Dr. King and many others achieved in the progress we have made in civil rights? How many of the policies of the Trump administration which refuse to enforce anti-discrimination laws should we keep?
- Does compromise mean watering down the laws that have allowed women to begin enjoying some of the same rights as men in all areas of our culture?
- Does compromise mean, if not putting the lgbtq community back in the closet, at least putting them back in the shadows and allowing for indiscriminate firings and intentional slights and disadvantages?
- Does compromise mean relaxing our pollution standards or only partially improving them, but being nowhere close to where we promised we would be according to the already insufficient Paris Accord? How much compromise makes sense when the future of the world is under dire threat?
How can we compromise with those whose policies and actions have promoted racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and the abhorrent treatment of migrants of color? How much prejudice, institutional injustice and violence, and corruption is acceptable? Half as much? Twenty-five percent? How many are we willing to throw under the bus who have been negatively and sinfully impacted by the greed and prejudice evident in our current American culture? Just the immigrants? People of color? The lgbtq community? Moslems? Jews? Around ninety-five years ago a European nation made that decision, and they did so with unconscionable “final solutions.”
We should meet and dialogue in genuine efforts to mend the torn fabric of our nation. But is there any dialogue that would convince those guided by compassion and justice to sacrifice parts of our society to placate those who want a return to the good old days of discrimination, violence, and a status quo that works only for the privileged? And is there any dialogue that would convince those hell-bent on pursuing hatred, violence, greed, and discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religion? I hope and pray such a dialogue could take place. But the suffering which already has occurred in our country under the most corrupt and evil administration in our nation’s history demands that there be change. Goodness, justice, and compassion have been postponed for far too long.
Compassion requires a confrontation with evil. Where would we and, in particular, people of color be today if Dr. King and others had limited the alternative of love to simply staying in their churches and neighborhoods and not confronting the evils of racism, economic injustice, and the slaughter of war? Where would South Africa be today if Archbishop Tutu and many other courageous Christians had not confronted the evils of apartheid? Does anyone think there would have been any substantive transformation if Tutu had stayed in his church instead of taking to the streets, exposing the evil, and demanding change? Once a society has turned a corner in its fight against evil, it can never afford to go back to the ways of the past. We have spent the last three years trying to go back to the past in an effort to “make America great again.” But great for whom? The answer is quite clear for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel: white Americans and, in reality and behind all the smoke and mirrors of the current administration, only the wealthiest of those white Americans.
Politics has been called the art of the best possible. If what we have today is the best possible, then God help us! And if a compromise, however defined and defended, returns us to both disguised and blatant Jim Crow policies, misogyny, homophobia, unbridled greed, greater pollution, and the persecution of those desperately seeking economic and political sanctuary, then the United States has indeed lost its soul. As James Russell Lowell wrote, “Once to every man [sic] and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr had his moment, and he made his decision on the side of justice, truth, and compassion. We now have our moment. I dare to hope that we will have the courage to confront and expose evil (beginning with the evil within ourselves) and to walk the path which leads to truth and justice for all.
(I trust that the readers of this article understand that I am not calling anyone a “demon.” I do not believe anyone is actually a demon. But I do believe there are actions and attitudes, beliefs and assumptions that are demonic. All of us are capable of harboring some form of the demonic. However, I think even those most cynical of human nature would admit that the difference between St. Francis and Adolf Hitler is so great as to be qualitative and not quantitative.)