27. The Vicious Habit
Elections are drawing near in the U. S., and I’m already feeling bombarded by political ads. They barge into my driving time through radio spots, interrupt the rare moments I enjoy watching television, arrive uninvited to my email address, and fill my mailbox with leaflets. I’m disappointed and embarrassed by the viciousness and distortion from both parties. The tactics seem cheap, harmful, and empty of any attempt at honest, thorough, and serious engagement with the issues we face. Many ads feature grainy, black-and-white photos of an opponent taken from an unflattering angle to contrast with the polished, wholesome, color pictures of the candidate being supported. Extreme and negative hyperbole distorts motives of opponents and attacks their ideas without presenting meaningful, positive alternative proposals. It’s hard to find meaningful dialogue.
Criticizing political ads is convenient and popular. It’s easy to blame politicians, their strategists, and the media. Why have ads become so vicious and distorted? Evidently, negative ads work. Those who receive these ads are willing to avoid the hard work of learning about complex issues. We are happy to nod our heads based on 30-second soundbites rather than delve deeper, to think beyond our self-interest to the good of the nation and world. We’re willing to be seduced and deceived by oversimplification.
The same tendencies can shape our church life, including a propensity to oversimplify ideas, vilify opponents, and protect our own prerogatives.
“Most people, given the choice between having a better world, or a better place within the world as it is, would choose the latter.” We might restate this observation, attributed to 20th-century Methodist preacher Ralph Sockman, for church leadership: Most people, given the choice between having a better denomination, or a better place within the denomination as it is, would choose the latter.” We can even change denomination to conference or to congregation!
I don’t think people always pursue their own self-interest above the good of the whole organization. In a more nuanced way, we vote based on behaviors and assumptions with which we are familiar, find comfortable, and want to hold onto without carefully testing whether the behaviors we defend are best in the current context or whether the assumptions are still valid for the mission of the church today. We have trouble letting go
One can discern a rhythm at General Conference. Those present move from moments of profound communion to times when they feel palpable mistrust. On the one hand, we use organic models for community to describe and celebrate our relationship with one another—body of Christ, members, communion, bread, family, sisters, brothers. Our singing and praying and preaching unify us in Christ. On the other hand, we use adversarial strategies for deciding business, experiencing conference as a cauldron of competing self-interests, regional alliances, and caucus agendas. Primary connection for many delegates comes through the mutual support they find in affinity groups based on theology, board affiliation, race, gender, or cause. Rather than a gathering to listen, learn, discern, and decide together on goals for the church, General Conference seems a collection of people elected to win advantage in their effort to represent an idea, protect a project, or pursue an agenda with little regard for competing claims. Some groups depend upon the cohesive quality of fear to mobilize response. Delegates find it difficult to moderate conflict when they are motivated to win at any cost.
This places upon delegates a great responsibility to foster the unifying elements of our life together in Christ. General Conference does better at reminding United Methodists of our common history than at binding them to a common future.
An intensely political organization that aspires to communion requires intentionality in how the members pursue passions with humility and accept limits to their will with grace. Can a diverse body of people have a process that is fair, prayerful, and civil, and yet focuses on the mission of the church? Can conference foster such an atmosphere when it means some desires of nearly every member go unfulfilled?
Paul writes about the need to moderate divisive or self-serving motives while remaining passionate for the purposes of Christ. He reminds us to be ardent in spirit, to hold fast, and to seek what is good and acceptable and perfect. On the other hand, he instructs us to love one another with mutual affection, to let love be genuine, to live in harmony, and to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (see Romans 12). Balance passion and courage with humility and confession. We are one body in Christ, members of one another, and yet we have gifts and perspectives that differ. None of us sees the whole truth.
Paul was not inviting us to deny hard realities; rather, he was asking us to deal with hard realities with integrity, faithfulness, and graciousness. There’s nothing distinctly Christian about being gracious; but if we are distinctly Christian, then graciousness, truth, and fairness characterize our interests, involvements, and behaviors.
In another place, Paul writes:
“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless . . .; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; . . . ugly parodies of community. . . .
. . . If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (Galatians 5:19–23 The Message)
The phrase that jumps out is “the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival.” In Christ, we can do better. None of us has ever belonged to any organization or community where we have not at some point disagreed with others or with the decision of the majority. The unity of the church is a hard and unending task entrusted to all who follow Christ. More than a political strategy, this is a spiritual necessity, a calling of God through Christ. Thinking alike is not mandatory, but living as one in the body of Christ is essential.
How do you remain passionately engaged with those who view things differently from you in your own congregation? At conference?
In your spiritual life, how do you balance the ardent spirit that propels you to action with a sense of humility and community?
To move deeper, meditate on Romans 12:1-2.