A Plea for Nuance

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I confess, I enjoy memes.

I, like most of us, can revel in the self-righteous anger and superiority that a well-crafted meme can deliver.

Picture that shows how awful the opposition is, how stupid their position is, how utterly ignorant they are about the way the world really works–and a glib, sarcastic quip to drive it all home.

I could probably produce memes.  I’m certainly sarcastic enough.  I can be obsessive about getting a phrase or image just right.  I would probably be a bit more particular with spelling and grammar than some (see, I’m getting warmed up for the superiority part).  Is there big money in memes?  Because I always try to avoid big money, wherever it’s lurking.

But see, that right there might have blown it.  Good memes aren’t self-deprecating.  Why not?   Self-deprecation suggests that I, too, have flaws and faults and short-comings.  Self-deprecation requires seeing myself as I am and acknowledging it.  That’s why not.

I’m a Christian, which suggests that I have a certain binary view of the universe.  God and Satan, good and evil, sin and righteousness, heaven and hell.

Yes.

I believe in all of those and would even say I’ve had some experience with each.*

But this is my all-time favorite quote:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

That is a world view.  I would say this is my world view.  Solzhenitsyn was arrested in Soviet Russia and spent years in a gulag in Siberia.  He did not die there.  Instead, he wrote novels on any scrap of paper, on toilet paper, and found guards who helped him smuggle them out.  He told the world about the evils of the Soviet Union during a time when those evils were hidden behind an iron curtain and their pravda was that they had created the ideal society through communism.  The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

But we know they did not found a utopia.  We know that under Stalin as many as fifty million men, women, and children were murdered–not even “enemies,” but citizens, his own people.

If anyone stood in a position to declare that some people are simply evil while others are good, you might argue Solzhenitsyn was that man.

But he didn’t claim that.  Instead, while declaring to the world the corruption and violence of this political system, Solzhenitsyn convicted us all.  “Every human heart.”  We are all both good and evil.

Binary thinking is “I am good and you are evil.”  But you and I have good and evil in our hearts, and if we tried to root out the evil, we would have to destroy parts of our own hearts–yours and mine–to stamp it out.

That’s Christianity, in a few sentences.  Jesus does not call us to root out evil in the world.  He calls us to root out evil in our own hearts, to allow for the parts that are evil to be destroyed.  “Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

So here is a choice:  I can recognize that I am evil and have evil thoughts and desires and motives and intentions.  Sometimes I do good, sometimes I love, sometimes I act selflessly and serve others.  But I am not good or pure or holy.  Jesus is.  When I hang out with him, I see the evil in myself.  The more I hang out with him, the more I become aware of it.  It’s not pretty.  I don’t like it.  It doesn’t make me happy or bring me joy.  But it hurts like hell to root the evil out.  Doing so also sets me free.

OR, I can identify others as the enemy.  I can convince myself that they are what is wrong with the world.  They give me plenty of evidence, and I can easily find a group of like-minded folks who will shout at them along with me.

“They are bad!”

“We are good!”

“They’re trying to destroy our country!”

“Only we can save our country!”

As far as I can tell, these are mutually exclusive choices, different world views. Not in the short-term, honestly.  I can laugh at and share a meme and still admit that I am what is wrong with the world.  I can gather together with a few like-minded individuals and talk politics in a very partisan manner and still keep my attention focused squarely on my own evil little habits, which are really a lot more important for me to work on than shouting about “the Bad Guys.”

This is part confession, part plea.  I have, for the most part, hated this U.S. election cycle.  I cannot understand people’s thinking, I do not agree with their preferences, and often I am simply enraged at the directions we seem to be going.

To be very clear, I believe in rational, thoughtful discourse and arguments substantiated by facts and evidence.

So when I say, “I do not believe Christians should support Donald Trump,” I’m going to try to provide more than memes to present my case.  I’m going to contrast Trump’s words with Jesus’ words and try to point out that following Jesus and following Trump are, at a deep level, mutually exclusive.

No, I’m not making a plea for silence.  I’m making a plea for nuance.  For depth.  For recognizing that we live in a world composed of shades of gray, populated by people who understand imperfectly and do bad stuff as well as good stuff.

I’m not talking about moral relativism, either.  I don’t mean there isn’t a right and a wrong.  I believe in some very clear rights and wrongs.  I live in a country with rampant child prostitution, and child prostitution is wrong, in every case, with no exceptions.  There are circumstances so unbearable and unbelievable that you and I cannot imagine enduring them, but they do not justify selling a child to be sexually abused.  Ever.

No, I am talking about thinking more and shouting less.  I am suggesting that we stop acting as if everything we believe is patently, self-evidently true and everything we don’t believe is mere fodder for mockery.

Because we aren’t right all the time.  Our political party, whichever one with which we identify, is not right all the time.  Most importantly, we are causing damage by treating others this way.

Here are some examples:

The death penalty.  Should criminals be put to death by the state?  Does our country have the moral authority to execute those who have broken certain laws to certain degrees?

The Bible is not clear on this issue.  Yes, there are biblical examples of execution and of warrant for execution, but they are troubling, to say the least, and require serious contextual consideration.  None of us would agree with enacting all biblical instructions for state executions.

“But the principal of execution, that is clear enough, right?”

Jesus says to love our enemies.

“But Jesus addresses the individual, not the government.”

That stance is a particular interpretation, not a position expressly stated by Jesus, ever.  Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m only addressing individuals here.”  You can argue that he does–“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”–but again, this is a complex argument with two legitimate sides that both have valid scriptural backing.

In the United States, the death penalty is enforced in such a way that the poorest and people of certain races are far more likely to be executed.

To this day, one of the biggest predictors of who gets executed is the race of the victim and the resources of the defendant.  We are not executing the worst of the worst but the poorest of the poor… and especially people of color.

Many studies have shown this.  But we have to read those studies.  We have to decide whether capital punishment is a deterrent, whether vengeance is a proper motive or action for a state, whether certain crimes are simply unforgivable, or the cry for justice requires a life for a life, or a life for that offense.

No meme represents these arguments sufficiently.  I am a Christian, I am against the death penalty, and I understand that people have sound arguments for the death penalty, both Christians and non-Christians.  In order to discuss this properly, we need to delve into questions such as “What is justice?”  “How do justice and mercy fit together within the legal system?”  And “What are the rights and responsibilities of the state?”

 

Socialism.  I have read so many mocking, this-is-so-obvious-a-child-gets-it accounts of why socialism fails.  Yet many countries in the world have socialist economies and they are thriving.  Does that make socialism good?  No.  Exactly my point.  This is not an obvious either/or answer.

Socialism, for many, is associated with communism, but they are not the same thing.  At all.  They have been intertwined in some countries.  But to be socialist does not require being communist and communism can function without socialism.

Recently, a friend told me that “socialism is against Christ.”  Clearly, she had a certain picture in mind of what she understood socialism to be.

This is from the book of Acts, chapter 2:

 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Immediately the arguments charge forth:  this is the community of believers, not a system of government!  This was a particular time in history!  This was in context!

Yes.  Those are valid arguments.  They aren’t conclusive (in my opinion) nor are they the only points to be made.  You can argue that, since Paul was a tentmaker and considered that crucial to his ministry and testimony as an apostle of Jesus Christ, there is biblical precedent for some manner of capitalism.

That’s barely a beginning to the discussion, however.  Socialism is part of the United States’ system of government.  People pay taxes from which the government spends money to provide services which benefit everyone who lives in the nation.  One of our biggest arguments is on which things should we spend that money?

The U.S. government pays oil companies subsidies in the range of sixteen billion dollars each year–16,000,000,000–which belies all those snappy stories of how when a guy doesn’t have to work to receive money, he stops working.  Or maybe it doesn’t.  In either case, this is not capitalism at work, this is socialism.  If we collected no taxes, we would not have socialism.  If we collected some taxes but the government did not spend any of that on goods, services, and subsidies for United States citizens and companies, we would not have socialism.  In fact, we have companies that successfully utilize loopholes in our tax codes to avoid paying taxes, yet receive enormous benefits from our government.  So that might be considered receiving the benefits of socialism without even having to contribute a proportional amount.

The strongest reactions I see against socialism recently are objections to Bernie Sanders labeling himself a “Democratic Socialist.”  He seems to have set off many people’s alarms about the dangers and evils of socialism.  However, the point he repeatedly makes is, “We already are spending tax money–our money that we paid into the system–on a variety of things in a socialistic manner.  We have elements of socialism currently, and did under all of our recent Presidents.  The reform is to change our priorities and spend our tax money on different things that will benefit more people and benefit poor people instead of exclusively benefiting rich people.”

Again, this is neither the complete argument nor a conclusive one.  It is a point in the discussion.  Do you agree that the U.S. practices socialism now, but does so in a manner that favors the rich and powerful corporations?  Why or why not?  What is your evidence?  If you believe that this is our practice, would you like to see it continue or prefer to see it change?  How would you like our government to spend our taxes?

There is often a knee jerk reaction to this question–“I don’t want any taxes!”  But I don’t believe most people want to terminate our police, firefighting, or public education departments.  I don’t believe most people want to pave their own roads or create and maintain their own parks and libraries.  All of us have opinions and preferences on how our tax dollars are spent, but most of us go crazy when the services we’re used to receiving stop or are temporarily interrupted.  As someone living in a nation that does not enjoy equivalent levels of service, please believe me when I tell you that these are wonderful things and you would not enjoy life nearly as much without them.

So perhaps a crucial question in our discussion is, “What is the difference between ‘socialism’ in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state and ‘democratic socialism,’ in which private business and industry exists but in which the state also collects taxes and disburses various benefits and subsidies and has limited ownership?”

That’s not the stuff of memes, either.  I’m not an economist and I certainly don’t play one on TV, so I am claiming no expertise here.  If what I’ve said seems stupid to you, I am open to hearing your input–though I would quickly point out that my intent here is simply to raise questions and, returning to my thesis, ask for more nuance and considered thought in our discussion.  I’m just asking for more discussion and less accusation, ridiculing and name-calling.

If reading these questions makes you angry–in either direction–then I would suggest that now would be a great time to take a step back and consider why.  We need to restore dialogue, civil dialogue in which we treat one another with respect, not contempt.

That’s my plea.  Let’s think, and then let’s talk and listen.

 

One thought on “A Plea for Nuance

  1. Jim Allyn

    For those who say that Jesus addresses the individual, not governments, perhaps they should go back and read Matthew 25:32, where Jesus says he will judge *the nations*.

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