When All the Good Guys Are Actually Bad Guys
Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that it has become more common for our public debates to be framed as being between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”? When I hear people talking about political issues, it’s very common for discussions not to be framed in terms of the strength or weakness of the arguments on the various sides of the issue. Rather, the tone of these discussions seems much more partisan and adversarial—almost tribal (David Brooks addressed this issue in a recent op-ed in the New York Times).
Quite frequently it’s not even just one issue that is being discussed, but a whole laundry list of issues, and the positions being championed correspond uniformly to the platform of some political party. Sometimes, when participating in or overhearing a conversation like this, you might even get the impression that the people doing the talking are vilifying those on the other side of the debate or in a different political party as not just wrong, but evil.
Is one side filled with virtue while the other side is filled with vice?
Whether it’s actually more common now than it used to be, we do seem to be quite prone to thinking of those on the “other side” not in terms of the wisdom of the goals at which they aim—nor in terms of whether the means they argue for are well calculated to achieve those goals—but in terms of virtue and vice. The people on “our side” are perceived as “good,” and the people on the “other side” as “evil.”
Now it’s true that there are times when we must not shy away from calling certain things evil. For example, New York's new abortion law, which allows the killing of babies up to the moment of birth without material restriction, is deeply evil. But acceptance of even evil like this is, for most people, not the result of an explicit love of death, but of comfortable and convenient lies told and believed for too long.
This kind of evil is usually more attributable to calloused hearts, ingrained societal habits, and the syndrome of the proverbial “frog in the boiling pot of water” than it is about an explicit bloodlust. Nevertheless, very evil things—like abortion, sexual abuse, slavery, murder, and genocide—can be done by people who have come to accept evil as “normal.” Christians would be failing to be “salt and light” if they failed to boldly confront such evils when they encounter them in the world
Many of our differences of opinion should be open to respectful dialogue.
But most of our differences are more mundane than this; they are differences of opinion about how to relatively value things like freedom versus security, the rights of the individual versus the needs of the many, privilege versus responsibility, and so on. In many cases our differences are differences “on a grand scale”—about how to achieve the "good society. On the more mundane level, in the context of our daily lives, our ideas about what’s fair, or about how we ought to treat each other aren’t radically different from each other. But because of our differences on the “big issues,” we tend to perceive those who disagree with us as a threatening “Other.”
In many cases, our differences of opinion are magnified by our lack of sufficient exposure to people unlike us. In fact, the more our society has become riven by tribal division, the more we have retreated from meaningful discussion with the “Other” into the comforting embrace of people who think exactly as we do. Our perceptions of people unlike us is shaped by mass media. Social media has only accelerated this trend.
As a result of these changes, we have been deprived of the opportunity to consider things from the perspective of the other, and thereby to soften our differences, and more frequently find solutions which better balance the various concerns. We tend to deal with by means of "war" what would be better dealt with by means of dialogue.
Vilifying the “Other” causes all sorts of dysfunction.
This tendency to think of our opponents as evil and ourselves as good causes all sorts of dysfunction. We commonly see this today in political discourse, such as:
Being too quick to whitewash the sins of people on our side, while exaggerating and castigating even minor peccadilloes of the people on the other side.
Applying double standards and justifying doing so because of the greater evil of letting the other side have its way.
Creating self-fulfilling prophecies as each side—principally out of fear of the evil of the other—surrenders to its basest instincts and rationalizes doing so. The other side then takes this as confirmation of the evil of the "other" and feels justified in committing its own outrages in return. Gradually, the paranoid fantasies become real.
Subordinating morality to politics: Instead of dealing realistically with the fact that we all sin and fail in many ways, and despite the fact that we grow and change over time, we use people's failures as a means to disqualify or defeat them, instead of evaluating them honestly in terms of whether the failures/sins in question genuinely disqualify someone from office. We are selective in our handling of the evidence and accept cheap grace and theatrics as a substitute for a genuine coming to grips with, and atonement for, failures and transgressions of various kinds.
The net effect of all the above is to apply uneven standards and to make it even more likely that the most adept liars and con men will dominate our politics.
Scripture addresses the nature of all human beings.
Christians confess that no human being is righteous—with the blessed exception of our Savior, Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said, in answer to a question,
“No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
As Paul taught, quoting both Psalm 14 and 53,
None is righteous, no not one. (Rom. 3:10)
It is good for us to be very suspicious of our pretensions to self-righteousness. We ought to deal with most differences of opinion without adding the extra moral freight of assuming our side’s righteousness and the other side’s depravity. Instead, we ought to do our best to consider issues rationally and dispassionately, not making final judgments before considering all arguments, being most skeptical of our own arguments, knowing that all of us have a strong tendency to see what we want to see and take positions that favor our own interests.
And, in those cases (and there are some) in which we believe that the opposing view actually is morally evil, we need to make that judgment soberly and justly, applying the same standard to “us” as to “them,” recognizing our kinship as members of a fallen race, and dealing with those who disagree with us in kindness and friendship whenever possible.
We ought to bear witness by the way we live to the kind of God we serve.
Even when it is necessary to take a firm stand against sin and error, we must remember that love and kindness are better persuaders than anger. And, more importantly, especially when our Christianity and Christian testimony are perceived as being closely connected with the position we hold, we must remember whose messengers we are. We live in the age of the gospel offer. As Paul exhorted,
Do all things without grumbling or disputing that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. (Phil. 2:14-15)
In everything that we do—in our political interactions as in the rest of our lives—we ought to bear witness by the way we live to the kind of God we serve: a sovereign, just, righteous, and wise God, to be sure, but also a patient and loving Savior who forgave and rescued sinners like us.
Tim Graham holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Westminster Seminary California and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He serves on the board of directors of biblicaltraining.org, a ministry which makes seminary-level biblical training available for free on the internet.
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