It’s an election year in America, and everything seems to be subordinated to getting the favored candidate in the White House. More broadly, our nation’s present travails are well-documented. When tensions are high, the level of vitriol and distrust in public discourse can be exhausting. We are quick to assert our views and causes, but slow to listen to alternatives. Our minds are set, and we assume the worst about those who disagree with us. We have a high degree of confidence in many scenarios, and we blithely pronounce solutions, even though we do not have all the facts. This combination of self-assuredness of our views and dismissal of others is a potent cocktail for disharmony.
We can pontificate, and perhaps bemoan, how we got here. But is there a way forward? I offer no panacea. But our present moment is not unprecedented, nor is it without hope. Two aspects of the ancient teaching of Jesus are particularly relevant for this season: 1) the Golden Rule, combined with 2) the commitment to truth on behalf of our neighbors.
The Golden Rule, as Matthew 7:12 has come to be known, is “do unto others.” The way we wish to be treated is the way we should treat others—whoever they are. This is another way to say we should love our neighbors as ourselves. As with so many biblical commands, this is easier said than done. But it is of immense, practical relevance for public discourse today. Whatever our policy preferences, are we willing to grant that those on the other side of the aisle may have the best of intentions? Can we articulate their positions fairly, or will we twist their words to make our positions seems stronger? We would want to be heard in the most generous light, and that’s precisely how we should treat others—whether Democrat, Republican, or other.
Coupled with the Golden Rule is the assiduous commitment to honesty. Jesus promotes this in the Sermon on the Mount, but it was already engraved in the Ten Commandments. In the Bible, the law of God highly esteems the truth, and it warns against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. This requires public, selfless pursuit and proclamation of truth. The commitment to truth does not kowtow to polls or personal interests. We are not to spread false reports—which today is only a retweet away—or side with the crowd when it’s easier. We must not be so eager to speak about matters we cannot confirm. We treat others the way we want to be treated when we speak and disseminate only what we know to be true. We are in no position to speculate on the hidden motivations of others, nor should we present information in a way that is sure to be skewed. These are all ways we might bear false witness. Facts matter.
The focus of these two commands is not on what others should do, but on what we should do; each of us must take the initiative. The log in our eye is more immediate than the speck in our neighbor’s. We will fail to meet these standards consistently, so we need also to be patient with one another, showing the forgiveness that Jesus himself extends. Love covers a multitude of sins.
It may seem necessary at the moment to do whatever it takes to realize our public policy objectives. The end justifies the means and all that. But such an approach is short-sighted. And Jesus teaches otherwise. His ethics are not tailored to earn 270 electoral votes, but neither are they irrelevant for 2020. These principles should guide those in the electoral majority and protect those in the electoral minority.
There is no telling what new issues we may face in the coming months, but we will need to engage with one another. For this, the Golden Rule and commitment to truth offer two landmarks to keep our bearings in tumultuous times. Their pedigree is rock-solid.