On not bracketing essentials during moral battles

  • August 24, 2011

Today, both within society and the churches, we are finding it ever more difficult to resolve our differences because our conversations are shot through with non-civility, name calling, character assassination and disrespect.

What’s particularly worrying is that we are doing this in the name of truth, cause, the Gospel and Jesus. We are giving ourselves permission to hate, demonize and disrespect each other in God’s name. Our cause seems so important to us that, consciously or unconsciously, we give ourselves permission to bracket some of the essentials of Christian charity, namely, respect, graciousness, love and forgiveness.

This is wrong: No cause allows me to exempt myself from fundamental charity, even if I see myself as a “warrior for truth.” There is a Gospel imperative to fight for truth and ultimately we all need to be prophets who fight for what is right; but even war has its ethics. Even in war (perhaps especially in war) disrespect may never be rationalized on the basis of claiming that God is on our side. Indeed, if God is on our side we should radiate respect for others.

Respect, graciousness, love and forgiveness are non-negotiable essentials within Christian charity. They are also part and parcel of all that’s noble within humanity. Whenever we step outside of these, as we often do today in our discourse with those who are not of our political or ecclesial mindset, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the high cause we think we are serving justifies this fundamental lapse in our humanity and charity. Whenever our words or our actions show disrespect we are not serving Jesus or truth. Rather we are serving some ideology or, worse, working out personal angers and pathologies.

Some years ago at a theological college where I was teaching we had a student who was so obsessed with defending Catholic orthodoxy that he became such a negative presence in every classroom that none of the faculty wanted to teach a class within which he was enrolled. Eventually the situation became so intolerable that the faculty, after considerable and pained discernment, asked the dean of the faculty to ask him to leave the college. Immediately after his expulsion he wrote a letter to his bishop complaining that our college had expelled him because he “was too conservative and too orthodox” to fit into our ethos. He copied the dean with the letter. The dean wrote his own letter to the young man’s bishop, telling the bishop that the college had asked him to leave, not because he was too conservative and orthodox, but because he lacked basic courtesy and respect for others.

The example here is one of a conservative pathology, but liberals do this just as well. Neither side should delude itself. Whenever we lack basic respect and basic manners the real issue is bad health.

We live in bitter, highly polarized times both inside of society and inside of our churches. The causes are real and what’s at stake is critical: war, injustice, abortion, poverty, the ecology, racism, immigration, democratic principles, law and order, freedom of speech, proper dogma, proper ecumenism, legitimacy within ministry, relating to other religions and the proper freedoms and limitations within secularity itself. All of these are, in the end, life-and-death issues which, because of their importance, are emotionally inflamed. Anyone who has any real concern for the world, the Church and their future will sometimes find himself or herself at odds with others, sometimes bitterly so, over some of these issues.

And the perennial temptation, especially when the issue at stake is a critical one, is to bracket the essentials (respect, graciousness, love and forgiveness) on the basis of cause and, in essence, fall into a way of thinking that says: This issue is so important that I need not be respectful, gracious and loving. I may demonize my opponent, assassinate his character, name call and use everything in my power, perhaps even violence, to have my truth win out. Because I am right and this is so important, I can bracket basic respect!

What’s wrong with that? Beyond deluding ourselves that lack of charity and respect may be justified in the name of the Gospel, all that’s best within our humanity and all that’s best within Christian principle call for the exact opposite: The urgency of a situation and the bitterness already inherent within it call for more, not less, care in our rhetoric and in the actions we undertake. The more we encounter anger, hatred, disrespect, demonizing, name calling, refusals for a real conversation and spoken and unspoken threats, the more we are called to bear down on the essentials of charity: respect, graciousness, forgiveness, openness and the offer of a true, mutual conversation. Why? Because in the end, we don’t win moral battles by beating someone, we win them by winning someone over.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site www.ronrolheiser.com.)