We — nearly all of us — have a belief that we’re on the side of the good guys. People who think differently? Bad guys. We’re good at recognizing the side’s motivated thinking. Less great at evaluating our own.
I don’t think we’re in such desperate times that we have to discount everything those who disagree with us politically have to say. In fact, we can’t. Some of our problems–climate change, for one–are too big for us to solve without everyone’s involvement.
And our family is trying to practice avoiding the fundamental attribution error: thinking that another person’s actions are due to an inherent personality problem rather than some external force. Life is much more pleasant when we don’t assign others the worst intentions. If we are wrong–if they really do have the worst intentions–we’ll find out soon enough. Why borrow unhappiness by treating everyone suspiciously?
But I think we have to be really careful in when we fall silent. When we speak about contentious topics, we have three people to consider: ourselves (Am I speaking and behaving in ways that align with my values? Am I acting with integrity?), our opponents (those we disagree with), and those eavesdropping (those who hear what we say, even though they aren’t the primary targets of our speech). I owe it to myself and to my audience to speak with integrity; otherwise, how would they know if they can trust me? I think, also, that I have to speak in such a way that shows care for those eavesdroppers. The last priority in my speech is caring for those who disagree with me. Sometimes, caring for my eavesdroppers–the kids who are listening to me speak up for justice or not, my friends of color who are watching me challenge racism or not, the closeted queer teenager who sees me sit on my hands when I see homophobia–means speaking more harshly than I would if my only listener was the person I disagree with. Sometimes, though, I am called to speak more kindly than they might deserve. I think there are times and places where we use different methods of persuasion.
Above, Jesus enters Jerusalem in this painting by Zambian muralist Emmanuel Nsama’s. The image reminds me that God loved the world, but Jesus brought salvation explicitly for the downtrodden because they were the ones who needed it most urgently.
When I look at the gospels, I see Jesus’ consistent orientation toward the powerful is challenging them–which he does even in his silences. He sides with the vulnerable, not the strong. In those days, it was unlikely that a powerful person would become a follower of Jesus–and if he had money, he would have to give it up. Today, you might argue, times are different: Christians occupy positions of power. Back then, Jesus could safely say that we should side with the widow and the orphan because the tax collector and the landowner were not his followers. Today, they are, and so our the automatic preference for the poor that Jesus modeled is not longer relevant.
I disagree; if anyone, the wealth and power of some many Christians should make us braver in challenging the wealthy and powerful, because we have a special duty to them. That makes me cautious about making questions about power more complicated than Jesus said they were. It might be the one area where I’m a bit of a Biblical literalist: the way of Jesus is mercy and justice, so it’s often easy to see when we are on that path and when we are not. Many times, tolerance is appropriate; for others, encouragement toward a better way is most effective; for some, though, stronger words are necessary. If Jesus is our model, our care will always be for the vulnerable. That’s never been wrong yet.