Those People

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Yesterday, my cousin posted a news article about a woman who had repeatedly punched a 12 year old who was carrying a Trump sign while riding his bike. Thankfully, he reported what happened and it is currently being investigated. I wish I could say something like this crime surprised me, but it doesn’t, at least not anymore. Sadly, I also was not surprised at the comments. People were quick to write that this sort of behavior is “typical” of democrats and we “only hear of democrats doing crap like this.” I don’t know about you, but this sort of animosity fills my Facebook feed every day. I routinely have to resist rushing in to defend “my side” and I am not always successful.

Here’s the thing: The problem isn’t those people. It’s you. It’s me. When we physically attack people for carrying Trump (or Biden) signs, we reveal the evil within our own hearts, not theirs. When we say this sort of behavior is “typical of democrats” (or republicans), we convict ourselves, not them.

Friends, our self-righteousness and divisive attitudes are literally killing us. We make sweeping assumptions about the hearts and motives of people who think differently than we do. We presume that those people are evil, so by extension, we must be good. The consequence of this way of thinking is division, not love, and every single one of us is guilty.

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  • When you feel compelled to share an article critical of those people, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, “Am I honoring their humanity?”
  • When you feel angry about what those people have said or done, ask yourself, “In what ways do I do similar things?” Consider not only your actions, but your words and thoughts, which have a greater effect than you might imagine.
  • When you want to respond to someone who thinks differently than you do, whether online or in person, practice the pause. Ask yourself, “Have I stopped to listen to what they are trying to say?” When we don’t try to listen and understand, we contribute to the hatred.
  • Resist the urge to call those people names.
  • Pray for peace, within the world and within yourself. If you have a hard time praying, consider reading the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi every day.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Above all, do no harm…

I have been thinking about ethical principles for the past few days. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics that their members are expected to observe. Although the specifics may vary from organization to organization, there are often overarching principles that apply more universally. For example, ideas like beneficence (seek to do good to others), non-malfeasance (do not harm others), autonomy (do not infringe upon the freedom of others), and integrity (promoting honesty and truthfulness) are common. These principles work well on paper, but in real life, ethical decisions are sometimes less obvious.

The typical American citizen is not beholden to these same ethical standards; however, I suspect a large majority of us would agree that these are useful ideas to uphold. Doing good to others while avoiding harm to them, respecting their freedom, promoting justice, and living with integrity are all good things. But how do we make decisions when these principles appear to conflict, especially when our decisions feel infinitely complex? We are faced with questions such as: who defines what is good? How do I decide when insisting upon my freedom may bring harm to other people? How do we resolve the dilemma when something that is beneficial to one group of people may be harmful to another group of people? Most of us would also agree that these choices are not easy.

Thus enters primum non nocere, rendered, “first, do no harm.” This phrase is often attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, though it is not actually found in the physician oath bearing his name. Regardless, non-malfeasance is a good place to begin. If I am able to reasonably determine that my action or inaction may harm others, it then behooves me to choose an alternative if it is possible. Assuredly, beneficence is closely related to non-malfeasance. Seeking the good of others is virtuous. I would further suggest that for Christians, beneficence is central to our understanding of Christian love.

What has concerned me for some time is what appears to be a tendency to elevate autonomy above both beneficence and non-malfeasance. In other words, we often seem to be more committed to our personal freedom than we are to the well-being of others. We will loudly proclaim “What about my rights?” while seemingly overlooking or discounting the potential harm to others that might come from insisting upon our own way. Too often it seems, at least in 21st century America, our motto has become primum sui iuris (first, autonomy) rather than primum non nocere. I am doubtful that America’s founders saw autonomy as the highest good, although they clearly valued freedom. I am certain that Jesus did not value autonomy as the highest good.

How have we as Christians come to this place where our principal value, stated or unstated is not, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but rather “Don’t tread on me”?

I suspect some people will read my words as rejecting autonomy. I’m not. What I am suggesting is that it appears, to me at least, that our values have gotten turned upside down. Jesus came and showed us how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this world, intentionally seeking the good of others and the glory of God. In fact, he went so far as to tell us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NLT). This does not mean accepting the possibility of dying for your faith at some later date, but rather seeking the good of others even when it may cost you something. It means that when we are asked to do something that could benefit others, even though it means setting aside our rights, we will do so if it is reasonable.

If our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of the world, we will doubtless prioritize autonomy; however, if our first commitment is to the kingdom of God, we will seek to do good to others even when it means setting aside our own preferences or comfort.

Toxic Versus Healthy Skepticism

Earlier today, I shared an article written by David French on my Facebook page titled Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment. He offered us a lot of food for thought regarding political theology, conspiratorial thinking, and the connection with the ninth commandment, which tells us not to spread falsehood about others. The article stirred some great conversation and questions amidst my friends. My friend Tim offered some great push back and I suggested that it is good for us as believers to differentiate between healthy and toxic skepticism. He wrote, “I ask for you to help me differentiate healthy skepticism and toxic skepticism within myself.” I thought, “yeah…how do we differentiate?” So let me offer a few incomplete thoughts about how to recognize toxic skepticism within ourselves.

First, I think it is always good to start with ourselves, though so much of our culture invites us to look externally when things go wrong. I frequently encourage people to ask the question “Is it possible I am wrong?“, though I suspect that for many of us, our initial motivation is to question the truthfulness of others when there is disagreement. It is easy to assume that our assumptions and influences come from a pure heart while consciously or subconsciously assuming that others are motivated by evil, emotion, or ignorance.

The second suggestion relates to the first. We need to get in the habit of asking “What are the costs and benefits of accepting a viewpoint?” For example, 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There have been substantial costs to those of us in the 19%, especially when we have continued to express our dissent. For me, the most notable cost has been relational. Yet, there has also been benefit including finding a community of like-minded people who have a vision for what can be.

Third, I think it is good to ask how outlandish a perspective is? For example, known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones once said that the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 26 people dead was completely fake and was staged to promote stricter gun control policies. Jones was not merely offering an alternative viewpoint, he was spouting evil falsehood yet some people believed him. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible?”, “Is it plausible?”, and, based on the preponderance of the evidence, “Is it likely?”

Fourth, if we are considering rejecting the majority, or consensus, opinion, it is good to ask ourselves why we would do so. If the majority of epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and medical organizations suggest that wearing a mask represents current best practice in regard to COVID-19, it is good to ask ourselves, “Why am I willing to reject the majority in favor of minority opinion?” Some people are skeptical of scientists because they seem to change their recommendations, which fails to acknowledge that best practice in science allows for adaptation as new information comes to light. They were not lying to us; they were offering the best evidence at the time. Scientists are not only willing to ask, “Is it possible I am wrong,” it is crucial to the scientific method. I agree that it is frustrating when recommendations change, but it should not lead to the logical conclusion that we should then ignore them altogether.

Fifth, I think we need to be careful about confusing anecdotes with evidence. All of us hear counter-examples that stir skepticism. In my mind, that can be a healthy skepticism, but if we ignore mountains of data because someone we know said something different, it can be toxic. For example, if I know someone who developed COVID-19, had mild flu like symptoms, and recovered, it does not follow that I should then assume that that this coronavirus is not a big deal and ignore the recommendations from the scientific community. I must also consider the world-wide reporting about its seriousness.

Sixth, for those of us who are Christians, there are a whole host of questions that humility and prudence demand we ask of ourselves.

  • How do my theological presuppositions affect my understanding of the issue at hand?
  • Is it possible my theological presuppositions are wrong? How did I come to believe the things that I accept as true? Does my viewpoint line up with the Jesus’ moral teachings, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7)? Is my understanding of politics (or whatever issue is currently at hand) informed by the Bible, or is my understanding of the Bible informed by my politics?
  • Does the way I communicate my skepticism reflect the manner of Jesus? Let me suggest that smugness, pride, vitriol, and name calling do not reflect the manner of Jesus. I anticipate that some of you will bring up Jesus turning over the tables in the temple or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but remember that in those cases it was religious people he was confronting. As believers, we are called to gentleness, patience, respect, love, and truth.
  • Am I more likely to believe religious leaders or news personalities than experts? If so, how did I come to those conclusions? Is it possible that I am susceptible to propaganda? Too often, I am afraid, well meaning Christians accept as true information they hear from people who claim to be Christian. It seems to me that the apostle Paul’s greatest concern regarding falsehood and deception was inside the church.

Seventh, it is good to ask whether we are adopting an adversarial mindset versus a cooperative mindset. I have elsewhere written about the difference between an “against mindset” and a “with mindset.” When we approach others from an “against mindset,” we view them as our enemy, which shapes our presuppositions about their motives. When we approach them from a “with mindset,” we recognize that we are interconnected and we become less likely to assume that they are out to deceive, manipulate, or control us.

Skepticism in and of itself is not evil; indeed, I think a measure of skepticism is good and healthy for believers who are encouraged to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:6). However, let’s not reserve our skepticism only for those outside of our camp. Instead, let’s be willing to ask:

  • Am I presenting this story or idea as incontrovertible fact and, if so, is there sufficient support for doing so?
  • Is my skepticism grounded in an honest wrestling with all of the facts or because “my people” told me what is true?
  • Have I done due diligence in confirming whether something is true?
  • Am I honoring others as people of value even if I disagree with them?

This world is not as it should be. Let us live as Christ’s ambassadors, committed to the truth and love he revealed to us.

Is it a difference of opinion?

Recently, I have been thinking about the phrase “difference of opinion.” In disagreements when we are seemingly at an impasse, we might say to another person, “Well, I guess we have a difference of opinion.” But here’s the thing: differences in opinion apply to subjective choices. If I like tulips, but you prefer lilies, we have a difference of opinion. Because each of our opinions are based upon our individual preference as “subjects,” neither of us is wrong.

On the other hand, there are objective truths. The earth is objectively round. It does not matter if it is your opinion that the earth is flat. It doesn’t even matter if you believe it with all of your heart. The earth is still round because the truth is based upon the object (earth), rather than the subject (you or me).

This implies that if you and I are in a discussion about the shape of the earth and I insist that it is round, but you insist that it is disc shaped, only one of us is actually right. We can actually verify it. If you say to me, “well, I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to a difference of opinion,” that phrase carries no meaning because we are discussing something that is either true or not true independent of our preference, opinion, or whim.

Obviously, some things are more clear cut. If you say that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United states and I say he wasn’t, we do not need to do much digging because I am clearly wrong. But every day, we face issues that seem less clear cut, for example around issues like global warming or the benefit of social distancing and wearing masks for COVID-19. When it comes to these issues, we may have “differences of opinion,” but our opinions do not determine what is actually true. We may not completely understand what is true, but it does not then follow that truth is relative.

It becomes even more murky when we get into interpersonal issues. Consider abuse. People may have radically different interpretations about what transpired in a relationship or an organization, but it still does not come down to difference of opinion because there are again objective facts to account for, even if those facts seem murky.

For my part, I think it is important to determine whether each “truth” being discussed is subjective or objective. If subjective, let’s celebrate one another’s preferences. If objective, let us treat one another with kindness and respect, but not write our disagreement off to a difference of opinion. We should also be willing to consider perspectives that are different than our own, while remaining committed to seeking after objective truth. Sadly a lot of the information we encounter on social media is neither science nor opinion, but propaganda posing as truth. Unfortunately, too many of us lack sufficient understanding of science, logic, and rhetoric to adequately determine whether or not information is trustworthy so we double down on our opinions, even if the results may be harmful to us or others.

I’m not a racist!

“I’m not a racist.”

I’ve heard or read multiple variations of this phrase recently. One meme stood out to me; it read, “We have some racists, but 99% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Even in that one sentence, there is a lot to unpack, though that is not my purpose today. What has been stirring for me has been pondering the impact of saying, “I’m not racist.”

Before I get to my thoughts, I want to say I understand. None of us wants to admit that we have biases and presuppositions, some of which are based upon race and some of which are negative. Racism is an ugly word because racism is ugly. If you are like me, hearing the word racist conjures up grainy images from generations past and we think to ourselves, I am nothing like those people. I was raised to treat everyone the same. A person’s color does not affect how I see them or treat them. I believe all lives matter. Therefore, I am not a racist.

But here’s the thing: Insisting that you are not a racist communicates several things. First, it communicates an unwillingness to listen to others and hear their stories. In every generation, people of color have been trying to reveal their pain and tell us their stories. They are saying to us, “Please listen! Even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the civil rights movement reached its peak in the 1960s, racism still exists. Let us tell you our stories.” Friends, when we say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” what we are communicating is that we don’t need to listen. “I’m just fine and I love everybody, thankyouverymuch.” Let me suggest that is much more loving to say, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your pain” than it is to retreat to clichéd phrases that shut down conversations leaving people unheard.

Second, it shuts down dialog. I believe one of the greatest tragedies during my lifetime has been the increased polarization between groups of people. Perhaps we have always been this polarized and it only seems to me that it has been worse. Civility has been replaced with name calling, listening with assuming, and unity with division. We talk about those who think differently than we do rather than talking with them. We start with the assumption that the problem is other people, which short circuits respectful, fruitful conversation from the start.

Third, it communicates an unwillingness to examine our own hearts. We Americans, and perhaps especially those of us who are Christians, are great pretenders. We assume that because we believe in God, no darkness remains within us. I have been in the church long enough to know that our public image rarely matches the state of our hearts. It is not just our nation that is divided, our hearts are divided as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the Pharisees telling them that they were experts in washing the outside of the cup, but that their insides were full of death. In other words, their external appearance did not match their inner life. One day, the divisions both within and between us will be reconciled (Rev. 5:9), but we aren’t there yet. We still have a lot of heart work to do.

Jesus’s brother James encouraged us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Friends, can we seek to listen? Are we willing to face the shadow that lurks within each of us? It is only in facing our shadow selves that we can begin to heal our divided hearts and the divisions between us.

Rehumanizing

I have a hard time seeing anything good in some people. If you were granted a window into my private thoughts and even some of my private conversations, you would learn how judgmental I can be. In my desire to be an advocate for goodness, truth, and beauty, I sometimes fail to distinguish between a person and their behavior, and that gets to be a slippery slope. I’m fairly certain I am not the only one.

Every day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with anger, name calling, and general dehumanization. It seems there are no segments of society that are excepted from dehumanizing others–politics, media, religion. We too easily choose sides and go to war. Our chosen weapons disintegrate and dehumanize others.

When we read about the kingdom of God that Jesus told us about, it is a rehumanizing kingdom. When Jesus healed, he not only healed physical maladies, he rehumanized people, reminding them who they were. How can you and I carry that same message into the world?

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  1. Start with prayer. When you find yourself stirred and upset, pray for the one who upset you, asking God to bless them. Confess your self-righteousness, asking God to forgive as you also forgive (Matthew 6:12).
  2. If you choose to engage, take a page from Francis Schaeffer’s book and seek to deal with ideas rather than people, or even groups of people. For example, it can be good to discuss ideas such as injustice, deception, or media bias, but seek to do so without allowing yourself to devolve into name calling. Every person you meet is loved by God. Every politician, every media personality, every celebrity, every person on Twitter and Facebook bears the image of God. Start there.
  3. Develop sacred curiosity. Be willing to inquire where people have come up with their ideas. Ask them what stirs in their souls. What are their hopes or fears. Recognize that every one of us longs for truth, goodness, and beauty even if we get lost along the way. Seek truth not as enemies but as companions on the journey.
  4. Actively look for the humanity in others. Keep looking until you find it, praying that God would open your eyes to see others as he sees them.

I believe that God is in the process of reintegrating all that has been broken and damaged by evil. He invites us to join him as advocates of a better way, the way of agape love. Each day, we will have hundreds of opportunities to choose the way of reconciliation or disintegration, dehumanizing or rehumanizing.

Which will be choose?

Our Soul Pandemic

Our country is in the midst of a pandemic, a plague that is crippling both citizens and society. I am not talking about COVID-19. The virus that I am thinking of has a much wider reach, but it is not our bodies that are getting sick, but our souls.

In light of COVID-19, our world has drastically changed. Nearly everything that we do has been touched by the virus–our economy, our social lives, our religious observances, our mental health. As the weeks pass, our fragmentation becomes more obvious. As stresses build, those dark parts of us rise to the surface and they play out not only in our homes, but across social media which, it seems, is now our principle form of connection.

This pandemic of divisiveness and hatred dwarfs COVID-19 in both its effects and its reach. Although many of us may not get COVID-19, if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, many of us have been showing symptoms of hatred and division, more and more each day. Unfortunately, we are a whole lot better at seeing these things in others than in ourselves. We are much more capable of justifying our anger and name calling in the name of justice. When we have no doubt that we are correct, everything is permitted.

Just in the last few days, I’ve seen people I love calling Governor Evers an idiot or, alternatively, President Trump. I wish I were immune. I’ve seen boatloads of misinformation disseminated, but we believe these “facts” because they come from “our side’s” media outlets and experts. We use this misinformation to justify our righteous indignation. Suddenly, it seems that all of us are experts in virology, epidemiology, economics, and constitutional law.

Friends, this hatred, animosity, and division is killing us. Anger can make us feel alive, but too often it is stoked by toxicity. Many of us are thoughtful about the food we consume, trying to keep our bodies healthy, but we allow these viral thoughts to take hold and our souls get sicker and sicker. I pray we begin to wake up to the effects this soul pandemic is having.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Galatians 5 recently, which is one place where Saint Paul contrasts flesh and spirit. In each of us, there is this battle between flesh and spirit and they do not lead us to the same outcome. Starting in verse 19, Paul identified a number of “works of the flesh,” which are opposed to a Spirit-filled life. I won’t mention all of them, but I was struck by “enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.” Sadly, this list seems to characterize so much of what I read every single day. Paul is clear that these things do not represent the Kingdom of God. But he also said that when we are walking by the Spirit, there are different evidences in our lives. A Spirit-led person shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, not perfectly, but I believe in increasing measure.

I invite each of us, myself chiefly, to regularly ask ourselves, “Who am I? Are my thoughts and actions characterized by fits of anger and division, or am I increasingly gentle and peaceful?” This soul pandemic has a cure, love.

God,
The evidences of fragmentation and division are growing day by day,
both without and within.
You call us to peace, but we are in turmoil;
you call us to grace, but we are full of judgment;
you call us to love, but hatred consumes us.

We are a double-minded people.
How can we be for peace when this war rages within?
We do spiritual violence to others and ourselves
when this plague of strife takes hold.

We are afraid.
We are angry.
We are confused.
Too often, we let our flesh lead,
forgetting both who you are
and who we are.

Forgive us.
Heal our hearts.
Make us whole.

Are you self-controlled?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–Galatians 5:22-23

Lately, I have been thinking about Paul’s last descriptor of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, self-control. I don’t really like that one. Maybe it is because it sometimes seems out of place with regard to the rest of the descriptors. More than likely, however, it is the character trait that seems most underdeveloped in my life. Perhaps those who know me well would suggest that all of them are equally underdeveloped. Part of the reason I don’t like the notion of self-control, at least as I have historically understood it is that, more than the other descriptors, I have come to believe that self-control is entirely dependent upon me. The way I have interpreted Paul’s words is that self-control is developed through sheer force of will. At face value, “self” means me and “control” means the ability to follow through on my intention. More crudely, I have interpreted this as “Jason, get your @#@!! together!” Maybe you have had the same struggle.

But I have found myself asking, what if I am starting from the wrong premise? What if self-control is not about trying to force my will into compliance? What if God is not waiting for me to stop sinning? What if instead, Paul was saying that my true identity in the Spirit already encompasses all of these things? In fact, in the context of the whole letter, I believe that is exactly what Paul was saying. Paul reminds us that we were already set free and we were called to lives of freedom. When you are gritting your teeth and trying to will yourself to behave, do you feel free? I know that I don’t.

What would change if instead of looking at Paul’s descriptors of a fruitful life as a list of dos and don’ts, we began to understand that those traits are already present and growing in us? How would we live differently if we began to think about being self-controlled as living from our true selves, from our core identity as God’s beloved children? I know that for me, when the message that I am already fully loved by God penetrates my heart, I am more able to relax into my true self. And from that place, those things like patience, love, and gentleness begin to emerge, not only toward others, but toward myself as well.

Developing a “with” mindset

In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Remarkably, he said this before the onset of social media. His quote is perhaps truer today than ever. Every day, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are seemingly overrun with examples of misinformation and rampant, ungrounded opinions. If one has a feeling about the way something is, they are free to express their opinion freely and loudly. Indeed, with billions of interconnected voices on the planet, we can even provide support for our opinions by citing experts whose viewpoints reflect our own, even when the overwhelming majority of experts disagree.

Assuredly, the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, which coincidentally began in 1980 with CNN, has also fostered a culture wherein opinions are widespread and facts often get lost in the chaos. In a similar way to the availability of supposed expert opinions, we now have numerous options for getting our “news,” which has sadly become less about the reporting of facts than about propaganda.

In addition to the nearly complete penetrance of social media and the unrelenting cacophony of propaganda presented as news, some of the shifts in education have not served us well. The self-esteem movement, for all of the good it has done, has also gone wrong in many ways. It has moved beyond helping people to understand their unique value to overvaluing of one’s own opinions. I recall reading in D.A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance that this elevation of opinion was even finding its way into math classes where students were not corrected for making mistakes even in simple calculations.

These seeds take root. We learn from an early age that every person’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, but then we confuse opinion with fact. Social media then provides a platform for every person who wishes to share whatever they want and, because of the proliferation of the 24 hour news cycle and self-professed experts who conflate opinion and fact, anyone can provide evidences for their pet positions. This ends up providing fertile ground for animosity and division.

So what then is the answer? Let me suggest a few things. First, I think we as a nation would benefit from a large infusion of humility. Unfortunately, we don’t have many visible models for humility because our society does not value it and truly humble people are often in the background. Listen, it is perfectly okay to admit that we do not possess all of the answers on everything. Not only do we not need to be “experts” on everything, in humility, we are free to acknowledge that we actually are not experts. There are experts out there, but in most cases, it isn’t you or me. I have frequently encouraged people and myself foremost, to ask “Is it possible I am wrong?” Let’s not start from a position that asks is it possible if the other person is wrong, but begin with ourselves. Another unfortunate trend in the last several decades has been a lack of training in logic and critical thinking. We are unable to look at information critically and accurately, assessing strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that are presented. Too often, we accept as true the loudest opinions, not the ones that are the most well reasoned. Routinely, we overvalue our own perceived reasoning abilities, believing we are immune from manipulation. But here’s the thing: You are not immune to propaganda. Neither am I. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry counts on it.

Second, before you click “share” on something, ask yourself “is it true?” Many of the provocative memes and “news stories” that make the rounds on Facebook have no basis in truth, but again, with flashy words and tantalizing pictures, we believe them. If you feel compelled to share something, do a little leg work first. But let’s not stop with the question “is it true?” Let us also ask is it good and beautiful. Too many of the things we are exposed to every day and too many of the things we share add to the ugliness. Each of us has the opportunity to be light bringers. Let’s not spread darkness.

Third, develop humble curiosity. Become a listener. Seek to understand the viewpoints of others. Too often our interactions, and especially those that happen online, are characterized by an against mindset. We view those who hold alternative viewpoints as our enemies though we may not use that word. As a nation, it seems we are increasingly divided. We do not seek to understand; we look for people to blame, a perspective that has increasingly characterized our major influencers–news agencies, politicians, public figures, and even pastors. Sadly, these models give us implicit permission to be divisive. When we constantly hear accusatory messages, we come to believe that a) there is definitely someone to blame and, b) it isn’t us. What would change if there was a movement to develop a with mindset instead? From a with mindset, we do not view others as our enemies, but as fellow citizens of the planet. Larry Crabb wrote, “we are people of radical worth and largely unrevealed beauty.” Every one of us. Do our interactions, even with those with whom we disagree seek to reveal beauty and worth? Let’s stop looking for people to fight and instead look for people to love. Sometimes, I think that we forget that our battle isn’t against people, but against evil and divisiveness (see Ephesians 6:12). When there is continued misunderstanding, perhaps ongoing dialog is appropriate, but I think it would be beneficial to engage in “mutual inquiry” and not “debate,” a suggestion I heard from the late Dallas Willard. The difference in language may seem subtle, but I think it does change perspective. Admittedly, social media is rarely the place for such truth seeking, but sometimes, we can dialog together respectfully, patiently, and lovingly. Otherwise, it may be best to offer our peace and disengage with grace.

Let us seek to replace pride with humility, haste with patience, certainty with curiosity, divisiveness with peace, and hatred with love.

Bumped

I got bumped yesterday. Emotionally, not physically. In general, I consider myself to operate on a relatively even keel. Steady. Unflappable. But over time, I am coming to realize that as stresses pile up, I feel shaky and uncertain.

Like many people, the uncertainties of COVID-19 has had a significant effect upon me. I have been aware of a simmering anxiety for a couple of weeks now, a whispering shadow that lurks in the cobwebbed corners of my mind. It hasn’t devolved into full blown panic, yet its murmuring is incessant.

Even after nearly 25 years as a trained counselor, I continue to learn new lessons about my emotional life. One of the things that I have more recently discovered is that anger is my prime emotion, what those who are familiar with the Enneagram might call my core passion. But my anger rarely boils over, it simmers. When we were first dating, my wife would often say “Jason got so angry about that.” Not coincidentally, I would get irritated when she said that because I truly did not believe I was an angry person. I didn’t blow up or yell. Twenty-five years together and I’m beginning to understand she was right. I am continuing to work on understanding the complex interplay of my emotions, but one thing is becoming more obvious to me: I am likely to experience a variety of emotions as variants of anger. When I get anxious, it may come out as irritation. When I feel sad, I can feel resentful. Shame leads to self-deprecation.

COVID-19 and all of the changes it has brought in its wake has made me anxious and sad, but I am also discovering that those emotions are spilling out as anger, resentment, or irritation. Two mornings ago, I felt irritated that my son was breathing too loudly and I told him to breathe more quietly. Yesterday, a friend shared a political position that was different than mine and I could feel irritation boiling up within me. It spilled over as I expressed how tired I am of all of the divisiveness. My gut reaction was to view him as guilty, but I quickly recognized those same tendencies within myself, Paul’s words in Romans 2:1 (NIV) flashed through my mind, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

I long for serenity regardless of circumstance. I want to develop an internal stillness that remains steady even when I am bumped. If my cup runs over, I want it to overflow with the love of Christ and not with anger.

I want to conclude with the text of this prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr, a prayer that was adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous as the “serenity prayer.” My friend Perry, a fellow pilgrim who has been helping me to see the impact of my anger, shared this version yesterday.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.