Those Other People

It is easy for people, whether they be liberal, conservative, or something else, to think they have come to hold the positions they hold because they are smart and good. It may be the case that some of these folks ARE smart and good, but as long as we see this as why our own beliefs came to be (and remain) ours, we are setting ourselves up to believe that any who differ from us must not have our qualities, i.e., they must be stupid and evil.

As at least some kind of conservative, I recognize that the substantive positions I hold are quite frequently directly or indirectly attributable to the traditions I inhabit. I did not create them from scratch, or arrive at them by some purely neutral, disinterested, objective reasoning. Recognizing also that there are a multiplicity of traditions out there, I can attribute the positions of others to their place in other – and rival – traditions, whether they consider their positions tradition dependent or not. When I take them as participants in a rival tradition, holding positions contrary to my own on that basis, I need not take them as holding the positions they do because they are stupid or evil (though they might well be stupid and evil, since some humans are). Since I do not need to impute stupidity and an evil character to them in order to defend my own position (or argue with theirs), I can offer even my greatest opponents respect even as I strongly disagree and contend with them.

As a follower of Jesus, I am commanded to love not only my friends, not only those who are kind to me and seek my good, but also my enemies, those who seek to harm me. Supposing that there are some stupid and evil people out there, and that I will encounter some in the course of my life (I haven’t noticed anything in the Bible or Christian tradition to lead me to believe otherwise), I will have to love even those kinds of people. While in some situations it might be accurate for me to call these people stupid or evil, whether in public or in the privacy of my mind, I can’t help but think that thinking of these in these terms would make me more inclined to hold them in contempt than to love them.

Of course there is another way around this problem, a way that might help us be more truthful – since some will always insist that we be as publicly truthful as possible. This alternative way centers not on how I categorize other people, but how I categorize myself. I like to think of myself as good, moral, intelligent, perceptive, righteous – you  get the idea. Perhaps you like to think of yourself in these terms as well. It’s possible that you and I possess at least one or two of these attributes from time to time. But I don’t even have to consult the bible to know that these attributes do not always fit me. I’m a sinner. I do the wrong thing sometimes. Sometimes my wrongs might be classified as intellectual (putting me in the same ball park as the “stupid”), sometimes as moral (putting me in the same ball park as the “evil”). By taking a humble stance toward my own character qualities, I find another way to avoid contempt for others, even if I find it necessary to categorize them or their actions as stupid or evil. As stupid or evil they are not totally other; I must admit to being in their number sometimes. Though painful, I find this a helpful step toward civility.

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