What is it about we human animals and our tendency to climb the ladder of inference and leap blindly into a steaming pile of assumptions? Each and every day we create chaos, confusion and pain for ourselves by ascribing intention, assuming motives, projecting values and jumping to conclusions. Compounding this behavior is a fundamental double standard — we believe the best of ourselves while believing the worst of those with whom we engage and disagree. The “other” is never viewed with the same grace and munificence. The unfairness and fallacy of this view leads to an unintentional malice. Marc Gafni, in his book, Your Unique Self, offers an excellent definition of malice that underscores the miasma in which we often find ourselves — “Malice operates through a simple four-stage process: Malice (1) perceives genuine flaws, (2) exaggerates or distorts them, (3) minimizes the good in the attacked person’s character, and (4) absurdly and insidiously identifies the person with their distorted caricatures, painted by the purveyors of malice themselves.” (p. 339) Any time a label is used to describe “them”, it is evidence of malicious engagement. And all sides do it. Liberals/conservatives, Republicans/Democrats/Tea Party, Scientists/Theologians — any polarity of disagreement risks the slippery slope that descends into malice. And the more we engage in distortion and caricature, the less fair and the more confused we become.
We are living in the “information age,” but lacking accountability, it is also the “misinformation age.” The deluge of data and immersion in information actually results in less clarity and understanding. TMI = TLW (too much information = too little wisdom). This reminds me of an old poem I learned in grade school called “Why Study?” If memory serves, it went something like this: ‘the more you study, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can forget; the more you can forget, the more you do forget; the more you do forget, the less you know — so, why study?” It is difficult enough to figure out what to believe with good information, but we are awash in bad information. Mass media seems to play loose and fast with the rules, and the Internet is a mess. Much that passes for research today is skewed and biased — market research mistaken for solid qualitative research. Our own denomination is confused about what constitutes worthwhile information and reliable data. As long as we can count (the sophistication level of most preschoolers) then we don’t have to measure (a skill learned as children) or evaluate (a proficiency developed in adolescence as we move from concrete to abstract levels of thought).
Whenever we can create false polarities and claim irreconcilable differences, we abdicate all responsibility to work toward mutually beneficial solutions. Win-lose thinking is the lowest form of engagement. (Note, I did not say “competition.” There are some very healthy, exciting, and generative forms of competition.) Where there is a lack of imagination and an absence of creativity, people choose to focus on differences and strive for superiority. What we hold in common is displaced by what we choose to debate. Common good loses to personal entitlement every time.
Look at the current conversation about “global community.” The vision of one world, one people, one future is discussed endlessly. But the day-to-day reality is “their issue is not our issue.” The plight of immigrant refugees is a problem to solve, not an opportunity to embrace. U.S. issues are not Africa issues. Brutal violations of human rights in other parts of the world are not our concern. We will toss some mission dollars at poverty in other parts of the world, but tackling root causes and truly sharing the unjust abundance of the northern hemisphere is out of the question. When we get serious about economic inequalities, human rights, and restorative justice we make them political “issues” to divide us and mire us in senseless debate. Doing good, doing what is right, doing what is “Christian,” doing what Jesus asks in the gospels is politicized — our excuse to do nothing but argue. All we have to do is label compassion for the poor “liberal” or acts of social justice “communist” and we don’t have to continue the conversation or create a plan of action. We obfuscate and confuse. We twist and fabricate. And we defend what we are doing as logical, reasonable, spiritual, and good. It’s the other side — “those” people — who are goofy, incompetent, evil and defective.
Wesley’s General Rules come to mind (the originals, not the “simple” ones) — do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend to the ordinances of God. These rules are both individual and corporate — what each of us should do, but most importantly what we do together in community. Regardless of “those” people, it is our responsibility and privilege to commit to the highest possible standards for doing good and avoiding evil. And we engage individually and corporately in activities that bind and unite us to God, to one another, and to those we seek to love and serve. We do everything possible (and even things impossible) to unite, to merge, to harmonize, to understand, to accept, to affirm, to support, to respect, to bridge, and to heal. We don’t have the time or luxury to waste life hating, hurting, insulting, judging, mocking, or condemning. Malice or grace? It’s up to us to cut through that which confuses and divides.
As we approach another “Ash Wednesday” we enter another reminder-time that “personal entitlement” (creating “false polarities” and claiming “irreconcilable differences”) wounds one-or-another “common good”. One sermon series would be on the 7 traditional sins/malices and their connection to our sense of entitlement. We might come to a crucifixion-remembered differently if it were experienced as a direct outcome of our priorities and claims.
I can’t help but wonder—will the Lenten season find congregations cutting through that which “confuses and divides” its members from one another and other believers or keep a flame of “right” fanned? To counter malice and multiply mercy needs continual attendance for temptations to entitlement take place in edenic gardens and in barren places.