New York Times Op-Ed: America Has a Scorn Problem, by Tish Harrison Warren (Priest, Anglican Church; Author, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (2021) (Christianity Today's 2022 Book of the Year)):
In the Bible’s Book of Luke, there’s a parable about a religious person, who has all the right opinions, and a tax collector, who is culturally despised. To paraphrase the religious person, he prays, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like those others, the immoral people.” But the tax collector beats his chest in sorrow and prays for God’s mercy. The parable is about the need for humility. The “sinner,” the tax collector, not the religious person, turns out to be the righteous one. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable “to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else.” That appears to be a lot of us in 21st-century America.
A Scientific American report on political polarization noted that Americans increasingly hold “a basic abhorrence for their opponents — an ‘othering’ in which a group conceives of its rivals as wholly alien in every way.” It continues, “This toxic form of polarization has fundamentally altered political discourse, public civility and even the way politicians govern.” A 2019 study by Pew said, “55 percent of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more immoral’ when compared with other Americans; 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans.”
We find one another repugnant — not just wrong but bad. Our rhetoric casts the arguments of others as profound moral failings. ...
This hatred toward our opponents and the accompanying habit of moralism is destroying us as people. ... [W]e cannot flourish as individuals or as a society if we cast all those who differ from us as moral monsters.
[B]efore we disagree with others, we have to make a decision about who our ideological opponents are. Are they like us or wholly other? How should we think of people, especially people with whom we have deep differences?
For me, the answer to this question is rooted in two ideas.
One is that every single one of us is, as described in the book of Genesis, made in the image of God. With this core identity comes indelible dignity and worth. In practice, this means that I must assume that people I interact with, even those with whom I disagree, often have things they love that are worth defending and perspectives that I can learn from.
The other idea that informs how I see people is that they are fallen. The idea of human depravity or sinfulness means that all people — including me — are myopic and limited, their thinking faulty and subject to deception and confusion. This should humble every one of us.
One way to repair our social discourse is to begin with the assumption that we are not wildly better or worse than anyone else. Each person who disagrees with me (and each who doesn’t) is, like me, a complex blend of insight, neurosis and sin, pure and impure motives, right on some things, wrong on others. ...
The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf said, “Humility is a signature virtue of the Christian faith. Joy is its signature emotion.” Humility, he says, births joy because it rescues us from endless recriminations and allows us to see goodness — in ourselves and in the world — as a gift to be received and celebrated. I’d add that it teaches us to find common humanity with one another. It’s what makes the religious person and the tax collector able to live as neighbors.
Thinking the best of the other will inevitably mean we sometimes think more highly of others than we should. We will assume their motives are purer than they actually are. But if we must err, this is the right way to err. It’s easy to think that when we consider the strongest argument and most charitable motivations of others we are doing them a favor. But we are actually doing ourselves a favor as well. Not only does dealing with steel men, as opposed to straw men, help our own arguments grow sharper; it also helps us continue to have a posture of learning, of growth, of curiosity, of compassion and of joy.
Other New York Times op-eds by Tish Harrison Warren:
- Want To Get Into The Christmas Spirit? Face The Darkness (Dec. 22, 2019)
- Why You Should Give Your Money Away Today (Dec. 22, 2019)
- Why We Need To Start Talking About God (Aug. 29, 2021)
- What I Believe About Life After Death (Oct. 24, 2021)
- Thanksgiving, Gratitude, And The Shocking Privilege Of Life (Nov. 26, 2021)
- I’m Not Ready For Christmas (Dec. 12, 2021)
- What Mary Can Teach Us About The Joy And Pain Of Life (Dec. 19, 2021)
- 10 New Year’s Resolutions That Are Good For The Soul (Jan. 9, 2022)
- Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services (Feb. 6, 2022)
- How Faith Communities Can Respond To The Opiod Crisis (Feb. 20, 2022)
- Grief And Covid Stole My Love Of Reading. Here’s How I Got It Back. (Feb. 27, 2022)
- Ash Wednesday Forces Us To Confront Death, But It Also Offers Hope (Mar. 6, 2022)
- We’re All Sinners, And Accepting That Is Actually A Good Thing (Mar. 13, 2022)
- Three Habits To Keep After The Pandemic Ends (Apr. 3, 2022)
- Tim Keller: How A Cancer Diagnosis Makes Jesus’ Death And Resurrection Mean More (Apr. 17, 2022)
- How To Cultivate Joy Even When It Feels In Short Supply (May 8, 2022)
- We’re In A Loneliness Crisis: Another Reason To Get Off Our Phones (May 22, 2022)