My husband and I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes Saturday night. The hero ape, after a lifetime of gentle living at the hands of benevolent humans, was cast into a cage of swinging, screeching, fist-banging members of his own species. As we watched his shock and dismay, I remarked to my husband, “That kind of reminds me of going to work.”
The reason my husband thought that was funny is because I had mis-matched the labels. If it has hair all over its body and walks with its knuckles dragging on the ground, it is not human. The knuckle-draggers among us are labeled “apes” and we know that no matter what the ape might be, it ain’t us.
This primal ability to distinguish “us” from “them” keeps us alive. It helps to know the difference between a rattlesnake and a cabbage, between giant spiders and your grandma. Labels not only keep us safe, they allow us to live together and cooperate with one another in how we order our society.
Unfortunately, people are smarter than they are wise. Whatever ability we have, we always seem to find a way to apply it for evil. Labels can be used to ostracize, punish, degrade and manipulate other people. Used this way, labels become shorthand slander. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the political world.
Political discourse has devolved down to scandal-mining one another’s histories, gaffe attacks and label slinging. Never mind the problems besetting our nation and the world; if you can catch someone using an off-color word when they thought the mike was off, or if you can get enough people to label them a “communist” or a “fascist” or whatever, why then you beat them at the polls. You can win the election. Take home the prize. Get your hands on the state treasury and the power of government.
The standard way for politicians to survive this is to pick a side and stick with that side. “Your” side will then stick with you. They will label, gaffe report and scandal-mine your opponents for you. They will be your tit for the other guy’s tat.
The one thing no politician in their right mind would ever do is venture out from under the cover of “their” side. With no one to protect them from the hail stones of public excoriation, they will be beaten to a pulp and carted off the field in nothing flat. The only way to survive in politics is to, as Okies say, “dance with them that brung ya.”
There comes a point in every political career where sticking with your side means doing things you know are wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal, the day will come when your “side” expects and demands that you chose them over everything else you believe.
If you are a Public Catholic, this day will come soon and be repeated often. If you think you can hold elective office and never be forced to choose between God and your party, God and your friends, God and your “side,” you need to think again. You will have to choose, and you will have to do it over and over and over again.
If you chose Jesus, if you decide that the “side” you’re on is the Jesus, Joseph and Mary side, there will be payback. Your payback is that both sides will come at you. “Your” side will do everything they can to punish and purge the “traitor” in their midst. The “other” side will join in where they can and wish them success. You will be alone.
Public Catholics have to walk between the labels. They’ll call you a “communist” one day, and a “fascist” the next. What they really mean is that you are not “one of us.” It won’t be long before everybody on both sides is slander-mining your history, gaffe-reporting your speeches and labeling you everything but a nice person.
You will be maliciously misunderstood, misinterpreted, misquoted, and just plain lied about.
The only comfort you can take is that this is exactly what Jesus said would happen. It’s how they treated Him, and if you truly try to follow Him, it’s how they’ll treat you. Their labels don’t fit you. You’re not a “conservative” or a “liberal.” You are a follower of Christ in a world that hated Him then and hates Him now.
You follow a risen savior Who was beaten, mocked, tortured, despised and murdered. You follow Jesus. And His label is the cross.