A few years ago, my wife and I were walking through Ann Arbor on a date night. As we headed toward the University of Michigan campus and one of our favorite coffee shops, we noticed a commotion coming from a street corner about a block up. As people passed, we heard them whispering. “Did you see him? Did you see the Westboro guy?”
We couldn’t see him at that moment, but we could hear him; we couldn’t make out what he was saying, but we knew he was mad. As we got closer, we saw him, standing on a wooden box as a makeshift pulpit. He was surrounded by followers carrying posters that preached damnation and called out a laundry list of sins. I don’t think they were from Westboro — their signs lacked their juvenile attempts at humor — but they were definitely Westboro-ish. He didn’t need a microphone — he stood on his pulpit, shouting to the campus, barely pausing for breath in his self-righteous fervor. People shook their heads and laughed when they walked past, and I seethed as I heard him pervert the gospel into a message of hate. I considered engaging him but walked on, his voice fading as we neared our destination.
We had coffee for an hour or so and then started walking back to our car. As we made our way back across campus, I heard his voice begin rising through the crowds again. And as we neared his street corner, I noticed something that made my heart sink. Children, no older than kindergarten, were part of his protest group now, holding posters and twirling around, dancing. He was indoctrinating kids with hate, demonstrating that this was how “good Christians” act.
That’s when the rage boiled over.
I tried to be civil at first, but every attempt to engage him politely, one Christian to another, was shouted down by accusations about my own beliefs and questions about whether I had accepted Christ as my savior. When I told him I had, he didn’t stop. He kept ranting. I kept pushing. I shouted louder to be heard and he shouted louder to drown me out.
I’m a naturally quiet person. I don’t like confrontation, and I suffer from social anxiety. When I want to make a point, I write it. But on that street corner, as the two of us shouted at each other and a crowd gathered, I came as close as I ever have to punching another human being. He shouted out hate; I responded by hurling out what I considered truth. Love got lost in translation. At one point, when I told him this wasn’t what Christianity looked like, he retorted that even Christ made a whip and cleansed the temple. I wanted to respond that he didn’t understand the context, and that Jesus’ harshest rebukes were for the religious people of the time.
But what I actually said was “Dude, that whip would have been meant for your back.”
Thankfully, it was about that moment when my wife grabbed my arm and pulled me away. His shouting continued as we crossed the street. To complete my attempt at gracious Christian dialogue, I may have let loose a hand gesture that could be read as either pointing Heavenward or as offensive — he took it as the latter, shouting “Oh, wonderful Christian man! Let that bird fly!”
It was not my finest hour.
But that’s what happens when you try to answer noise with noise. The screeching only cancels everyone else out and reason’s lost in the process.
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as Donald Trump continues his surprising, disheartening and horrifying presidential candidacy. I don’t think anyone’s surprised that Trump — known as an arrogant, bullying millionaire even before “The Apprentice” or his feud with Rosie O’ Donnell — is courting voters by making shocking, outrageous and offensive statements. That’s what Trump’s done throughout his entire career; he’s a professional blowhard. What’s shocking — and possibly even more dismaying — is how many people are eating it up. His popularity continues to grow.
I’ve attempted to engage in conversation with some of these friends. Every time, I get a lot of noise, very little reason. Empty responses like “he’s not another politician,” “well, he’s better than Hilary” or my favorite “‘he’s just saying what we’re thinking” (I don’t want to be friends with a person who’s thinking what he’s saying). I’ve heard nonsensical babbling about the Illuminati, the New World Order and the End Times — all of which make me dismiss the person speaking as paranoid, fear-filled and angry. And the longer I press on Facebook or Twitter, the louder their responses get. The more people show up to protest Trump, the more violent it turns. Trump says there could be riots if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination; I don’t doubt it. I’m also afraid of riots if he wins the presidency. The presidential campaign has always been ugly; this is the first time I feel like our nation has abandoned any ideals and turned democracy into an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show.”
But why should we be surprised? Trump is the logical result of a culture that has long abandoned facts and reason in favor of noise. We form our views from pop culture and we let bloggers stoke our fear. Facebook and Twitter let us express our outrage and incredulity instantly, without having to stop to filter or discuss. This is a culture where critics get death threats if they don’t like a Batman movie; what do you think is going to happen when issues of actual importance are on the table? And while Glenn Beck, Bill O’ Reilly and Matt Walsh might voice their opposition, make no mistake: their anger and fear-mongering formed the toxic cultural ooze from which Trump emerged. They might not have made him, but they created his followers. And they also helped stoke the ire of comedians, pundits and politicans on the Left, who respond with snark and equal rage, the equivalent to tossing gasoline on this fire.
Christians should be on the front lines of pushing back against cultural shouting, especially when it’s fueled by anger and fear. The most repeated command in Scripture is do not be afraid, and the book of James warns us repeatedly about the dangers of letting us speak from our rage. We are told to love our enemies, make our gentleness evident to all and be reasonable. Contrary to what many in our culture believes, Christianity is not a religion where people are commanded to close their minds or abandon reason. We’re told to test all things. Proverbs talks several times about the foolishness of a quick answer. Jesus didn’t lash out with a quick retort or angry screed when confronted; rather, his responses came in the form of questions, with the calm of a rabbi inviting his listeners to reason with him. The gospels are full of dialogues, not hot takes.
I don’t want to urge people to hold back from their opposition of Trump; I think now, more than ever, it’s essential. I don’t feel this is a political issue — it’s a moral and human one. But we must do it wisely, lovingly and with reason, not unfiltered emotion. Responding to their rage with our own only drowns out sensible conversation. Facebook retorts and subtweets might be temporarily gratifying, but they stifle real dialogue. And sometimes the wisest thing we can do is calmly, rationally explain the facts and excuse ourselves when the conversation gets too loud.
I learned firsthand how noise can cancel out reason between two people on one street corner. Let’s not amplify that to affect an entire nation.