SMcK: This post is by T, and we are asking this not to be a conversation about which political party is best but about the issue of anger in political and church rhetoric. Fair enough? (Thanks.)
Spiritual Formation and the Politics of Anger, by T
This is a post about the Church, specifically it’s about that branch of the Church in the US known as evangelicals, to which I still belong at least by many folks’ measure. This post will also touch on those distracting set of passions under the banner of “politics.” But don’t get distracted or riled up. This isn’t really about those things. It’s about the Church.
Let me be clear with the purpose of writing this at all: I care much more about what the Church becomes and how we represent Jesus and fulfill his mission than I care about who becomes POTUS or who controls the US Congress. Let me say that again, and I pray we can all agree here, which will be a helpful basis for guiding our actions: What the Church becomes and how we represent Jesus and fulfill his mission is much more important than who becomes POTUS or who controls the US Congress. In other words, this is a post not just about the Church, but about spiritual formation of people.
I wrote two different posts at Jesus Creed about changing my voting registration from Republican (after 20 years) to independent over the last couple of years. You can read them to see the reasons in more particularity, but this post, perhaps unlike the prior two, isn’t so much a lament and hope for the GOP, of old or new. This, as I said, is about the Church and who we are becoming and how we become whatever we become. Any of my friends at my own little church will tell you, I’m into how formation of people happens. Long time readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of Willard, of 12 step group practices, and of the Jesus Creed as a formational guidepost. My family will tell you that the Jesus Creed (love of God and others) has been the biggest single feature of my prayer life for about a decade. As a church planter, I have structured our Wednesday night meetings in the pattern of a support group for Christians who want to grow in love, Christ’s love.
I say all this because I think they are essential to understanding what is driving my perspective. I care about what we become, and I hope the thing that marks the Church as the Church of Jesus Christ—what people around us notice and remember about us, and what we know and pursue as the central orientation of our life—is the love of God and others (even enemies) that we see in Christ.
So, I will finally cut to the chase with my thesis, from which I will not now be easily dissuaded:
Political radio and TV (info-tainment) is toxic to Christian character.
I want that line to linger. I want it to stick in you. I hope you think about it. I hope you ask God about it in prayer.
To put that line yet another way, “Bad company corrupts good character.”
Or, to put it yet another way, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.”
In a nutshell, political radio is not generally full of people whose gentleness is evident to all. Quite the contrary. The hosts do not patiently correct. They are rude, impatient, unforgiving. I do not relish the fact, and I urge all to consider it, that it is literally the business of political radio to stir up anger and wrath directed toward others. And business is good and has been growing for at least the last 20 years—even in the Church. Some folks, because they have a long commute or other frequent travel for work, have listened for more than an hour a day, for years. I know a man who has a plasma TV that, when turned off, still has the Fox News emblem showing on the bottom corner. He has literally formed his TV to bear the mark of Fox News. I wish that was the only thing that has changed.
We—the Church—are called let our gentleness be evident to all. We are called to bless those who curse us. We are called to give, sacrificially and personally, to our enemies, whomever they may be. We are called to pray for our leaders. We are called to be kind to the unjust and the wicked like our Father in heaven. We are called to patiently correct. We are called to lay aside anger and wrath. In a nutshell, we are called to love God, neighbors and enemies. If someone can show me how typical political info-tainment encourages any of these things, I’m all ears. But I think we all know the opposite is true. They model and encourage—and reproduce, in their hearers—the opposite of the fruit of God’s Spirit. Just like my friend’s TV, too many of us more obviously bear the mark and likeness of our favorite political commentators, especially when political subjects arise, than we bear the mark of Christ–which is radical love of God and others, even others in other parties or countries.
One of the great things about having children is that the instinctual motive to protect and guide them can combine with the Spirit in ways that can lead to personal renewal and departure from sins that would otherwise be callously accommodated. My oldest child is about to turn 11 and she actually finds some news and other adult programming interesting. She will ask me to turn up NPR on the way home. She is brilliant, but she is also affected by the stories and the passions of people on the radio, whether of the interviewer or host, in a way that reminds me of what a heart without callousness is like. While listening to Limbaugh’s show a couple of years ago, I was struck with how horrible it would be for a child to hear it. Then, as God often does with me, he began to ask me how great it would be for anyone to listen to that, often for hours each day. I began to wonder about the contrast between the normal tenor and interactions and viewpoints of this show and, for instance, the famous prayer of St. Francis. The contrast was stark. What would happen if we listened to or read or prayed like St. Francis for an hour instead of listened to Rush? Would we be different?
Consider this contrasting picture from Paul, and notice how many of the works of the flesh are staples of info-tainment: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That passage is beautiful and powerful in its clear contrast. It deserves our consideration, and in this time and concerning this issue. There are many more passages of scripture that could make the point just as powerfully.
“Well, I listen to it to know what’s going on in the world. I need to be informed.” There are plenty of sources of information without the anger and derision—more than ever before. Plus, if it’s more than just information, but wisdom, you seek, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” That’s not the wisdom of the info-tainers, but it is the wisdom of God.
My ultimate question is simple. I don’t care who you vote for. Who do you want to become? What kind of interactions do you want to have with the world? Whose mission and concerns do you want to prioritize? To play off of an old saying, if you tell me who you want to become, I can tell you who you should hang out with–and who you shouldn’t make a habit of listening to.
As Donald Trump has continued to rise in popularity, particularly among those who listen regularly to political talk radio, many are confused by the support he’s getting from evangelicals and others, like Tea Partiers who have espoused desires for limited government. Yet Trump favors a single-payer health care system. (That’s essentially Medicare for all; it’s a more truly socialist plan.) Though he says the bible is his favorite book, he says he’s never needed to ask God for forgiveness. Although he obtained medical deferments from the draft, he feels free to mock the service of veterans who were captured and tortured, even those who refused early release until such release was given to other fellow POWs. He has given very large checks to Democrats and Republicans alike to gain political favors; i.e., he has admitted to essentially buying influence from officials who want his money and influence. I believe he’s now in his third marriage. He’s never held any political office. He is only recently pro-life, and there is good reason to question his commitment there. These are not the signs of traditional GOP favorites. But yet, he gains. Many have asked “Why?” If the Tea Party is about limited government, why has the closest option to a Libertarian, Rand Paul, virtually disappeared from the polls? Why have other candidates with clear and longstanding conservative and even evangelical commitments fallen behind Trump?
For my part, I am convinced a significant reason is anger. For now, it’s specifically anger among whites, according to the most recent polls. Folks who are angry–whether at Obama, or Washington, or China or Mexico or Russia or Wall Street–they tend to love Trump. It’s not about issues, it’s about attitude. It’s not about policy, but toughness and brashness, and “kicking ass not kissing it” to quote a Trump supporter. “Get out of my country” one Trump supporter said to the Univision reporter, not thinking the reporter could be a US citizen and was, in fact. People are perceiving threats to their way of life, some real and others imagined, and they don’t want a politician to deal with those threats. To quote Trump concerning who we want to deal with the perceived threats to America, “Do we want nice people, or do we want horrible human beings?” he asked the audience. “I want horrible!” (HT: Livia Gershon).
Now, turning back to the Church, my question is, how are Evangelicals part of the segment who wants “horrible” human beings representing the US and having authority of the White House? As a matter of formation, how did this happen? I know that it has become more and more common for folks–Christians!–to spend hours listening and/or watching political info-tainers who talk and act just like Trump does—bombastic, attacking and belittling of other views and groups, rude and ego-driven. He does what the info-tainers do, the way that they do it. It’s ironic to now see those same info-tainers get confused that so many of their audience loves Trump despite his lack of conservative policy positions (other than immigration). But they fail to see how the anger they’ve fanned for years works; it’s not especially rational. It’s reactionary. It’s like fire, and it can easily get out of control, and it has, and the fire-starters are surprised. But they have stoked that fire for years, decades even, including inside the Church, because we have given them our ears. We are becoming like our teachers. Too many are quick to anger and slow to love, the opposite of the God we love.
And Christians know this, but may have forgotten.
My call is simple. Ask yourself whom you want to become. Be careful whom you make your advisors and friends and companions, even by radio or TV. Formation happens, like clean or rotten teeth, by steady habits over time. Become like Christ and then vote for whomever you wish. But become like Christ. Fix your eyes on him. Don’t be a ditto-head. You were bought with a steep price; be a little-Christ (and there is a difference). Anger is not a virtue, nor is the company of angry people wise. Nor is the “wisdom” of political media God’s kind of wisdom. As we are just entering the insanity of an election year, don’t let the pundits turn your burdens into anger. Don’t hang around with mockers. Give Jesus even more of your attention and your burdens and become like him.
“O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way! My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”