Community / Discernment / Spirituality
Engaging My Opponent: Spiritual Healing for Broken Public Discourse
During the seven years that I studied and worked in Washington, DC, I became familiar with a notorious term: “The Beltway.” If you have ever attempted to drive in or around DC, you have probably been on the Beltway at some point. Highway 495 forms a belt around DC and cuts through Maryland and Virginia. To be sure, driving on the Beltway puts one at risk of a long delay, missing an exit, or having an accident; it is terribly busy, and my wife likened it to the Indy 500. A related term is even more notorious: “inside the Beltway,” a reference to the political gridlock that unfolds every day in our nation’s capital.
If my reference to business conducted inside the Beltway evokes feelings of anger or suspicion about the federal government, or if you are convinced that the devil is the father of the details conceived there, then you have a sense of the spirit of anger prevailing in our times. People are angry with elected officials for making deals that are not in their best interest. People feel alienated by policies and their underpinning ideologies that appear to favor other interest groups without accounting for their own wants and needs. People fear the advent of the unknown; they are afraid of immigrants who come here in search of work, and of politicians and activists who advocate for new policies that challenge their current way of life and conflict with their core values.
The anger, fear, and alienation experienced by many in our time result in a number of behavioral patterns. Among the most troubling patterns is the gradual disappearance of dialogue. Increasingly, vicious polemical attacks that have the primary purpose of demonizing the position of the other have replaced dialogue. The evidence of such attacks is everywhere, and the relative anonymity of social media has opened an entirely new arena where one can invoke riotous, scathing condemnations of others without even knowing their names or seeing their faces. In other words, the purpose of engagement in our time is to attain a personal triumph over one’s opponent. The spoils of victory for the one who seems to have the upper hand in such engagements is the humiliation suffered by the other. Too often the fumes generated by a graceless and boorish victory function as fuel that renews the cycle of anger, alienation, fear, and suspicion. It also intensifies that cycle. Today, this scene unfolds in digital spaces that seem tailor-made for brutal public trash talking.
Historians and sociologists have devoted considerable resources toward unearthing the causes of global anger and alienation. Economic evolution is certainly one cause, especially when industrial decline, outsourcing, and automation result in the disappearance of jobs. But it is not only the absence of jobs and economic instability that fuel anger and alienation. The “culture of separation” that defined modernity and afflicts post-modernity permeates all aspects of life, including citizenship, religion, and national identity (Bellah et al, 1985, 275-7). The spike in racial conflict, incidents of anti-Semitism, the polarized positions on immigration, suspicion and fear of Muslims, and an all-out cultural war on equal rights for LGBTQI people are also sources of anger and alienation, not only in the United States, but internationally as well.
Recently, the author and journalist John Judis demonstrated how President Trump fits into the pattern of creating a profile as an anti-establishment populist in his vow to restore manufacturing jobs and reform immigration. This movement had an echo on the left with Bernie Sanders (Judis 2016). Anger can become infectious and generate incredible and constructive energy; Americans witnessed this when students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gathered to protest the gun establishment. A similar energy threads through the recent women’s marches that took place around the globe. However, working together to discover the truth is not an attainable objective when the intensity of polarized polemical exchanges reaches a fever pitch; the point is to publicly humiliate one’s opponent and to expose them as flawed so that one’s own position will be endorsed.
Signs of hope are emerging from this dense forest of alienation and anger. For instance, we can find hope in a project that spurred a classically liberal sociologist from the University of California at Berkeley to take up residence among “right wingers” in Louisiana to learn who they were. In reflecting on her experience of dialogue, Arlie Russell Hochschild said, “Left and right need one another, just as the blue coastal and inland cities need red state energy and rich community. The rural Midwest and South need the cosmopolitan outreach to a diverse outer world” (Hochshild 2016, 232-3). Hochschild observes that her immersion into the daily lives of the people she studied taught her that left and right have much more in common than they know and that commonality can serve as a springboard for cooperation. Her observation was possible only through a willingness to dialogue with others—an art that is largely lost in a culture that prefers division and separation for fear of the other.
A Spirituality of Dialogue with the Other: Look in the Mirror
A Christian spirituality of dialogue can restore the art of engaging one’s opponent if the engagement is truly dialogical.
Christian tradition acknowledges the harm caused by playing the blame game. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is filled with teachings that chart a path of discipleship rooted in pouring one’s self out for the sake of the other. Jesus commands us to forgive others. We are instructed not to judge others, nor even point out their faults. The disciple who casts his gaze on the faults of another will be exposed as a hypocrite, and not a disciple. The radical teaching of Christ requires that good must be returned for acts of evil. Discipleship compels the hearer to adopt Christ and his self-emptying love as the pattern of daily Christian living. Performing these acts is a mode of taking up one’s cross, and the ultimate aim—the telos—is perfection (Matthew 5:48).
Christians must navigate the tension between Jesus’s authoritative teaching from the mountain, which fulfills the Law of Moses, and the cultural ethos that claims “nobody’s perfect.” The hearer finds little comfort in Christ’s instruction to “enter by the narrow gate,” because the perfection commanded by Christ seems impossible to achieve. Worshipping the crucified and risen one who personifies discipleship is a far cry from threading his precepts into the fabric of ones daily behavior. Yet the decision to forsake or ignore Jesus’s new commandments from the mountain leads Christians to respond to anger with wrath, and to strike one’s opponent with even more force than the blow thrown by the opponent.
Throughout history, Christians have attempted to apply Jesus’s teachings as rules for communal living and engagement with the other. These examples occur in a variety of contexts, from Cappadocian monks in late antiquity to twentieth-century laity responding to dangerous ideologies.
One early example is the philosopher, bishop, and ascetic known as Basil the Great (330-379). In the Christian world, Basil is beloved because of the prayers attributed to him, his theological family ties (having an equally gifted brother and a saintly sister), his theological treatises that became the foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and his ascetical writings. Instructive for our purposes is Basil’s homily on humility. The context of this homily suggests that Basil was addressing people who lived in the late-antique city. Basil critiques those who indulge in the glory and honor that comes with political success:
But also because of political honors do men exalt themselves beyond what is due their nature. If the populace confer upon them a distinction, if it honor them with some office of authority, if an exceptional mark of dignity be voted in their favor by the people, thereupon, as though they had risen above human nature, they look upon themselves as well nigh seated on the very clouds and regard the men beneath them as their footstool. They lord it over those who raised them to such honor and exalt themselves over the very ones at whose hands they received their sham distinctions. (Basil, trans. Wagner, 476)
Basil seems to be warning those in the public sphere against the kind of elitism that comes with rank or stature in the political hierarchy, and the temptation to view others as simply “their footstool.” Basil describes the steps needed for the exalted to rightfully see themselves and others:
If you appear to have something in your favor, do not, counting this to your credit and readily forgetting your mistakes, boast of your good deeds of today and grant yourself pardon for what you have done badly yesterday and in the past. Whenever the present arouses pride in you, recall the past to mind and you will check the foolish swelling of conceit. If you see your neighbor committing sin, take care not to dwell exclusively on his sin, but think of the many things he has done and continues to do rightly. Many times, by examining the whole and not taking the part into account, you will find that he is better than you. Such reminders as these regarding self-exaltation we should keep reciting constantly to ourselves, demeaning ourselves that we may be exalted, in imitation of the Lord who descended from heaven to utter lowliness and who was, in turn, raised to the height which befitted him. (Basil, trans. Wagner, 483)
Basil proposes an ascetical practice that speaks directly to the kind of exaltation to which one enjoying a high rank might be prone. Recalling one’s past errors can help one avoid the temptation to exalt one’s self and treat others like a footstool. Basil employs hyperbole when he suggests that we are to demean ourselves, but the point of adopting this habit is twofold: to learn how to see good in one’s interlocutor, and to adopt the pattern of Christ himself. Our descent into utter lowliness is not for self-torture. Rather, it is to follow the pattern of Christ, whose lowliness was in service to others. The two practices work together: we find fault in ourselves first to confront our own ugliness; only then is one able to see that the person one engages is, in fact, naturally good.
Cultivating the habit of humility is designed to be relational and dialogical. In a longer passage, Basil advises hearers to be modest in all ways of life, to avoid embellishment of speech, and to be “free from pomposity” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). Adopting a habit of modesty in the way that we talk and think of ourselves leads to new ways of dialoguing with others. Basil offers simple instructions: “Be obliging to your friends, gentle toward your slaves, forbearing with the forward, benign to the lowly, a source of comfort to the afflicted, a friend to the distressed, a condemner of no one” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). He goes on to instruct his hearers to avoid even listening into a conversation involving gossip; adopting the habit of attending to one’s own sin sharpens the senses of seeing others and dialoguing with them. One learns how to act with radical charity toward the other through practice, but the root of this action is pursuing humility and refusing to exalt one’s self, reserving that praise and glorification for God alone.
Basil’s practical instructions for adopting an identity of humility re-emerge in the unique person of Paul Evdokimov, a lay theologian who was born in St. Petersburg in 1900 and immigrated to Paris in 1923 in the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution (Plekon 2002, 109). Evdokimov received his doctorate in theology from St. Sergius Institute in Paris and assisted in hiding and defending Jews during World War II. While he worked as a director of residences, he was active as a writer and participant in local ecumenical dialogue. Evdokimov’s writings touch on numerous subjects, but it is his sense of tradition that is most intriguing. Responding to the abrupt, fast-paced changes of his times, Evdokimov proposed that lay people adopt a monastic way of life, by applying the principles of the desert in their daily lives. Their participation in the liturgy has the power to shape a habit of service extending into the world, embedded in everyday life (Plekon 2002, 124).
Evdokimov wrote that the process of welcoming the Holy Spirit begins by coming to terms with one’s self. Knowing one’s self requires a deep journey within: “Our vigorous penetration into the darkness of our heart of hearts, though it is a formidable undertaking, gives us the power to judge ourselves” (Evdokimov 1998, 167). He acknowledges that this is a rigorous journey, so he advises that one should put on an “ascetic diving suit” because the goal is to “seize our perverted will” (Evdokimov 1998, 167). As the ascetic comes to terms with the perverted will, he or she is ready to ascend. Evdokimov describes the point of this ascent as a conversion, and the objective is to become a human who loves. The love he speaks of is crucified love, not emotional love. Adopting an identity of true humility is a process that is never complete—the one who is converted always identifies as a sinner (Evdokimov 1998, 168).
How does this relate to the way we engage others, especially our opponents? Embracing
humility is the “art of finding one’s own place,” and accepting that place without hoping for praise or exaltation. Evdokimov refers to the humility of two New Testament figures: John the Baptist, who is content to be the “friend of the bridegroom,” and Mary, who is joyful in being the “handmaid of the Lord.” Evdokimov asserts that self-centeredness makes the universe revolve around the human ego—egomania is manifest when one refuses to bow before the other.
Evdokimov assures us that “no confusion is possible between humility and humiliation, weakness or spineless resignation. Humility is the greatest power, for it radically suppresses all resentment, and it alone can overcome pride” (Evdokimov 1998, 169-70). What’s more, Evdokimov’s reinvigoration of asceticism enjoys a strong coherence with Basil’s. Both the ancient and modern theologians call upon everyone to submit to brutal self-honesty: admitting one’s own sin and striving to see the good in one’s interlocutors is not the same thing as punishing one’s self. Basil proposes an ascetical practice designed to embrace humility because for Christians, exaltation is reserved for God alone. Accepting one’s place as not exalted quiets the passions of resentment—passions which are rooted in desiring exaltation, a temporal honor that comes with victory over one’s opponent.
If Basil and Evdekimov emphasize the ascetical process of embracing humility, Maria Skobtsova teaches us how to see our opponents as brothers and sisters in Christ. Mother Maria wrote in France in the first half of the twentieth century to reframe the way her fellow Russian immigrants understood the experience of praying before icons. Her writing occasionally critiques the ossified ritual forms of the synodal period of the Russian Church—particularly in her famous essay that exposes the five types of Russian ritual spirituality as internally oriented (Skobtsova 2003, 140-186). Mother Maria’s essay on the mysticism of human communion charts a new spirituality rooted in the public ritual acts of venerating icons during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Knowing that Russians recognized the connection between the ritual veneration of icons and their prayer before icons at the altars in their homes, Mother Maria suggests that one should learn how to see the world as an iconostasis (a wall of icons and religious paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary in a church) in order to revere the people with whom we interact on a daily basis with the same piety we offer to the saints on the icons in church and at our homes (Skobtsova 2003, 80-81). Mother Maria is quite blunt in her description of the requirement for the Christian: to revere with piety men who act inappropriately, drunken neighbors, and lazy students. These too are icons, she says, bearing the image of the same God as the saints whose icons we venerate (Skobtsova 2003, 81).
Mother Maria goes on to argue that this is the purpose of the liturgy itself, as she claims—rightly—that the liturgy is offered for the life of the world. Mother Maria refers to the ritual act of offering when the deacon (or priest) lifts up the bread and the cup during the Eucharistic Prayer and the priest says, “Offering You your own of your own, on behalf of all and for all” (Skobtsova 2003, 81). The point of participating in the liturgy is not primarily for the consecration of bread and cup into the Lord’s body and blood, but for people to be transformed so that their daily lives would consist of service “on behalf of all and for all.” This service is rooted, again, in Christ’s own pouring out of himself, his taking on human nature in utter humility (Skobtsova 2003, 78-79). Like her contemporary Evdokimov and Basil of old, Mother Maria recognized the connection between adopting an identity of humility and engaging others with radical charity. Her example of seeing unpleasant people as icons is a way for us to sharpen our spiritual senses, to learn how to see one’s enemy in a new way, and to act by loving them.
The habit of humility implies a willingness to dialogue, and dialogue is antithetical to the preference for division that pervades our contemporary culture. But dialogue is itself integral to Christian discipleship. The Czech Catholic theologian Jaroslaw Pastuszak draws from Trinitarian theology to relate the Word of God (Logos) as intrinsic to human communication. When humans truly dialogue with one another, they have access to the divine perspective (Pastuszak 2015, 174-176). Obviously, dialogue can contribute to sustaining human life: building edifices, creating treaties, developing new medical technologies all depend on dialogue (Pastuszak 2015, 174). Pastuszak laments the postmodern tendency to make the material and spiritual spheres mutually exclusive: he claims that withdrawal into orbits such as religious and secular leads people to individualism, which breeds egocentrism (Pastuszak 2015, 168). A willingness to dialogue may result in encountering the other person’s strangeness, but Pastuszak claims that participating in that dialogue permits the partner to encounter God in the other, and God in himself as well (Pastuszak 2015, 178).
The prospect of encountering strangeness in the other person seems reason enough to hesitate from joining the dialogue. It is a hesitation many of us experience if we are not prepared for how we should act, especially if dialogue is understood as a demand for capitulation to that otherness, or if one fears that fidelity to one’s own principles will result in conflict. In other words, dialogue is dangerous: the fear of the unknown outcome of irreconcilable differences opens the door to opting for division instead. But withdrawal from dialogue enhances fear because it prohibits us from seeing and encountering the other, so the images we conjure of others are distorted.
Another Czech theologian, Tomáš Halík, hearkens back to the ascetical tradition when he says that war is to be waged against one’s own moral failings, not against the dialogue partner (Halík 2015, 107). Halík and Pastuszak both argue that Christians should be willing to dialogue with secular humanists as well as people of other religions for the purpose of finding common ground. Their harmonic warning about the perils of Christian triumphalism used as a weapon against the other fits our thesis, as Halík says that this tactic is a secularization of the Church’s eschatological vision (Halík 2015, 109). In other words, using Christian language to demonize our neighbors makes them into angels of darkness and us into God. Nothing good comes from this paradigm, and the triumphalists end up as idolators.
One might protest that the intent of dialogue has changed in our times. Rod Dreher recently commented about an invitation to a “pride prom” at Marquette University, which Dreher said was not a dialogue, but a “strategic move by heterodox/liberal people to establish a beachhead from which to dislodge and defeat orthodoxy” (Dreher 2018). The unknown outcome of dialogue can generate fear of danger. Basil, Evdokimov, and Mother Maria promote the urgency of dialogue and the habit of humility even in dangerous, life-threatening contexts. This was especially the case for Mother Maria, who was part of the French Resistance and died in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer also emphasized the urgency of dialogue during a time of grave danger. He was committed to maintaining transnational dialogue among all the Churches when fidelity to a nationalist Church was popular. Keith Clements asserts that Bonhoeffer promoted ecumenism as a way to work together to establish a new and just order (Clements 1999, 158). But Bonhoeffer himself offers the most important point about dialogue:
Peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself.
Clements says that this excerpt is quoted so often it has become something of a sacred text. It is relevant here because it is compatible with our thesis on the habit of humility. Learning how to humble oneself and approach the other with love will result in making oneself vulnerable to both the other and to God.
The witness of people such as Evdokimov and Bonhoeffer demonstrates that the Christian traditions of humility and approaching one’s opponent with love comes to life in the flesh and blood of ordinary human beings. Evdokimov, for example, protected Jews during the period of Nazi oppression and devoted his life to serving underprivileged youth, many of whom were immigrants (Plekon 2002, 109-110). Bonhoeffer strengthened his commitment to ecumenical dialogue even though finding a quiet place within the nationalist and isolationist cells of the Church in Germany would have been safer for him (Clements 1999, 167-168).
The Christian virtue of humility has deep roots in tradition, beginning with Jesus himself and threading through each generation up until today. Humility leads the Christian to dialogue with the other, enabling the Christian to see the good in the other. These teachings depict a beautiful humanity, one that is able to live together in peace without erasing differences. Why, then, has this tradition essentially been ignored while the tendency to slander and humiliate one’s opponent has ascended?
Let us turn again to scripture. Like the gospel of the cross, human humility is foolishness to the world because refusing to exalt one’s self seems to cede all competitive advantage to one’s opponents. Jesus spoke clearly about the preponderance of narcissism. He recognized the egocentrism of the Pharisees, who “love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces” (Matthew 23:6-7). No institution or profession is exempt from this crisis of discourse—not even the Church. Institutions systematize incentives for advancement, stimulating competition among those who want the most “exalted” position. In these scenarios, the gospel tradition of humility simply gets in the way of systems that reward not only achievements (this is a good thing), but the sycophantism and competitive positioning that make it impossible for one to truly see the other.
Turning to the gospel image of people who adopt Christ’s utter humility as a pattern would stifle the system, just as Jesus’s appearance and merciful acts in Seville threatened the religious order perfected by the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (the Grand Inquisitor knows that Jesus has “come to hinder us,” so he threatens to burn him as the “worst of heretics”). For much of Christian history and in our own time of exalting in our opponent’s humiliation, the holy tradition of Christian humility has become a heap of ashes. Adopting an identity of humility seems impossible because it has always been and remains countercultural—and it always will be.
There are two stumbling blocks that make people of good will pause before committing to humility. The first is the idea of submission: doesn’t the habit of humility amount to submission to aggressors? On the contrary, humility does not necessitate forsaking one’s own principles to avoid conflict. Humility cannot be translated as submission to verbal and physical aggression. Humility does not call for anyone to tolerate abuse. The radical humility of Basil, Evdokimov, Mother Maria, and Bonhoeffer is rooted in the cross of Christ. It is formed by the constructive and transformative power of God’s kingdom. Refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression exposes the human decay caused by uncivil discourse. The one who abuses damages their own soul by covering the human faces of their opponents with the false masks of demons. Embracing the way of humility opens the door for the healing and transformation of those who harm themselves by choosing abuse over charity.
The second obstacle is the notion that only a chosen few are capable of perfect humility. There is a difference between impossible and hard, and Christians need to remember that the way of the cross is narrow. It requires both human effort and divine mercy. Different religious traditions agree that following God is a lifelong struggle, exemplified by Jacob wrestling God, by the excruciating battle against one’s self reported by Augustine and Martin Luther, and by the tears described as drops of blood shed by Christ himself. Humility cannot be learned in a day, nor can one do it alone. It is a gift from God, and one spends a lifetime learning how to use that gift in the context of a community. It may be that the course of humility resembles the themes of Baptism, when a Christian partakes of Christ’s Pascha, with Christ himself nailing our capacity to sin to the cross. Living out one’s Baptism each and every day makes it possible to accept our state humbly and to see others as they really are.
We have reflected on things that seem impossible. What is possible is for communities to commit themselves to cultivating a culture of humility and professing fidelity to dialogue. Our uncertain times generate fear of the unknown, and the absence of a Christian response to broken public discourse only adds to the layers of fear and anger. We need a new—or old—strategy to respond to increasingly intense attempts at annihilating an opponent. Adopting an identity of humility, patterned after Christ, and committing to dialogue with others does not require one to capitulate one’s own position. As Evdokimov said, humility is not self-humiliation. Affirming the good that can be recognized when one considers the entirety of the other makes it possible to transform an enemy into a friend, as Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said in a beautiful homily on loving your enemies. This spiritual response to the broken public discourse of our time could turn the tide and make peace flourish. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther delivers the following teaching on the eighth commandment:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. (Luther 2005, 321)
Luther’s teaching could become the norm, and not the exception, if Christians reintroduce a culture of humility and dialogue into public discourse. May it be so.