Jesus shows way out of ‘us v them’ bind

How do we treat those with whom we disagree, asks Adam Dodds.

The recent elections in the US and the vote for Brexit in the UK have led to almost unprecedented division and divisiveness. This has been evident in the bitterness and hostility between supporters on both sides of the issue. Here in New Zealand there was the Trans Pacific Partnership, the recent redefinition of marriage and the passing into law of the anti-smacking Bill, to name a few.  Each of these issues divided public opinion.

Difference of opinion is not bad. Indeed it is healthy. Freedom of thought is one of the strengths of our society. But how we disagree can cause great damage. Such division leads to an "us" and "them" mentality. How do we, then, treat those with whom we disagree?

The recent campaigning for the US presidency was unusually bitter. Civility towards opponents was often substituted with vitriolic attack and name-calling not even fitting of a school playground.

Before Donald Trump was elected president, an interviewer asked him whether there was a favourite Bible verse that had informed his thinking or his character through life. His response was "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". The old political wisdom was to apologise if you were demonstrably in the wrong and quickly move the conversation on. 

According to journalist Nick Cohen, Mr Trump’s first lawyer Roy Cohn taught him to always attack and never conciliate. How should we treat those with whom we disagree? Is "an eye for an eye" the answer?

This is not primarily about politicians but about how disagreement is handled in our society. Name-calling has become a commonplace strategy to discredit ideological opponents. For example, some proponents of the anti-smacking Bill accused their opponents, because they opposed the Bill, of bashing and assaulting children. In this debate the passionate intensity is understandable.

But how productive is this name-calling? Criticising aspects of Islamic law (such as the death penalty for apostasy) routinely leads to being labelled a bigoted racist Islamophobe. Critics of the redefinition of marriage are likely to be called equivalent names. Perhaps this is because, from one perspective, it is utterly inconceivable how somebody might disagree.  Thus the only explanation must be a motivation of hate.  Such logic falls foul of one of the truisms of communication: seek first to understand. Disagreement does not legitimise slander.

Name-calling leads to a build-up of anger and resentment and shuts down intelligent and reasoned conversation. It is also anti-diversity — a diversity of perspectives.

Is the question "How do we treat those with whom we disagree?" only to be answered — "We attack them"? 

The original meaning of the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" law was to provide equality for rich and poor before the law — the wealthy could not simply escape by paying a fine.  The eye and tooth define the upper and lower limits of personal injury — as much as an eye or as little as a tooth.  It was to be applied by the courts, not individuals. 

And finally, "an eye for an eye" law provided a limit to the recompense given to prevent an escalating cycle of violence. Jesus acknowledged the "eye for an eye" law, and then called his followers to a higher standard.

For those who follow Jesus’ teachings and worship him — Christians — the rule is ‘‘Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you’’.  He acknowledged the reality of deep differences of opinion, but rejecting us-versus-them language, he called his followers to actively love those who disagreed with them and sought their harm.

The obvious question here is — why would someone do that? Jesus provided the answer: love your enemy "so that you may be children of your heavenly Father".  God does not hate those who disagree with him or don’t follow him, nor those who oppose God’s purposes.  God does hate some things people do — such as the exploitation of people — but God loves all people unconditionally.

For those who put  trust in Jesus to be their guide through the adventure of life, God puts his own loving life inside them.  God gives Christians the desire and power to love their enemies.  A child of God, animated with life from above, is enabled to love even his/her enemies.

In Jesus we see consistency of words and actions.  In the ultimate demonstration of "loving your enemies", Jesus allowed himself to be crucified to destroy those self-centred tendencies that dwell in each heart. While hanging on that bloodied cross, looking at those mocking him, Jesus prayed: "Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing."

How do we treat those with whom we disagree?  I find Jesus’ answer and example to be incomparable. It is certainly relevant to our 21st-century world.  What would a society look like that followed this teaching and example of Jesus?

- Dr Adam Dodds is senior pastor at Elim Church, Dunedin.

Comments

It would be a religious society, and, being bad for business, not allowed. If the powerful make a dualist, conflictual world, the powerless have the right to resist it.

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