Evangelicals, Humility & Modern Political Debate   Leave a comment

I’m reading through the book The Dissenters, and was fascinated by the brief chapter on John Brown, the abolitionist who was hanged for his attempts at freeing slaves in the 1850s. The book has a transcript from his interrogation after he was caught, as he lay seriously wounded in the armory at Harper’s Ferry on October 19, 1859. I think his reply to one of the questions put to him is instructive:

Mason: “How do you justify your actions?”

John Brown: “I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity – I say it without wishing to be offensive – and it would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those you willfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.” (And this is his attitude consistently through the interrogation.)

I was taken aback by the humility of his response – the “politeness” of it. Today, in our political discourse, when again there are grave differences of opinion about what is right and what should be done, the level of disrespect, general nastiness, arrogance, and even hate is often appalling. To read the posts on Facebook and Twitter you would think that everyone is an expert, every issue is easily parsed, and everyone with a dissenting viewpoint is a fool, a pawn, or has been bought.

Back to The Dissenters again, for there you can also read Jefferson Davis, the eventual President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. In his defense of slavery he explains that if the South must take up arms it will “… invoke the blessing of Providence on a just cause.” (my emphasis)

What is my point in all this? I suppose I have four:

1) That good men will often differ on what is the noble and necessary action to take in great and urgent matters. And if they believe in God, they will differ too on whose side He is on. (What army ever went to war doubting that God was on their side?) It wasn’t only John Brown who believed in his soul that he was taking up a just cause and trusting God to help him. The same could be said of Jefferson Davis.

2) That when such men take opposite approaches, in direct conflict with each other (e.g., “keep the slaves” v. “free the slaves”) they both can’t be right. And while they both can’t be right, they certainly both can be wrong.  For instance, there may be some middle ground or third approach suggested from some other corner which would be more just and wise. Or maybe even though their cause is just, their motives may be unjust – or perhaps in their action they’re missing the mark because their methods or timing is premature or otherwise ill conceived.

3) That when you’re in the middle of such debates – or battles –  you often don’t have the objectivity to see your own limitations, pride, miscalculations and impure motivations – all of which may be apparent to others – or like in the case of Andrew Jackson, may become evident in time. (And, yes, I know I write as a Northerner.) All arrogance springs from a lack of awareness of one’s limitations in this way.

4) Humility therefore is mandatory, and should characterize what we say and write, and how we treat those with whom we differ. The fact that “this is not how we do it these days” only makes change in this regard more urgent. We need a revival of civil discourse. (A few members of Congress have taken hold of this need lately, and have joined together to create the “Civility Caucus.“)

I believe my appeal so far applies to everyone – bloggers, journalists, candidates – anyone with an opinion. Look at all the issues out there these days – internet freedom, free trade, immigration, educational reform, global warming, growing economic disparity, tax reform, the global economy, big v. small government, religion and politics, abortion, gay marriage, causes of poverty, the death penalty, the welfare state, Israel, the Tea Party v. Occupy Wall Street, etc. Do you spend most of your time each week reading on both sides of all these issues? Do you have the seasoned maturity of at least a sixty to eighty year old? Are you of exceptional intelligence and the product of some great educational institution, so that you’re able to flawlessly parse all the issues? Are you less affected by the time and place you live in, your life experiences, and your peers and prejudices than, for instance, Andrew Jackson? I doubt it, and in my opinion, you should too.  It was no less than Albert Einstein who said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” Look to yourself first, and let it control your (best case scenario) righteous anger – and your words. “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”, said Thomas a Kempis. Perhaps dialing down the anger could be beneficial to all. It certainly would be an appropriate display of humility.

My appeal to the Christian community – and to Evangelicals –  is based on the Bible and Christian commentary on it. The Bible states that, “ … with humility comes wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2) In it we are told to clothe ourselves with humility toward one another because “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)  Finally, our faith requires that “ … in humility [we] consider others better than [our]selves.” (Philippians 2:3)

St. Augustine called humility “the foundation of all the other virtues.” Charles Spurgeon and others  humility as simply having “… a right estimate of one’s own self.” John Calvin insisted that the key to such an appraisal of ourselves would come as we first “… look upon God’s face and then descend from contemplating him to scrutinize” ourselves.  In his Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote that humility was one of the “virtues where the beauty of a true Christian is seen most clearly.”

If the actions and words of others should be characterized by humility, how much more so then, those of the Christian? Like John Brown did in his response, we can point to a better way.

I remember a quote I found more than 30 years ago: “The man with one watch always knows what time it is; the man with two is never sure.” Maybe you’ve had this experience. Either way, you know it’s true. Dylan’s lyric, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” was written by a young man – but one who had already learned that with maturity, often many things that were settled become less obvious and certain.

I love John Ortberg, and consider him an almost unparalleled guide to the spiritual life (that is, to life). He jokes, “We’d like to be humble … but what if no one notices?” Don’t worry, if you’re truly humble, in all the power and beauty of it – like John Brown before his accusers – others will surely notice. And if you’re really lucky or blessed, they will be impacted and influenced by you, and if you’re really lucky, they won’t tell you.

I end with the prayer of Peter Marshall, former chaplain in the U.S. Senate,

“Lord, where we are wrong, make us willing to change;

where we are right, make us easy to live with.”

or better yet, with that of St. Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”


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