Among celebrities and politicians, you have inherited mostly horrible role models for how to engage in civil discourse.
Screaming, shaming, hostility, and violence have become normal examples of how one talks to others with whom they disagree. We have politicians who demonize opponents, journalists who intentionally lie in order to smear people, and activists who justify violence. Quite frankly, I think our president would be disqualified from student leadership in most youth ministries due to his language and tone on social media.
As a parent and a youth pastor, I want to tell you that these norms are unacceptable; there is a better way.
We can hate ideas or practices, but Jesus leaves no room for anything but love and respect in how we treat people, regardless of what they believe and do.
Here are some truths I want to tell you, so that one day you will set a better example for the younger generation than today’s leaders have set for you.
(1) You are just as sinful as those ‘bad people’ that you want to demonize.
The President has a penchant for calling the media “bad people.” Segments of the media love to call President Trump “Hitler” or “the devil.” Protesters use threats and vandalism to boycott speakers, who they consider so evil that authorities should prohibit them from voicing their opinions.
Condemning people who we consider wicked feels so good. There’s almost a rush that comes from denouncing our enemies. People treat it like a recreational sport.
Beneath this verbal warfare and judgment resides incredible self-righteousness. We believe that we are so morally superior to another person that we have earned the right to condemn them. Here’s the hard truth for you and me: we are no less sinful than the next person (even people like politicians, journalists, and violent protestors).
The apostle James said, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”¹ Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”² When you feel that burning desire to condemn another person, remember that you and I are just as sinful as they are. God graciously gave us the only righteousness we possess. If we “appear” better, it is only by God’s grace.
(2) That person who you may think is so detestable has a story….and you don’t know a fraction of it.
You will see people do crazy things and espouse wicked ideas. When I read rants from people on Facebook, I want to judge them and then offer back a sarcastic or caustic response to their post. When I think about people who join ISIS or Al Quaeda, my instinct is to label them as purely evil.
Here’s the truth: every person has a story, and we usually do not know a fraction of it. That feminist who seems to hate men and interpret every situation as a gender-based power struggle may have been horribly mistreated by men during her life. That angry atheist who always rails on Christianity may have been abused by their Sunday school teacher in their childhood. Past traumas do not excuse inappropriate behavior. At the same time, we must remember that people often act out of pain and fear.
Furthermore, remember that you have a story of your own. You have experiences and wounds that may lead you to react to others with anger, or condescension, or self-righteousness.
In the same way that we would like people to give us grace given our own story, we must do the same for others. When we remind ourselves that each person has a story, we can view them with compassion and treat them lovingly.
(3) Every human life has dignity. Every single one.
No matter how deplorable a person may seem, no matter how atrociously they may have acted, God created and ordained every life. Every person has dignity because God created her or him in his image. Therefore, when you scream at, harass, judge, or demonize a person, you are disrespecting something that God considers sacred.
One time, I listened to a political candidate advocate extreme views on abortion that I considered abhorrent. My blood was boiling. I wanted to say, “This person is despicable.” My feelings toward that person were sinful.
In that moment of self-realization, I felt as if the Lord said, “This is a person whom I made in my image, a person who is filled with dignity.” To repent and calm myself down, I started saying over and over again in my heart, “[Politician’s name] is a person whom God made. He is full of dignity.” Remembering the God-ordained dignity of each life inclines us to treat and regard people more gently, kindly, and respectfully – even and especially when they disappoint us.
(4) What’s wrong is wrong and will always be wrong.
At times, people feel so passionately about an issue that they think it justifies doing immoral or unethical things to promote or defend that cause. Journalists and politicians lie. Protestors use violence to deter opponents. Adults use profanity to express how strongly they feel about an issue.
My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Reed, had a sign on the wall that said, “What’s wrong is wrong and will always be wrong, even if everyone is doing it. What’s right is right and will always be right, even if nobody is doing it.” Lying is sinful. Vulgar language is sinful. Violence is sinful (apart from self-defense). Sin never benefits you, your neighbor, or the world. Period. God’s law works to produce the most peaceful, loving world possible. Violating his law is always counterproductive.
(5) Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.
In our culture, everyone thinks that expressing their opinion is critically important. Whether it’s through social media, political activism, or bumper stickers, self-expression is an idol in America. Maybe that’s fine for them, but I want for you to listen first.
Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Leadership guru, Stephen Covey, put it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This practice requires patience. It means actively listening to a person and working to understand his or her perspective before you worry about expressing your own opinion.
This is hard. You will find that most people just want to be heard and understood. When you demonstrate that you desire to understand them, tension tends to dissipate and constructive conversations occur.
¹ James 2: 10
² Romans 3:23