Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden recently stepped on a political landmine. In reminiscing about his congressional tenure over several decades, he recalled when he had worked with segregationist legislators. He said that in his interactions with them, “there was at least some civility.”
This provoked immediate fallout. Some questioned if he really understood the racial impact of segregation. There were calls for him to apologize.
His response was, “Apologize for what?”
Which is a good point. He had strongly disagreed with their views. But do you apologize for working with people, in this case avowed racists, with whom you differ? To be asked to apologize would seem to assume that if you talk with them, shake hands with them, work out legislation with them, then somehow you are a racist at worst or just ignorant at best.
What is the basis for an assumption like that? Does treating someone civilly connote that you’re condoning their values and are disingenuous with your own?
In this polarizing climate in which we’re living, such fraternizing with the enemy seems akin to ethical treason. It’s cannon fodder for your political opponents.
From a Christian perspective, it’s also misguided.
John Lewis, an African American civil rights icon in Congress, said as much: “I don’t think (Biden’s) remarks are offensive. At the height of the civil rights movement, we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan. People who opposed us, even people who beat us, arrested us and jailed us. We never gave up on our fellow human beings.”
Never giving up made me think of a similar phrase and a teaching of Jesus. “Love your enemies.” (Luke 6:35, Common English Bible)
When he said this, he instructed his followers to do nice things for them. However, in the modern political atmosphere, he might say that you can love them by getting to know them. Talk with them. Work with them. See if you can get them to move a little toward the light, and away from darkness.
Why would such relationships convey a sense of betrayal of your values? On the contrary, it takes someone confident in and passionate about their beliefs to relate positively to those with whom they disagree.
I’ve come to think of the issue in terms not of good and evil and right and wrong, but of wellness and sickness.
Bigots can show kindness and love. That’s not the point. Rather, they are on a course that leads to illness and pain. When you fill your life with hatred and anger, targeting a group of people, you will pay the price. In the long term, the experience of hell is when you ultimately realize what you’ve done in hurting the innocent. In the short term, you miss out on the breadth of life that comes from inclusion, not exclusion.
Jesus came to such people. He characterized his ministry by saying, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do … I didn’t come to call the righteous people but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13, Common English Bible) Jesus was a physician, and he made house calls. In so doing, the sick were healed.
Christians carry on his profession and go to the sick. They don’t dilute the strength of the medicine they bring. They embody equality, justice and compassion. They share this as flawed individuals reaching out to the flawed.
In so doing, some of their enemies will be made whole.