Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How do we Change the Tone?

How do we Change the Tone?

          As we are entering the final two months of this year’s Presidential campaign, everyone is bracing for what has already been the nastiest election since 1824.  Some of the charges have been outrageous, the rhetoric has been over the top, and many politicians or public figures who have thrown their two cents in have been downright vicious.
          I have written before about the tone of our national political discourse in my article How Did We Get Here, and the truth is, changing that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people, and a lot of time.
          But today I want to explore the political rancor that can develop in our interpersonal relationships, between members of a family, a circle of friends, or a workplace.  In years past, people could have differing political opinions without it putting a wedge between them.  Our country was famous for coming together after an election and supporting our leaders in the hopes they would succeed.  But no more. 
          Routinely, ordinary citizens face violence or vandalism for their political positions, and anger carries the day.  Just look at Facebook.  There are countless political posts, and many are vitriolic.  They call names, or spew calumnies, or even vocalize a desire for personal harm against those who disagree with them.  Some recent well-publicized tweets from celebrities have wished disaster and death on politicians, or their supporters, or even people who eat at a particular restaurant.
          It’s bad enough when celebrities do it.  Why we are concerned about what they think I’m not sure.  But what if it’s your uncle, or cousin, or sister, or co-worker, or friend?  What if they wish death and dismemberment on a faceless group of which you are a member?  Why does it happen so often, and how should we respond?
          Elizabeth Scalia has an excellent article in the recent issue of The Catholic Answer attempting to answer the first question, and I think she has it right.  In a nutshell, she points out that in years past we assumed that we were striving for a common goal.  We disagreed about how to get there, so we could have political debate.  But when one party won, we came together to try and achieve that common goal.
          For example, 125 years ago, perhaps the biggest issue in the Presidential campaign was tariffs.  Should we have a high tariff to protect American industry and jobs, or should the tariff be low, to increase competition and drive down prices?  Both sides wanted a strong economy and an employed population with purchasing power.  They disagreed on how to get there, but there was a common goal.  When the election was over, I doubt there were many fist fights over tariffs, and both sides hoped that newly elected President Harrison’s policies would prove good for the country. Of course there have been exceptions in our history, slavery being the first to come to mind.
          But this common goal is no longer the case.  Oh, sure, we all want a strong economy, and President Obama and Governor Romney each have their own ideas about how to get there.  The undecided voters, who will decide the election, are voting based on the economy (which I have repeatedly decried).  However, we are told there are a record few undecideds this year.
          Our country, for decades now, has been embroiled in a culture war, which has engulfed the entire western world.  The Culture of Life versus the Culture of Death.  Those are the battle lines, and the goals of each side are diametrically opposed.  We Catholics are on the side of the Culture of Life, and it’s pretty obvious that we can’t unite with the other side if we lose, and hope our opposition achieves its stated goals.  If we lose, we have to fight all the harder.
          This makes sense to us.  Our cause is just.  We are fighting a life or death battle in which souls as well as lives hang in the balance.  If we respond to setbacks by throwing up our hands and “go along to get along,” we will have to answer for it.
          The other side fights just as hard.  At the root, of course, is abortion.  There are plenty of people who have been duped into believing that we pro-lifers really are trying to take “freedom of choice” away from women.  But I believe the majority know they are wrong.  In their heart of hearts, no one expects God to applaud their efforts on behalf of legalized abortion.  This often makes them fight all the harder.
          The Book of Wisdom gives us a glimpse into this mentality: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the Law…To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways.”
          Jesus told us that following Him would come with a price, and sometimes that price would be division, even within families.  So what do we do?  Resign ourselves to having only friends who think like us politically, to having certain family members who will merely tolerate our presence when they have to and despise us behind our backs?
          I don’t believe so.  We will not win every battle on this front, but we don’t have to concede our relationships with people politically opposed to us either.  But we had better be prepared to take the burden of these relationships on ourselves.
          There are two types of people we may come up against in our families or at work, etc.  The first are people who agree with us on issues such as life and religious freedom, etc., but who don’t vote according to those beliefs.  They may believe so strongly in the judgments of one party regarding the poor or immigration or the economy, for example, that they will faithfully vote for that party and ignore other issues.  Perhaps they are voting based on the differences between the parties that existed 40 years ago, but old habits will not be broken.  Of course, we know that prudential matters regarding how to help the poor, etc. can not trump intrinsic evils like abortion, etc., but we can recognize their genuine concern and desire to do good.
          We may discuss these things with them, if our discussions can remain civil, but we should not have trouble respecting them.  What if they attack us, though?  Usually (not always) in this case, because we share similar values, and only apply them differently in the voting booth, a calm, heart-to-heart conversation should clear the air, and if we have not responded in kind, we should be able to expect them to be gracious.
          The other type is much more difficult.  These are people actively promoting the Culture of Death.  They do cast votes based on non-negotiable issues, but they cast them on the wrong side.  We are much more likely to get nastiness from these people, and it’s harder for us to show restraint because though we may love them, we really don’t respect their positions.
          There are a few things I would suggest, based on my own experience.  Though we don’t have to be punching bags, any response we make, however firm, must not contain personal attacks or cruel rhetoric.  Focus on the issues, not the person we are debating.  Always read an email or Facebook post, or whatever, at least three times before hitting send, and wait a while between writing it and rereading it if possible.  Sometimes a response is not even necessary.  Also, remember that much of what comes to us from people promoting the Culture of Death comes from pain.
          As I said, very few people, if any, deep down, truly believe in the goodness of abortion, but many are suffering severe pain from having had an abortion and are not yet ready to deal with it.  We can’t make assumptions about individuals, but I think this is the fuel behind much of the fire.  Even if someone hasn’t had that experience, we could be bearing the brunt of other painful experiences.
          Groups like Planned Parenthood have done so much to hurt women, to convince them that when they are in a crisis pregnancy, they really have no choice.  And then, when the abortion is over, those women find out it made things worse, not better.  They are naturally hurt, and they have a right to be angry.
          When we deal with someone who is suffering we must show them compassion.  We should be prepared to encourage them, show unconditional love, and direct them to healing resources like Project Rachel if they ever do confide in us.  We can react as to someone in need of the healing touch of Christ, and even by lashing out at us, they give us the opportunity to be that touch for them.  Will our patience and humility win them over in the end?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But we will surely receive our reward in Heaven.
          Quickly, I want to comment on what has just recently become the most contentious issue of our day, same-sex marriage.  I approach this issue differently than others because of those in the Culture of Death, it stands apart.  Unlike abortion, I do believe that many, if not most people advocating for same-sex marriage really do believe they are doing the right thing.  They see the issue as one of human rights, and believe their cause is just.
          Unfortunately, because of that, this is the issue for which we will receive the most scorn.  Promoters of same-sex marriage do not share our understanding of marriage, and perhaps even of the human person.  They are not advancing the good of society, or even the good of the people for whom they believe they are advocating, but they don’t see it that way.  And we can laud their motivation and the goodness in their hearts, even if it is misplaced.
          I believe our task here, when dealing with people we know and care about, is simply to show them that we are not bigots.  Our opposition to same-sex marriage is reasonable.  It comes from a desire for the common good, to safeguard the well-being of children, and to show authentic love for our brothers and sisters who struggle with sexual identity, or have same-sex attraction.
          We will most likely not get our friend or family member to agree with us on this issue.  But if we have genuine compassion, and refrain from insulting or degrading remarks (which are never appropriate), though they may see us as people who are completely misguided on this issue, they will not see us as hateful bigots.  I would pray that that is enough for our differences not to harm our relationship.