The Pharisee in the Voting Booth

Polling stationThe Pharisees of the New Testament have come too easily to be synonymous with “hypocrite,” which is more than a little unfair. The Pharisees were the ones who, amid an imploding world, kept the faith. And in the story Jesus told in Luke 18, the Pharisee was an upstanding fellow. He didn’t gouge his customers for profit, didn’t sneak around on his wife, didn’t do underhanded deals. His word was his bond; he was the sort of fellow you wanted as your neighbor, your business partner – heck, your pastor. The other fellow in the story, however, was a real scoundrel, a shady tax collector. He was, in the words of Robert Capon: “the worst kind of crook: a legal one, a big operator, a mafia-style enforcer…living for years on the cream he’s skimmed off other people’s milk money.” He was “a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks nothing but Chivas Regal, and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a-night call girls in tow.”

So the Pharisee was a good fellow, but as the story goes, he was so very full of himself, so very self-righteous, that he didn’t think he had any need for grace. The tax collector, however, was a wreck. He’d hit bottom and knew he was in a bad way. The Pharisee, because he was so drunk on his own goodness, spurned the grace he needed. The tax collector, because he could not keep up the charade of his own goodness, opened himself wide to let the grace pour in.

Of course, perhaps this is all humdrum and some of us are getting restless because I’ve hinted that this story might have something to say about a certain electoral engagement soon approaching. Well, there’s a word in this story that has not received appropriate attention: contempt. Jesus tells us that this Pharisee felt contempt for the tax-collector. To feel contempt is to disdain another, to regard them as nothing. To pour contempt on another is to dehumanize them, to reject their value and beauty as an image bearer of God. In Jesus’ eyes, contempt was the Pharisee’s severe brand of self-righteousness. But here’s the thing about self-righteousness: it makes us feel so good, so smart, so quick with the cutting wit; it make us feel superior, part of the right crowd, part of the righteous crowd. And yet it leads us into a dark hole. When we feed our contempt for another human, we drink deep from a bitter cup. We gulp in the soul’s poison.

There are, to be sure, many serious matters to be weighed with this election. There are issues of grave concern threatening severe consequences. We ought to think hard and promote ideas that are true and just and healing. But whatever comes on election day, if we’ve surrendered our shared humanity, we have surrender far too much. If we are people of faith and yet our political opinion evidences contempt for other women and men God dearly loves (in spite of who they’re voting for), then our faith, in this instance, has gone dead. It’s one thing to disagree with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or those who support them – but contempt is something entirely different. Our contempt might feel so good in the moment. It may gain us some of those coveted thumbs up on FB or knowing chuckles at the office – but contempt will destroy our souls.

We can not say we are fighting a righteous cause or a just cause if we lie about another human, if we slander another human, if we degrade another human’s dignity. The truth as we see it may be pointed, it may even sting – but if we become contemptuous, we really need to pause and look deep in our soul.

The Meanness That Ruins Us

I once heard Martin Marty explain how he believed we are arriving at a place where the theological divisions among Christians will no longer be classified primarily as liberal and conservative but rather as mean and not mean. While our religious convictions express our noble attempts to understand (and be faithful to) the triune God, any conviction that does not reflect the generous way of Jesus immediately reveals itself as a fraud. Sometimes it seems we’re overrun with religious blowhards (across the spectrum) whose every syllable drips with sarcasm, anger and scorn (not to mention ignorance, if not outright dishonesty, about the words and positions of those we despise). Thumping our Bible does not give us a pass on being a Grade A prig.

Note: “Speaking the truth in love” actually requires love. Even if I speak with the wisdom and authority of angels – if I don’t have love – then I’m doing nothing but clanging those cymbals. Have you ever heard someone (and it’s usually a child) just banging away on those blasted cymbals, like a hammer pounding your brain? Obnoxious, isn’t it?

I think Marty’s observation also makes sense for most every form of our public discourse. I wonder if our political divides may, if the current debasement holds, become less democrat/republican and more mean/not mean. Like many, I’ve come to loathe election season because it reveals the very worst about us as a people, our seeming inability to carry on a meaningful conversation about important ideals – a conversation exuding generosity rather than venom, a conversation eager to understand rather than merely score a kill, a conversation where we see the other as a beloved fellow human rather than an impersonal object or a despised enemy. We are so fearful, our patience so razor thin. It only takes a word, an image – and a hundred cat fights break out.

I’m an optimist, I suppose, but I believe that many of us will come to our senses. The antidote to meanness is, of course, the simplest thing: kindness. Kindness does not signal we’ve gone weak. Rather, when kindness takes root, it tells us we’ve abandoned our childish ways and let courage take root. We’ve learned we have no need to vilify another. We stand in the truth we understand, and we seek to understand more (and who knows how this will change us?). We’ve learned that meanness will only ruin us. We know now that if we fight savagely for some ideal, then even if we achieve what we claw after, there will be nothing left worth having.