A few weeks ago I wrote an article about Bernie Sanders. My point was to highlight how Bernie refuses to play the game of political scapegoating. He was baited by an interviewer to attack Hillary Clinton and he refused to do it. Instead, he spoke about the issues. I argued that we need political leaders like Bernie Sanders.
Well, I was accused of endorsing Bernie. The accusation might be fair because I am feeling the Bern.
But I’m also feeling the Jeb.
Jeb Bush was recently on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Before taking a few late night obligatory jabs at the “Big orange elephant in the room … Donald Trump,” Stephen asked Jeb about the political hostility that divides Washington.
Stephen: Do you think that you could bring people together? Because everybody says they want to bring people together, but when you get down to the campaigning or get down to what passes for governing now, it often ends up being just a game of blood sport where you attack the other person and the other side can’t possibly do, say, or have planned for anything good.
Jeb: So I’m going to say something that’s heretic[al] I guess. I don’t think that Barack Obama has bad motives. I just think he’s wrong on a lot of issues … If you start with the premise that people have good motives you can find common ground … Look, in state capitals all across the country this doesn’t happen to the same extent that it does in Washington. In the mayor’s offices there are people who disagree with one another and they are allowed to talk to one another. You can be friends with people that you don’t agree with on everything. I mean, we have to restore a degree of civility.
Assume the Good
Jeb has provided some important political wisdom. Politics has become infected with what René Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.” We often think that rivalry is based on our differences. For example, we might think that Republicans and Democrats are in a bitter rivalry because they have differences of opinion about how to govern. Political rhetoric emphasizes the differences, of course, because each side completely believes in their own propoganda! If only they were really arguing about their different objectives, then we would be having substantive discussions on solutions to the problems that we face as a nation. But political rivalry isn’t based on differences; it’s based on similarities. For example, Republicans and Democrats are in a bitter rivalry because each side wants the same thing – they each want to win and each views the other as a threat to their desire. In order to win, Democrats and Republicans forget their political mission to promote the common good and instead spend much of their time demonizing one another and telling us why electing the other side would be disastrous for America.
In human relationships, mimetic rivalry quickly escalates to the point where the object is completely lost and the only thing left is defeating our opponents. In other words, winning becomes the all-consuming objective rather than finding solutions to our nation’s problems. It’s a dangerous scenario that leads to verbal, emotional, and physical violence.
We need political leaders like Jeb Bush to guide us beyond the trap of mimetic rivalry. Jeb’s advice to “start with the premise that people have good motives” is an excellent place to start healing the political divide.
But as Jeb points out, to assume the good in the other is often viewed as heretical. There may be a price to pay when we stop demonizing our opponents and acknowledge that they are motivated by something good. We may be seen as traitors if we reach across the political or religious or racial or economic divide. We may even become our own group’s scapegoat.
Jesus and Jeb: On Being Heretics
This is the danger of fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. When we love our enemies, which includes the ability to assume that they have good motives, our friends can quickly turn against us. Jesus knew the tragic outcome that his message of love would bring to a violent world. His message of love for even our enemies wouldn’t bring peace, rather it would bring division. It would split families and social groups apart because our group identity is so often based on uniting in hatred against a common enemy. But Jesus doesn’t allow for that kind of unity. He commands that we love our enemies as we love ourselves. Yet, he’s also very clear about the cost,
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
Jesus’s call to love all people evokes the paradoxical truth that all-inclusive love brings division within group dynamics. He was accused of being a heretic because he challenged the status quo of hatred and hostility that divides groups from one another. When we love with the radical inclusiveness of Jesus we will be labeled as heretics by our own group. And that’s okay, because when our friends become enemies, we are still called by Jesus to love them. We are called, to paraphrase Jeb’s comment on the Late Show, to “start with the premise that our enemies, even our friends who have turned against us, have good motives.” Once we find and acknowledge those good motives, we have a better chance of working together toward the common good.
We need political leaders who will reach across the political divide and assume the good motives of the other. We need political leaders like Jeb Bush.
Photo: Jeb Bush and Stephen Colbert on the Late Show. (Screen shot from YouTube)