I love politics. There’s just something about the messy process of democracy and the battle of ideas that I find undeniably appealing. For me, election years are the equivalent of March Madness, World Cup, and the College Football Playoffs.
Unfortunately, politics and sports are things that simultaneously unite and divide us. Republicans versus Democrats, Auburn fans versus Alabama fans. In either of these cases, we all have seen and possibly partaken in a time in which one side was marginalized, stereotyped, or lampooned by the other side.
Yet, sports and politics are not the only groups in which this happens. In fact, this tendency to dismiss others happens across every categorization of people including men versus women, young versus old, and Wal-Mart shoppers versus Target shoppers. More to the point, it’s not just that I marginalize members of the opposite groups but I also dismiss their ideas, cries of help, feelings, and motives. It is amazing how I naturally gravitate towards this orientation. How quick I can fall into the trap of dismissing that which comes from others. I have to fight this tendency constantly.
Our faith has a lot to say about this problem and the season of Lent is particularly poignant. Before I get to that, modern research also has something to say. Though the research was not undertaken from a Christian perspective, it adds a fascinating insight to that which we already know.
The research in question pertains to a frighteningly named idea known as Terror Management Theory. This theory suggests we carry a massive fear of existential death and there are two ways by which we stave off this fear. First, we categorize the world around us into groups to make life more certain. By making life more predictable, we buttress ourselves against the meaninglessness of existential threats. Second, we infuse ourselves and our groups with positive regard. By inflating our ego, we can use our self-worth to fight against the possibility of non-existence. In other words, we constantly classify everything into an “us” and “them” dichotomy and then bias the “us” to feel right, good, and secure. This process is dynamic and automatic. It permeates our thinking and evaluations constantly, moment-to-moment, in the ongoing quest to protect us from that which we most fear, a meaningless existence that ends in non-existence.
It is amazing how well this describes our broken condition. Speaking to the depth of the problem, the Gospels are replete with examples of people using group divisions and how Jesus handled this issue. At one point a group of Israelites ask Jesus what to do about someone caught in adultery thereby bringing forth a sinner versus non-sinner division. Jesus’s paradigm-shifting answer is to break down that divide by questioning the validity of the non-sinner group (John 8:7). At another point, Jesus’s family seek his attention in a form of expected obligation thereby bringing up a family versus non-family division. Jesus response is to redefine family to be more inclusive (Matthew 12:46).
It is the New Testament’s teachings about enemies that are most instructive as to how to handle the natural tendency to divide ourselves. More specifically, even when justified, we are advised to avoid desires for vengeance and instead care for our enemies (Romans 12:20), repay evil with blessings (1 Peter 3:9), and love our enemies (Matthew 5:34).
In other words, we are called to the recognition that we divide ourselves and that these divisions are artificial and often counterproductive. We are called to “…not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28) We are called to realize that the only true division is that which we have created between ourselves and our Creator.
Lent represents a time to reflect on this separation, what God did to overcome it, and how we can still fall victim to the ramifications of this separation. To reflect on how we have all turned away from God and now lessen others to keep us from facing an uncomfortable truth. How a paralyzing fear pushes us to put our self-worth over anyone and everyone. How our flesh created a division between us and the Divine and our flesh now uses this division to separate us from those we are called to love. How we withdraw from and overlook the very people who might need us the most. How we diminish others and thereby diminish ourselves. How God took the form of Jesus to save us and show us what life is like when this ever-present fear is no longer a factor.
My latest realization is that I may be saved from existential death but I haven’t overcome the fear of it. I have an inherent nature to marginalize those not like me to protect my fragile and ephemeral sense of self. Thankfully, God is at work inside of me, slowly building the faith, hope, and love that overcome this fear. And when God gets involved, all things become possible, even political opponents giving each other the benefit of the doubt.