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A tale of two wolves

Five people died yesterday in a shooting at a newspaper office in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The individual who has been identified as the shooter once filed a defamation suit against the paper.

But it's not the shooting itself that moves me to write this post. It's a piece Chris Cuomo of CNN did yesterday. Due to the trouble Blogger has retaining videos posted using it I won't show it to you despite the availability of the video. Instead, I'll tell you about it.

Cuomo related a Cherokee proverb I'd heard many times before. A grandfather told his grandson that two wolves were constantly fighting inside each of us. One thrived on anger and hatred and vengefulness and fear. The other subsisted on love and charity and generosity and goodwill.

"Which wolf wins?" the boy asked. And his grandfather replied, "The one you feed."

“I’ve never seen anger or animus lead to anything but more of the same –– anger is not the antidote to anger –– truth and righteous passion are," Cuomo said. "You must respect yourself and the stakes enough not to resemble what you oppose."

I am not normally a fan of Chris Cuomo. To be frank, he frustrates me. He is an obviously intelligent man who simply cannot see things which to me are very obvious. It seems to me that he misunderstands the issues on which we disagree. More frustrating is that he seems to misunderstand me and my position. We, of course, have never actually met. But he often addresses concerns I have, and it doesn't seem to me that he understands them.

He would probably say the same about me were he a reader of this blog.

But he hit the proverbial nail on the head here. And I want to take the opportunity to write this because it very much addresses a concern I have about my own conduct in my personal life, on social media- and yes, in writing this blog.

I am often guilty of resembling what I oppose.

I get frustrated sometimes and attack people personally when I should be directing my passion toward the issue. Sometimes I even get involved in name-calling. Recently on Facebook, I dismissed Holocaust deniers as "nuts." Well, the fact of the matter is that the Holocaust is so well documented and the arguments of the Holocaust deniers so hollow that theirs is simply not an intellectually respectable position. In fact, it is so non-viable that it's very hard not to reach the conclusion that only an anti-Semite could espouse it, and that description does seem to objectively fit a huge percentage of Holocaust deniers.

A friend of mine called me out on that, especially since I so regularly deplore the nastiness and the name-calling and the general lack of civility which characterizes our society. He did so out of what he conceded was a lack of familiarity with the arguments of the Holocaust deniers. I will not address the question of how excusable that is in a literate American in the 21st Century. And if anyone deserves intellectual contempt, it's a Holocaust denier.

But he has a point. A while back I got into a political discussion with another Facebook friend, a man I deeply respect both personally and intellectually. Frankly, his political convictions seem to me utterly off the wall. He seems to be to be grossly out of touch with the most basic geopolitical realities of the 21st Century. That he is so intelligent a man and yet could not see that frustrated the living daylights out of me, and I ended up saying some things I regret.

I apologized and we put the incident behind us. But it bugs me because I keep doing it.

When I was unexpectedly asked years ago to serve as the pastor of the independent confessional Lutheran congregation to which I belonged, its president told me bluntly that he thought that I should take down this blog. And I could see his point. I have said things here which might be acceptable for most people, but not for a serving minister of the Gospel. They could easily be a cause of scandal for people. I struggled with the issue, and never finally took that step; eventually, my tenure as pastor there ended. But I remain, frankly, conflicted about this blog.

I started this blog for several reasons back in 2004. But one of the chief ones was as an outlet for my political frustrations. For better or for worse, I am not one of those people who can simply ignore politics or walk away from issues about which I have strong feelings. I feel the need to give vent to what I perceive to be, in Cuomo's words, "truth and honest passion." I have always believed that to be silent in the face of injustice is to become complicit in that injustice. Remaining silent is simply not an option for me.

But it's awfully difficult to separate "truth and honest passion" from anger. How can one not be angry in the face of cruelty or injustice? Would I even want to be a person who could?

More troublesome for me is what I consider to be one of my least attractive personal attributes: a tendency toward intellectual arrogance. I am, by nature, a know-it-all.  And- God help me- I have always found it incredibly hard not to correct people- sometimes only to be humiliated by the subsequent discovery that the person I have "corrected" is right! I saw a cartoon once which sums me up that way: a man is sitting at his computer in the middle of the night. His wife comes downstairs to urge him to come to bed. The caption: "But somebody on the Internet is wrong!"

Pride and arrogance are besetting sins of mine, and that's all the more troublesome in a person whose deepest theological and philosophical convictions are rooted in not only the fallibility but the deep and pervasive perversity of human nature, including most particularly his own. Jesus might well have been thinking of me when He suggested that removing the plank in one's own eye is a useful prerequisite for removing the speck in someone else's.  Simply ignoring the matter is so, very, very hard for me. But the fact remains that said plank is very large, and really does a number on my vision.

In my theological tradition, in every divine service, we pray, in unison, a general confession of our sins- but more importantly, of the sinfulness that lies behind them, the corruption of our very nature which, far more than the trifling faults through which it manifests itself, is our real problem. Our problem, Lutheranism teaches, isn't with our faults; Luther compared ridding oneself of bad habits with "picking the fleas off of one's fur coat." The problem lies much deeper: in the inherent selfishness of even the most selfless of fallen human hearts. The issue is not what we do; it lies far deeper than that. The problem is that what we do springs from what we are.

And so, every Sunday morning, we "confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean." Our nature- which God created and pronounced good, has been spoiled by our own willfulness and arrogance which has corrupted it to the very core. As the ELCA's old Lutheran Book of Worship put it, "we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves."

Paul puts it this way in Romans 7:21-25 (ESV):

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Our democracy is dying of our common self-righteousness, our determination to be heard coupled with an utter unwillingness to listen. I could blame the current administration, which it seems to me owes its very reason for being to that fact, for encouraging it. Yet the frustrating fact is that while all of us can see the faults of the other side so very, very clearly, we are utterly oblivious to the fact that we ourselves suffer from those very same faults, and to the very same degree.

We are determined to be heard, but we refuse to listen. We are quick to judge the motives of people on the other side of the political divide but are utterly (and wrongly) convinced that we ourselves are nothing like that.

But we are- and as Cuomo points out, we have to respect ourselves, as well as the consequences, enough not to become the very thing which we oppose.

And we have. Pretty much all of us have, to one degree or another

A college classmate who is also a fellow history major points out that there have been periods of American history every bit as divisive as this one. We even fought a civil war once over our differences. But somehow, we got over them- at least to a point. After all, we're still here.

The trouble is that time the divisions only seem to get worse as time goes on. Perhaps it's because the changes we're facing are so fundamental. Perhaps it's TV and radio and above all social media which are to blame. Perhaps it's the degree to which we as a people have forgotten the past, and what has gotten us out of such fixes before- or simply that we don't remember that there was ever a time when it wasn't this way.

I suspect that the last might be the biggest part of the problem.

So what do we do about it? How do we start listening to each other, and finding common ground, and building a consensus from that- as in fact, whether we remember it or not, we've been doing to a greater or lesser extent and with greater or lesser success ever since we declared our independence from Great Britain?

Jesus and Paul and Luther would suggest that we become aware of the beam in our own eyes. It's hard to hate anybody when you view the thing you are tempted to hate them for as something in which you yourself share- and whatever it is that we are tempted to hate about the people we disagree with, chances are that we do indeed share it. Seeing ourselves as righteous and the other guy as the sinner always breeds arrogance and conflict. But the opposite becomes the case when we understand that we are in the same boat he is.

The basic problem is intrinsic to human nature. We can't get rid of the pride or the arrogance or the self-righteousness within us because it's intrinsic to who- or more precisely, to what- we are.

But we can be aware of it. We can look for things to admire in the motivations of the other guy, even if we can't embrace what he advocates. We can explain ourselves as clearly as we can in terms she can understand and refuse to feed the trolls, listening to what she says instead of what we expect or even want to hear. We can ask questions rather than jump to conclusions.

We can seek common ground. It exists. It may not be ground on which they, or we, are entirely comfortable standing on. But discovering it is the only alternative to falling, as both Jesus and Lincoln reminded us that a house divided inevitably must.

Every time we speak or write, especially to someone with whom we strongly disagree, we can be aware of which of the wolves we are feeding in ourselves, and which in the other person we are inviting to dinner by the menu we put in front of it

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