The stakes of today’s political battles are high. Human dignity and lives are at risk. We must not underestimate the impact of a leader who emboldens supremacists and mocks those in need of legal refuge. Many Trump opponents seem to have adopted Hippocrates' dictum that "for extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure are most suitable," leading these opponents to resist the President with a posture that’s just as harsh and divisive.
Regretfully, some Christians have embraced this brand of graceless politics. Under this philosophy, Christian principles like compassion and forgiveness are only appropriate for our allies, the marginalized, and the oppressed. When it comes to the real issues - where justice and dignity are at stake - there is no time for dialogue, reflection, nuance, or grace. There are only those on the Right Side and those on the Wrong Side. And the wrong side is not worthy of our grace. Those of us who refuse to adopt political absolutism are accused of not fully understanding the gravity of the situation.
But perhaps those embracing the spirit of the Commander-in-Chief are overestimating what can be accomplished by responding to nastiness in-kind. Hippocrates also said, “first, do no harm.” Our disagreement isn’t over the urgency of the situation, it’s about whether forsaking decency is a solution or an aggravating factor that makes the norms we value less salvageable. Christian justice movements throughout history have proven that grace isn’t a sedative or muzzle, it’s a balm necessary for righteous action and healing. The heart and strategy of the Civil Rights Movement spoke to the essential role of grace in the most dire circumstances.
In June of 1963, after participating in citizenship training to demystify the political process to southern Blacks, Civil Rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer and a caravan of other civil rights workers were arrested by a Mississippi highway patrolman. After berating Hamer with racist and misogynistic epithets, the patrolman took Hamer to the “bullpen” and had a black male inmate beat her with a black-jack. Mrs. Hamer was beaten until she nearly passed out and could barely walk. She was denied immediate medical treatment and to add insult to injury, the patrolman was later acquitted, while she was fined for the incident.
This wasn’t Hamer’s first brush with the Jim Crow South’s demonic strain of oppression. She’d been in the bowels of this ravenous beast her entire life, and many of her contemporaries didn’t make it out of similar situations alive. Surely, Mrs. Hamer’s life experience justified distrust and anger toward the American criminal justice system. No one would fault her for concluding that the American proclamation regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was a complete and utter fraud, or for concluding that white southern leaders were animals unworthy of any grace or love.
But Mrs. Hamer’s response to her horrific experience of police brutality demonstrated why she personified the essence of the Civil Rights Movement. In the Hamer biography, This Little Light of Mine, a friend recounts the Civil Rights leader’s thoughts when she asked Hamer about those responsible for the incident: “‘Baby you have to love ‘em’. She explained it to me that we have to love them and they are sick. That was a continuous thing - she kept that going that they were sick and America was sick and it needed a doctor and we was the hope for America.”
Hamer’s assessment was the definition of grace - steadfast love and decency toward people who not only didn’t earn it, but who had perpetrated the exact opposite at her expense. Her Christ-like posture professed that the Christian obligation to treat others with human dignity was unconditional. It was also the product of a deep understanding of human depravity and the infectious nature of evil. No circumstances would dictate Hamer’s conviction that all people - oppressed, oppressor and all assorted combinations - must be shown compassion. In fact, the more wicked the circumstances, the more grace was a requirement.
This treatment stands in stark contrast with how some of today’s social justice proponents are characterizing forgiveness and loving one’s enemy. After incidents like the Dylann Roof shooting, the liberal intelligentsia explicitly began to assert that those sentiments were no longer virtues. What was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement was cast as at best a well-meaning, but naive remnant of the past. Enlightened minds now understood that only minor violations are eligible for forgiveness and decency. Even some Christians seem unwilling or unable to say what loving our enemies looks like in today’s context. It’s as if they imagine that loving our enemies excuses injustice or gives social justice deniers a cop out. A careful study of Christianity shows that from Christ to Hamer, love has never meant excusing injustice.
Those promoting the power of indecency and unforgiveness might have a point if leaders like Hamer weren’t able to combine acts of grace with a lifetime of relentless social action. Hamer’s gracious posture made her no less intense, determined or effective. She forgave the patrolman, but still fought to hold him criminally accountable. She acknowledged America’s sickness, but continued to boldly confront the keepers of the system at every turn. Mrs. Hamer was anything but quiet or subdued. Her powerful oratory and songs inspired her people into courageous civil disobedience. Her speech before the Democratic National Convention in 1964 puts the cursing and performative stunts we applaud from civic leaders today to shame. She lost nothing by forgiving the patrolman, but the world gained an example of the power of biblical fidelity in the midst of the harshest circumstances.
Grace and forgiveness don’t rationalize inaction. They release us from clouds of hatred and rage in order to address the matter with clarity of heart and mind. In the face of evil, grace and forgiveness are the ultimate act of discipline, strength and preparation for confrontation. Christian grace in politics is the dignified witness staring the offender in the face and denying him the reciprocal hostility and confusion he sought. With grace, we can demand and fight for justice on a higher ground.
Christian leaders, especially, should think twice before encouraging people to trade-in a legacy of grace and forgiveness for hot air and belligerence. If Christians are the hope of America and beyond, we’ll need to be sober physicians not foul-mouthed antagonists constantly defending our pride. #NewChristianPolitics