RWH_SowingWhirlwind

Finding Evil in America’s Public Discourse Should End

When House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a congressman representing Louisiana, was shot and critically wounded just over a week ago, the nation was stunned. Scalise was at an early morning baseball practice of the Republican congressional team set to face their Democratic counterparts in a charity game the following night.

The gunman, James T. Hodgkinson, a Belleville, Illinois resident, had made several virulent anti-Trump posts on his Facebook page. Hodgkinson, killed in an exchange of gunfire with Capital police, had also wounded two Capitol police officers, a congressional staffer, and a former congressional staffer.

He apparently began shooting after asking whether Republicans or Democrats were on the field.

President Trump visited the hospital where Scalise was being treated and gave a White House address praising the Congressman’s patriotism and his fighting spirit. He noted that America was praying for all the victims of the incident.

House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out against the attack on the House floor, saying, "We are united. We are united in our shock. We are united in our anguish. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”  That spirit of bipartisanship was echoed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said, “Tonight we’re all Team Scalise.”

It was a moment of widespread bipartisanship and recognition of a need for national healing. Senator Bernie Sanders, for whose campaign Hodgkinson had volunteered, strongly condemned the shooting calling it a “despicable act.”  Speaker Ryan said, “What we're trying to do is tone down the rhetoric, lead by example and show people we can disagree with one another; we can have different ideas without being vitriolic, without going to such extremes.” 

This spirit of unity was even sacralized by the various groups of representatives joining in prayer, and President Trump’s call for all Americans to pray for Congressman Scalise and all those injured in the shooting.

But in today’s America, the kind words must always be accompanied by divisiveness. What passes for political commentary cannot long avoid the clickbait of diving for the bottom. 

On the very day of the shooting, pundits and politicians on the right began accusing the politics of the left for creating the situation that led to violence. Hodgkinson was termed, “just another well-meaning progressive,” as if all progressives wanted to attempt to assassinate Republicans. 

Rush Limbaugh characterized Hodgkinson as a “mainstream Democratic voter.” Newt Gingrich said the shootings were “part of a pattern,” and blamed an “increasing intensity of hostility on the left.” 

Republican Congressmen added their voices to the argument.  Illinois Republican Rodney Davis, before Hodgkinson was even identified, said, "This could be the first political rhetorical terrorist attack."  Congressman Chris Collins of New York argued on a radio show that the shooting was causally linked to Democratic rhetoric.

"I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric. The rhetoric has been outrageous — the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters,” said Collins. “Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires."

The progressive American in me laughs out loud; the mainstream Christian in me weeps.  My progressive memory cannot help remembering the number of times those on the right said of President Obama that it was inappropriate and disgusting that he would politicize tragedies.

Certainly, the shooting of Gabby Giffords in 2011 involved right-leaning rhetoric?  (The fact that Giffords’ assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, was mentally disturbed does not mean that he couldn’t have been affected by extreme speech.)

Voices on the right cried out against such political opportunism. The Dylan Roof massacre of nine African American church members during Bible study in 2015, over his confessed desire to start a race war, was surely a racist terrorist attack on African Americans. Many on the right said no. 

Senator Lyndsey Graham (R-SC) said, “I just think one of these whacked out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that.”

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley somehow said, “…we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” 

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) won the prize by calling for prayer and lamenting the horrible way American religious liberty was being attacked, all in one short paragraph – thus attacking Obama while seeming to rise above politics. 

And yet it was Obama who was criticized for “politicizing” the tragedy? News outlets from Breitbart to The National Review excoriated the then-president for such a grossly political act in a time of tragedy.

While the progressive in me laughs derisively at naked hypocrisy, the Christian weeps tears.  Yes, tears for Congressman Scalise and the others injured in Alexandria, their families and loved ones, as well as for the family of James Hodgkinson, all of whom are trying desperately to find answers in the face of unspeakable evil. 

But I also shed tears for this country. The prophet Hosea, thousands of years ago, wrote of God’s chosen nation Israel: “They sowed the wind, and now reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8.7) The brilliant metaphor pointed out the ways Israel had paid no attention to its actions, and the consequences of those immoralities were coming home. Humans, both individuals and nations, tend to indulge their darker sides, and then wonder why things have gone so badly.

As in ancient Israel, America, the nation that the early European settlers liked to think of as the new Israel, has obeyed its darker angels. The politics of demonization were well established long before Donald Trump set his sights on the White House. Differences over the mechanics of basic policy issues, such as providing health insurance to more citizens, led to chants in town hall meetings of Obama’s “death panels.” 

Former Congresswoman Giffords, one of the very few people in America who knows personally what it means to be shot for being a politician (or over politics), Tweeted that her heart was with her former colleagues, their staff members and families, and the Capitol police. She called them public servants and heroes. But, internet trolls accused her of pretense and even said that she had staged the event to attempt to roll back Second Amendment rights.

Our political discourse has not just become coarser, but is a regular attempt to demonstrate that our political opponents are evil. We stoke our rage at them and then argue that we have no culpability for the predictable effects.

Ben Shapiro in The National Review pointed this out and noted that Democrats are learning the Republican creed on this model of constant rage, a poisonous mix that leads to toxic politics. Our drinking deeply at the well of hatred and our enjoyment of the character assaults on those with whom we disagree is a symptom of a national disease. Writing more than 500 years ago, Erasmus told his readers that one way to know your soul was sick was to see whether you took delight in sin. That test still holds today and is a test today’s politicians cannot pass.

Indulging ourselves by believing our deepest fears of political “enemies” cannot lead to triumph.  This country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory, but it is also almost evenly divided.  Engaging in more demonization of the other side can only lead to extension of the gridlock that has existed for years and may even put us on a path where frustrations boil over more frequently. 

For those with a civil religious view of America’s mission in the world, such a political realm will stop all efforts to reach it. For those simply wishing to have a country that protects those that Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25.40), the politics of hatred will be a wall that blocks any efforts to improve as a society.

On the day of the shooting, Democratic House members gathered for a moment of prayer for their Republican colleagues, just as President Trump called for prayer later that day. While that prayer proved to be no shield against the politics of demonization, which emerged within hours, prayer is still warranted.

Until we begin to see our sisters and brothers as children of God, created to reflect the image of God, we will not relax our fists. We must care for those who occupy a different place on the political spectrum as we care for ourselves, and we must recognize them as those loved by God. We should serve them as Christ served all. We cannot continue to seize the next opportunity to equate their viewpoints with the roots of evil. Until we stop sowing hatred in the wind, we can only expect to reap the whirlwind.

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