Though Your Sins be as Scarlet

If I ask you what political group, candidate, or position bothers you most, what comes to mind? If you live in the U.S., maybe it will be the Occupy groups or the Tea Party. Perhaps it’s Obama, Santorum, Reid, or Boehner-surely there is some person or group that gets under your skin. Who is your enemy?

A lawyer challenged Jesus 2,000 years ago with the devil’s sneering question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Jewish culture suggested that any personal obligation reached only as far as personal fellowship, i.e., to kinsmen who believed correctly and whom you liked.

We still face the same challenge. We who consider ourselves on the inside of rightness and goodness frequently draw lines determining who our neighbor is and who our enemy is based on whether or not they agree with our opinions and political viewpoints. We decide who is truly on the inside with us, who is on the outside, and who is suspect. And then we justify contention and mudslinging directed towards those we have labeled enemies based on their differing perspectives. This is an enterprise encouraged by the father of contention.

In the last few years I have heard Latter-day Saints say some disturbingly contentious things directed towards others, especially in the area of politics. I bet you have too. There is a pretty good chance that each of us has said such things ourselves in today’s combative climate.

For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 Nephi 11:29)

When I hear good Latter-day Saints rail angrily against this policy or that politician, I compare that anxious animosity with the peaceful tranquility that comes from the Brethren in General Conference. I think we should follow the Lord’s inspired leaders in the temperance of our expressions, even when speaking on topics about which we have strong opinions.

When someone does something that we don’t understand or frankly disagree with, we commonly make the mistake of assuming that person must have bad motives. We conclude that that person wants to undermine the government, the family, the constitution, etc. We easily translate disagreement into character assassination, global denunciation-and contention. We then justify our judgments and accusations by feeling we are doing something noble. We claim we are just calling out the wicked. Ask those Pharisees who conspired for Jesus’ destruction.

Obviously that is an extreme example, yet the spirit of contention is the same. We take fragments of information and stir in our dislike for a person until we have full-fledged condemnation. This is contrary to God’s way, and it endangers our spiritual well-being.

Notice that when God designed political counsel for our time, He focused on one thing:

Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written. (Ether 2:12, emphasis added)

This passage counsels us that our freedom and independence will not be settled by the size of our government, military might, or a certain political philosophy. Instead, those blessings hinge on one critical thing: We as a people must serve Jesus Christ.

The Mark of Christianity

So how do we determine if we truly are servants of Jesus Christ?

We all know that this means more than attending a Christian church.                                

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matthew 7:22-23)

Nope. The mark of Christianity is very different. It is not primarily about what we profess or even our beliefs. The number of hours spent in Sunday meetings do not prove our faithfulness.

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:35)

Jesus made it profoundly simple. We are His disciples only to the extent that we love one another. Even Democrats. Even Tea Partyers. Even Occupiers and Wall Streeters. Even the homeless and poor. Even Muslims. Even those who have different political viewpoints.

Peaceful Dialogue

Obviously Jesus does not intend that we agree with everyone. He clearly did not agree with many of the teachings and actions of the lawyers, Sadducees, and Pharisees, but He always acted redemptively. For example, in the case of the malicious lawyer who wanted to humiliate Jesus with his question about the bounds of neighborliness, Jesus responded with the story that may be the most inviting and powerful story ever told on this earth: the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Jesus responded to malice with calm, wise teaching. He treated the malevolent lawyer as a beloved neighbor.

So what if during this election year we were to follow His example? How do we disagree with others while treating them as neighbors whom the Savior asks us to love?

We can avoid railing against those who take positions that are different from ours. Personal attacks, mockery, ridicule, and even just plain old negativity are not of Christ. Anger makes us irrational and uncharitable. We can respectfully disagree with others, but we should not defame any candidates or their supporters.

We can commit to being an uplifting and edifying influence. We can advocate for any candidates and positions we endorse while refraining from making derogatory comments about those we do not support. Demeaning or demonizing others does not lift any person or position. The Savior taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). We can be concerned and involved citizens while also setting a standard for peaceful dialogue.

Dead Right

Years ago I took a school law class from Percy Burrup. I remember a story he told of a man who approached an intersection recognizing that he had the right of way-but recognizing just as clearly that the person traveling the cross-street did not intend to stop. The man had a choice. He could exercise his right of way-and be killed. He would be dead right. Or he could exercise restraint and prudence and live.

While an imperfect metaphor for our political actions, that simple story conveys a valuable truth. We may be quite right about this constitutional principle or that politician’s behavior (though I think we humans almost always overestimate our correctness), yet if we exercise our “rightness” and prove our point through pushing our truth overzealously, we will lose. We will be dead right. We can argue our principles powerfully in political discussion, but if our zeal causes us to lose our regard for fellow humans-even those with whom we disagree-we have lost our discipleship.

Thanks to Barbara Keil, Jessi Duncan, and Deanna Smith for their contributions to this article.

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