The Common Good
March-April 1995

A Bitter Harvest of Hatred

by Roberta Hestenes | March-April 1995

The game we must refuse to play

One of my minor claims to 15 minutes of fame was appearing on a national network talk show where the host was Pat Sajak of the very popular game show Wheel of Fortune. Ever since, I have entertained fantasies of creating a sensationally successful new game show for the insatiable appetites of the American public. I finally have an idea for a new game show. It's called Will the REAL Christian Please Stand Up? It ought to be a sure-fire winner because so many people have been practicing some form of this game for such a long time.

The concept is simple. Place Christians of diverse views and perspectives in a gladiator's arena like the ones with the Christians and the lions in ancient Rome. Promise an enormous prize (such as, for example, political power or cultural domination). The announcer declares that the prize can only be won by the group who most successfully attacks, vilifies, demonizes, and discredits all the other players in order to win the title of "Real Christian." The Game Judges (the secular media?), who cynically care little about any of the contestants or their views, seek to keep the audience entertained by fomenting the most controversy and noise possible and from time to time declare a temporary winner.

As a Christian woman, I have seen and been tempted by this game all too often - both as a Christian and as a woman. People who ought to share some fundamental values and behaviors rooted in their common confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord lunge, instead, for each others' throats with labels, false assumptions, oversimplified generalizations, and personal attacks. Some even seek victory by declaring that Christians who do not share their specific political or ideological views are not Christians at all. Or if there are Christians who do not agree with me, some suggest, they must be corrupt, evil, misguided, duped, or duplicitous, pretending to be what they are not so as to mislead the unsuspecting. Videotapes, talk shows, direct mail, gossip, jokes, and angry discourse are some of the weapons of choice.

In this mode of interaction, the problem is not the existence of differences. Differences are to be expected even among Christians. Differences should be discussed, debated, analyzed, and handled with respect and reason. Instead, in this destructive and dangerous game, differences are too often attributed to personal vices and dishonorable motives in order to discredit not only ideas but the persons who hold them. The ultimate escalation comes when rhetoric incites and results in violence. This kind of nastiness has been known from both the Right and the Left, although the Right clearly seems to be leading the field today. This pattern of conduct dishonors the gospel and discredits those who practice this "rhetoric of realpolitik." It poisons the public square and produces a bitter harvest of hatred.

There is a better way to fulfill our calling as Christians in the public arena. We can refuse the game. We can choose to take seriously and follow the instructions of Old Testament and New Testament:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor ( Exodus 20:16).

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors for we are members of one another....Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is useful for building up as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear....Put away from you all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31-32).

Roberta Hestenes was a Sojourners contributing editor and president of Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, when this article appeared.

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