In divisive times, can we find ways to let our ‘better angels’ show?

When I was a student at Stetson University, I took a course called “Logic.” I had a few electives left, and I thought a course in logic would be helpful in Christian ministry.

Perhaps my most exciting day was when we talked about “argumentum ad hominem.” That’s Latin for “don’t try to win an argument by attacking the character of your adversary, but by being more convincing on the issues.” In other words, there’s no need for name-calling like “Sleepy Joe” or “Crooked Hilary” (or worse); just stick to the issues and see whose arguments prevail. Or at least attempt to reach a truce where you still respect the other person.

As John Meacham, professor of presidential history at Vanderbilt University, says, we need to let our “better angels” show.

When I heard my university professor say “argumentum ad hominem,” it took me back to high school. I had taken three years of Latin with Miss Turtellot. Why? I must have been at least partially masochistic. Standing at the door, Miss Turtellot watched each of us fearfully enter her room. No smile, no warm words of welcome. Just the stern look of a teacher who more than taught Latin; she was Latin. After she shut the door, the Roman Empire was alive for 55 minutes as she clomped around the room in those “gunboat shoes.”

“I alternate between sadness and madness.”

We thought she was ancient, but of course we thought all of our teachers (with a few exceptions) were ancient. Miss Turtellot sounded as if she had known the caesars personally. “All Gaul is divided into three parts,” she said in a piercing voice that still makes my ears hurt. The way she said the phrase only convinced us more that she had been the ghost writer for Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars.

When she called on us to translate, our tense voices went to a high pitch. We had no notes. “Mr. Bugg, translate those next two paragraphs.” When I missed the right word or got the verb tense wrong, Miss Turtellot’s caustic words almost drew blood.

Sometimes I wondered why I ever took three years of Latin. My dad had told me that Latin would help my English, but all I could see was an adolescent’s elevated blood pressure and an early path to a stomach ulcer.

My logic professor at Stetson told us that it was not acceptable to engage in “argumentum ad hominem.” Focus on the message and not the messenger. Avoid calling your adversaries names.

Admittedly, this can be difficult to do. As a Baptist from the South, I saw a convention in which I grew up vote in ways that basically excluded people like me. The seminary where I had earned two degrees and later taught became both fundamentalist and Calvinist under new leadership.

I’ve seen well-known faith leaders seduced by the power of proximity to the president of the United States, while completely overlooking the president’s serious character flaws. The rationale frequently presented is that President Trump will nominate “our” kind of federal judges and will help to enact laws to “our” liking.

I alternate between sadness and madness. Frankly, I’d like to call the president’s political and religious enablers some names and forget “argumentum ad hominem” or letting my better angels show. But what good would that do? I’d just be crawling into the muddy waters of those whose ideology keeps them from seeing some of us as persons who are created and loved by God.

“Let’s maintain our poise and respond in ways that clearly express our perceptions of the Christian faith.”

However, I can speak to the issues. In a nation and world increasingly pluralistic and diverse, how sad not to celebrate that reality. The rise of white supremacy and so-called “nationalism” are extremely serious issues. If churches ever needed a courageous and cogent word about this increasing divisiveness and hate, it is now. Younger people are leaving our churches largely because some of us who are pastors have been too silent about the challenges that confront us.

I’d like to offer a few suggestions to guide our responses to three challenges we face as American Christians.

1. Intense anger that prevents clear thinking and speaking and creates a climate for personal attacks on other people.

Anger can be an appropriate response. But misguided anger can lead to self-pity, which puts the attention on us and not on the issues on which we want to focus. President Trump describes himself as a “counter puncher.” Disagree with him and what invariably ensues is not a respectful discussion of issues but name-calling.

Let’s face it, we can’t have thoughtful, fruitful discussions with everybody. So, what do we do? Call persons names? Dismiss those who disagree as unenlightened because, after all, we are always right?

White nationalism, climate change, human sexuality and identity, immigration, gun control, gender discrimination . . . the list is almost limitless. I want to speak out with courage and force. But I must not allow courage and force to devolve into uncontrolled anger and overwhelming anxiety.

We need to avoid language that reflects our discomfort and especially our self-pity when we feel that people have wronged us. It may be true that we have been wronged, but we don’t want that reality to captivate our own spirits and simply become sorry for ourselves. Feeling anxious and sorry for ourselves only results in speech that doesn’t focus on the important issues. The only things that win are our own anger and our own anxiety. Is that what we want?

When elected leaders like President Trump or seminary presidents like Albert Mohler or university presidents like Jerry Falwell Jr. or Christian non-profit leaders like Franklin Graham make statements that seem diametrically opposed to our Christian values, let’s maintain our poise and respond in ways that clearly express our perceptions of the Christian faith. Let’s show our “better angels.”

2. “Argumentum ad hominem.”

Arguments against the character of a person seldom do anything to move the needle of support for our point of view. We are called to be faithful to the truth of our Christian values. For example, Mohler’s recent assertions that a family is incomplete when the wife and husband have no children offends my sensitivities as a person and as a former pastor. I can tell stories about couples who for their own good reasons chose not to have children and more stories about persons who wanted to have children but were unable.

In my opinion, Mohler argues from his authoritarian theological platform but fails to care as a minister for those who are the recipients of his so-called “infallible” pronouncements. Life is far more complicated when you have to deal with issues that have people’s names and faces on them.

3. The need to win – and to win over those who hold different perspectives from our own.

We won’t persuade everybody that we are on God’s side. Jesus certainly didn’t. However, that didn’t stop him from advocating what he believed. Much of his own displeasure was directed toward the legalistic, religious leaders of his day. But he also had stern words for his own disciples who were distracted from delighting in children at play; who wanted to send people home because five loaves and two fish were obviously not enough for a family meal, much less a dinner crowd of thousands; and who were ready to draw their swords and to counterpunch.

My simple advice for myself and for people of faith in our divided and divisive times is this: Listen carefully to others, speak the truth in love and then… well, leave the rest to God.

If I can do that, Miss Turtellot will be happy that I know what “argumentum ad hominem” means. And my professor of logic will be pleased that I listened to something he taught.


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