Truth be told, I assiduously avoid watching or listening to the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. When family members turned on the TV to watch the first Republican debate six months ago, I left the room. When a cousin recently reminded me that a debate was coming up that evening, I stared at her speechless, unable to fathom why she would choose to spend a precious evening listening to insults, lies, vitriol and bullying.
I read articles about him in The Economist, New York Times, Sojourners, and in assorted blog posts and magazines. I listen to comedians and commentators having a heyday with his inconsistencies. But early on, I knew I couldn’t stomach watching him or the Tea Party contender at all.
Why, I wonder. I thoroughly enjoy a strong, well-argued debate. In fact, when I was regularly teaching seminary classes, debate was one of my favorite pedagogies. I’ve eagerly watched debates in other election cycles. Yet on this round, I recoil in utter revulsion.
One way to construe my refusal to listen or watch is that I’m avoiding what should unflinchingly be faced head on; that I’ve succumbed to passivity and irresponsibility, frightened by the gale-force, malevolent onslaught. This may very well be the case, I admit. And it worries me—but not much.
Soul searching led toward another conclusion. Like some of you, I grew up in a subculture where following Christ meant practicing every day to be like Jesus. That might sound awfully presumptuous, but it sure seemed worth trying: practicing to be like Jesus. At the breakfast table, we read Scripture, bowed our heads and gave thanks. On Sundays we regularly worshiped together with those we called brothers and sisters in Christ. We committed to care for each other, and to be accountable to each other, and we meant it. We practiced confessing our sins, receiving and offering forgiveness. We sang hymns of praise and washed each other’s feet. We made peace with God and neighbor before sharing in communion. We gave generously from our bounty to those in need. We traveled around the corner and sometimes great distances to tell the good news of Jesus to others, to bind up wounds, and to rebuild destroyed homes.
We were fairly simple, straightforward folk who said without batting an eye that Jesus meant it when he said: “Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth; for it is his footstool…. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” Matthew 5:34-37. (Yes, back in the day, we heard and memorized the Bible in King James English.)
I remember hearing with no small measure of humble pride that our Mennonite forebears had asked for and received special provision from the government to simply “affirm,” when asked to swear an oath, that we would tell the truth in a court of law. Telling the truth was a matter of integrity. An unabashed, unadorned “yes” or “no” was sturdier than all the oaths in the world because it was spoken by a man or a woman whose word you could trust. Absolutely. That’s what my forebears aspired to be, I was told. Trustworthy people whose word and spirit rang true.
And such I felt called to be: a truth teller. When invited in seminary to name my call, I struggled to identify any particular career or profession. Instead, what I named to my conversation partner was that I am called to integrity. It matters to the core of my being that I ring true in body, mind and spirit; that my baptismal commitment to serve my Lord and Savior is a daily delight.
Which brings us into the present frame. When it comes down to basic truthfulness, I’m a fairly simple person. I thank my Anabaptist forbears for the revulsion I feel to the mean spirited distortions that are spewing forth in public discourse today. Though far from perfect and with plenty to regret, my Mennonite subculture daily schooled us to be honest, kind citizens of God’s kingdom on earth.
I remember memorizing Psalm 1 as a child. I loved the contrast it set out between the way of the wicked and those who delight in the law of the Lord. Its vivid images still make me happy: the foreboding path that sinners tread and the seat of the scoffers in stark contrast to that green, fruit-filled tree planted by streams of water whose leaves don’t wither. For some reason, I especially liked the image of the wicked being blown away like chaff; a powerful word to a child that basic life choices have life and death consequences.
It’s times like these that bring us back to basics. And what could be more rock bottom basic than resolving anew to practice every day to become more like Jesus. One of Jesus’ most devoted disciples described a daily workout this way: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21).