Being right and being good

I haven’t known what to say since the election. I haven’t needed to. So many others have said so much, it hardly seems that my two cents would offer anything not already covered in the civic discourse; at least among moderates, liberals, and progressives. That civic discourse, I’ve noticed, reads one of two ways: A civil discourse (ie we need to work to close the divide that has torn our nation apart), or a reaction to the premise of such civility (ie because of the racism, homo/transphobia, and chauvinism at the heart of 45 and his most loyal base, we cannot compromise an inch).

For much of the last four years, my voice has been squarely in the latter category. I have pointed to this administration’s dog whistles (and sometimes fog horns) that empower far-right hate groups, and I have named how sweeping policies and unorthodox judicial appointments have real implications not just for LGBTQ folks, but also for BIPOC folks and other marginalized groups. But in these few weeks with my (written) voice tacit, I’ve the opportunity to read articles, posts, and tweets from across the political spectrum. And is often the case, it is easier to notice flaws in the words of others, even if they are words I have previously offered myself. (A quick note here: I’m not getting into my critique of the conservative dialogue at the moment. In part, because I don’t feel that it would be heard in this forum, but also, because the hypocrisy is obvious – 45 v. family values, etc, etc – and people like Stephen Colbert can offer the critique with much more precision and eloquence.)

Sticking with the present moderate/liberal/progressive dialogue, the a troubling aspect is the rampant amount of virtue signalling. Partially, this is a pitfall of the internet. Individuals can sound our opinions on a one-way frequency into a self-affirming vacuum. It’s a closed-loop, and if someone from the other “side” blasts us, it only offers us an opportunity to grandstand in defense of our deeply held beliefs. It’s so tempting. In the past two months, I have needed to (re)commit myself daily to not to engage trolls (or to troll) on the internet. God knows I haven’t always succeeded. In one such instance, I went off in a sarcastic rant, and was rightfully accused of a breach in civility. At the time, I acquiesced, because I knew I’d trespassed in some way. Later, though, upon reflection, I realized that civility was not where I had faltered.

Because civility is not a value unto itself. Civility is not rooted in the teachings of Jesus (check out John 2, if you don’t believe me). And so, as a Christian, my mistake was not in rejecting the idol of civility, but in making an idol out of my own desire to be right.

This past week I had the privilege of speaking at a funeral for someone had aptly pre-selected 2 Timothy 4: 6-8 to be read at their service. Unlike many readings at funerals, which tend to evoke images of enteral rest or comfort, these verses 2 Timothy reflect on the value of living a righteous life. Righteousness, in this case, means serving others and giving generously; not in order to be rewarded. Not even in order to be right. But in order to be good.

To be righteousness, or good, requires not only right action, but also right intention. And so, it is more complex than simply being right. Yesterday, after the funeral, it occurred to me that this complexity is precisely what is missing from the present political dialogue. Take, for instance, the conversation about healing. I’ve read heard so many people say that now is the time healing, as though healing were a universally understood concept. It’s not.

Healing is a complex thing. I am reminded of my dog who had an infection on his paw. We let it go for a few days, but it kept getting worse. We kept trying to top him from licking and chewing, but eventually, we had soaked it and fussed with it daily. To him, what we were doing may not have seemed dissimilar from what he was attempting to do. But where he was acting with compulsion, we were acting with intention. He was doing what was right, but we did what was good. (FYI His paw has since healed.)

This is certainly an insufficient metaphor, but it isn’t entirely ineffective. Because we need to be reminded that being right won’t cut it. It won’t be enough to say the right thing, or to be seen sharing the right post. Because being uncompromising in our principles means little if we are faithful in our actions. Being right means little if we are not also trying to be good., we must also be equally pragmatic in our actions. Winning a self-satisfying argument means nothing on it’s own. Being right means little, if we are not also striving to be good.

Being good can be situational. It can be contextual. It is complex, because it requires an awareness of our own true motives and intentions. And so, being good must begin with our own self-critique. Why am I speaking up now? If I am deterring from civility, is it in the service of the truth? Am I the best person to say this? In speaking, am I adding something to the pursuit of social justice? Am I participating in the building of community which centers the voices of those who are marginalized?

No doubt, in the coming months (and years) there will be plenty of opportunities in our political dialogue to be right. And also, such dialogue will mean nothing if it is not in the service of social transformation, and of the kind of healing that actually changes the lives of marginalized people (and of all of us). In order to work for healing, we need to work at being righteous. In order to build a world that is better, we need to work at being good.

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