The New Bigotry
Among the thinning list of vices still capable of generating unilateral moral outrage, bigotry has remained near the top. And for good reason. Bigotry involves the judging, excluding, discriminating, and oppressing of a human being made in God’s image. The seed of bigotry grows in the soil of hatred and pride, and blooms into some of the basest, most repulsive, and most dangerous atrocities that human beings commit. And one of our greatest moral pivots in the past fifty years—one often glossed over in recounting tales of our degenerate slide—has been a burgeoning intolerance for bigotry. We have become adept at responding to and sniffing out (sometimes with an overly-heightened sense of smell) the aromas of bigotry while the pot is still warming. This is generally a good thing. We’re willing to listen more.
With one exception.
Even as we strive to become better at appreciating diversity within people’s backgrounds and cultures, another form of bigotry grows and swells like a cancer. I am speaking of a bigotry that we find in identity politics.
Initially, we might dismiss such an accusation as categorically different. After all, politics are a matter of opinions and values, subject to change, progression, and correction. Therefore, one’s opinion of political opponents has nothing to do with judgments on that person’s inherent value or dignity. I would respond that if we suspend, for the moment, the challenging complexity of how many values stem from our personal background, political polarization under the terms listed above is something far different from, for example, hatred of the Irish.
However, in identity politics we find many who do not honor their opponents as respectable and intelligent (if mistaken in their philosophy of governance). Consider the program and aim of bigotry: It seeks to pigeonhole and caricature another group in order to disparage their dignity and worth. Bigotry flattens a person’s three-dimensionality. It is dismissive, and its purpose is to gain control. These markers sound quite a lot like what passes today for political discourse. Groups of people, left and right, are summarily described and decried with one-word metonyms, as if once that part of their identity is known about them, well, what more really needs to be said? We can then produce convenient attribute checklists about that person, down to what music they listen to, and what they eat for breakfast.
Jesus, however, shows his followers a much different approach, one where the kingdom of God at every place, and in every conversation provides a higher set of categories for understanding and caring for other people. Within Jesus’ own band of followers, he recruited a tax collector and a zealot, two sides of the Jewish political spectrum which could not have been more radically opposed. He took it on himself to reach out to, befriend, and offer grace to a Samaritan woman. This was someone who was an outsider in every conceivable way: A woman, a person of moral scandal, and a Samaritan, “with whom the Jews had no dealings” (Jn 4:9). Jesus showed time and again that not only was he uninterested in currying favor with the powerful among his own party, but he had a penchant for turning them down in favor of outsiders.
In perhaps Jesus’ most famous political test, where he is provoked to take sides on one of the most divisive issues of the day—whether or not to pay taxes—he flatly refuses to play their game. “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:21); in other words, "You’re worried about the wrong thing. Your whole life belongs to God. Have you given any thought to that debt?"
Romans 13 gives us Paul’s treatise on respecting government authority, and Peter gives us a brief and uncomfortable version of the same: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (I Pet 2:17). This is where as Christians, frankly, we have really fallen off. How many of us honor even the politicians we mostly agree with—to say nothing of the spawn of Satan and antichrists we voted against?
Perhaps the clearest re-orientation of the kingdom of God becomes evident when Jesus disciples approach him after his resurrection and ask, with evident impatience: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Jesus responds that it’s not for them to know the time and seasons God has fixed, but they will receive power from the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses to end of the earth. The disciples wanted action; they wanted, at last, to get this Jesus campaign to gain some real traction and power. Jesus affirms that his side is going to win, but he re-directs our political zeal: “Be my witnesses”, he commands us. That’s how the kingdom is going to come.
It’s not that politics don't matter; it's that the real progress we long for comes through God’s Spirit and Word empowering God’s people as they live out their lives as witnesses.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Christ Community Church in Carmel, Indiana.
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