The Spirit of Combat

Feb 05, 2008 |Matt Kaufman

You can contend for a good cause with a bad attitude. I sure have.

When I was about 6, my mother occasionally took on the daunting task of presenting me with new types of food which I had no desire to eat. My internal reaction, like most kids, was yuck. But I didn't say it out loud. I hated the thought of hurting anyone's feelings, especially Mom's. So I hit upon what struck me as the only solution. "It's good," I'd explain after taking as small a bite as I could — "but ... it's too good."

I tell the story for a reason, and it's not to boast about being a nice guy. (There are lots of ways to be sinful while being a nice guy, and I'm guilty of many of them.) It's just to let you know that, by nature, I'm anything but contentious. Except for a couple years of teenage belligerence, I've always been the peaceable type. In fact, that was how we all were in my house: No yelling, no carping, just lots of niceness. Like my parents, I get along with pretty much everyone I know. A few years back someone at my office nicknamed me "Diplo-Matt," and the name stuck.

The odd thing is, my chosen career is full of conflict.

I'm a writer, and I write mostly about the topics everyone says should be avoided in order to keep the peace: religion and politics. I take positions on issues like abortion and homosexuality — the stuff so contentious that it's commonly known under the name "the culture war." I oppose government programs I can't see authorized in the Constitution, which is to say almost everything the federal government does these days, including the popular stuff — Social Security, student loans, the whole deal. If I ran for office, I'd be tagged as a radical extremist and lose in a landslide.

So what's a nice guy like me doing in a profession like this? That's not the interesting question, really. (The answer's too short and simple: "Because I think these issues are important.") The better question is: What's it like being the kind of guy I am working in a profession like this?

When you deal with controversial issues, it's all too easy to develop a partisan mentality, even if that's not your natural disposition. You tend to think in Us-vs.-Them terms, magnifying the sins committed by Them while minimizing the sins committed by Us. You also tend to lose sight of the principles you're supposed to believe in, or to subject those principles to critical scrutiny to make sure you've got them right. It's a lot more fun to focus on bashing The Bad Guys.

I've done more than my share of this sort of thing over the years. I'd like to say it's a habit confined to my distant past, but it tends to pop up again on short notice. Long after I thought I'd gotten past it, I realized I was still at it, one way or another. It was coming out in ways I was tempted to dismiss as minor ways — say, cheap Bill Clinton jokes. But as a theologian (C.F.W. Walther) once noted, "Small sins become great when they are regarded as small." The spirit behind the jokes was a nasty enjoyment at having someone to look down upon. I'd tell myself I should knock it off. Every now and then I catch myself doing it anyway.

Now I'd be the last guy to say there's no place for humor, or sarcasm, for that matter. You can find it in the Bible, among other respectable sources. (Read Elijah's taunts toward the priests of Baal sometime.) Different times call for different tones. Sometimes the tone should be gentle, but sometimes it should be sharp and cutting, or righteously confrontational.

Here's the question, though: How often do we take those latter tones because it's fitting, and how often do we do it because we simply like things that way?

Confrontation can easily become combativeness for its own sake, whether or not it starts out that way. You can come to relish taking shots at your foes in the name of virtue: Proper righteousness can slide into self-righteousness. At that point, the devil's getting his way with you, and he doesn't mind that your professed cause may be noble. He may even prefer it; a corrupted champion of a good cause only discredits that cause, as well as himself. From the devil's standpoint, that's a two-for-one bargain.

The more I recognize how easy it is to journey down that road, the more I'm wary of even starting down it.

In recent years I've tried to spend more time trying to understand other people's views, even when I think they're wrong. As I get older, I've found that sometimes there's more merit to those views than I used to think. (Doubtless I'm not done making such discoveries.) And even when I'm convinced those views are wrong, I still can get more insight into them, and the people who hold them. Sometimes I can see how, if I'd lived under other circumstances, I might see things differently too.

We do have to remember that not every difference is simply an honest disagreement between people of good will. For example, when someone makes the broad, overreaching claim that morality should boil down to "whatever consenting adults want to do," we should point out how conveniently self-serving that position is. That's the source of its power, after all: Not its appeal to the mind (its logic is flimsy), but its appeal to the sinful nature. It's not merely mistaken, it's unsavory: It's spawned not just by sloppy thinking but bad motives. And we have to say so.

Still, God is clear about whose sins should grab my attention the most. I ought to be noticing a big plank in my eye that looms a lot larger than that speck in my neighbor's. Spiritually speaking, it's a good rule that any day I spend thinking more of other people's offenses than my own is a bad day. Paul could devote plenty of energy to combating a sinful world around him in the strongest terms, while still claiming the chief-of-sinners title for himself.

As I learn to look at things this way, I find I don't want to bash the bad guys any more; I don't even want to see them as bad guys. Objectively, I still see that some people (if not nearly so many as I used to imagine) are bad guys, and not just in the all-of-us-are sinners way. But I don't enjoy seeing them that way as I once did. I'm more likely to think, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Copyright 2008 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.

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