Don’t Demonize, Show Honor: Responding to Others After This Election Ends
“Scoffers set a city aflame.” (Prov. 29:8)
“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17)
It’s election day. The results are not yet in. Yet no matter what happens, what shall we say to our church on Sunday? A number of people have been asking lately.
There’s the usual stuff I will say: comfort those whose candidate lost with the certainty of Christ’s victory. Caution those whose candidate won from putting too much hope in the outcome of any election, and remind them to show compassion to those struggling with fear over their loss.
Yet here’s my advice no matter who wins or loses, no matter whether the results are contested: don’t demonize anyone, but show honor to everyone.
It’s no surprise to hear folk demonize one another in the public square. This is what people do in the thrust and parry of political battle: characterize the other side not just as wrong but as wicked.
Yet too often we Christians do the same. We don’t give people the benefit of the doubt. We don’t try to understand their perspective. Instead we demonize. We caricature. We put them in the worst possible light. We treat people as all bad, not as fallen God imagers who mix the good with the bad, as we ourselves do.
And since we’re holding Bibles in our hands, we feel confident in our condemnations. “They’re evil.” “They’re baby killers.” “They’re white supremacists.” “They hate our nation.” “Any pro-lifer who is not a whole-lifer is a hypocrite.” “The governor is an idiot.” “I can’t stand her.” Phrases like these roll off our tongues. They feel natural, justified, faithful.
Yet is this what Christians should sound like? The psalmist tells us not to sit in the seat of scoffers (Ps. 1:1), while Peter tells us to “honor everyone,” including the Christian-crushing emperor (1 Peter 2:17). Perhaps we should sound different?
This lesson came home for me recently as I watched Capitol Hill Baptist Church bring a lawsuit against the DC mayor on the grounds that she was allowing citizens to gather and protest against police brutality, but she was not allowing churches to gather. Two moments in particular helped turn on the light.
The first moment occurred when I read the Washington Post news report. I was struck by the language the elders of CHBC used. It seemed to show . . . honor. “The Church takes no issue with Defendants’ decision to permit these [protest] gatherings, which are themselves protected by the First Amendment, and the Church supports this exercise of First Amendment rights.” An elder, speaking to the reporter, wanted to emphasize, “We fully support the rights of other citizens to express their views.”
In person, a couple of elders told me they worked hard to avoid making the case a culture-war issue. When friends in the media called them, they asked them not to report on it. They didn’t want to back the mayor into a corner, so that she felt like she was facing an “us vs. them” stand-off.
Further, they don’t want the church to view her as an avatar for all the forces of darkness in America. Instead, they wanted to treat her and her administration as real people, people of good-will with whom they could talk. “We believe she genuinely loves the city, was placed in a hard situation by the pandemic, and wants to do good. She should know we’re pulling for her,” Dever told me. “Our church prays for her and her family.”
Therefore, the elders worked hard to scrub out of the lawsuit and other public comments any language that might sound defamatory or uncharitable. Whether or not the mayor’s administration deserved such treatment or would respond in kind was not the issue. They viewed themselves as representatives of King Jesus, and therefore they would honor her and her team accordingly.
The second moment occurred when I showed Mark Dever the first draft of an article I had written for Christianity Today which discussed the lawsuit. In the article, I suggested in the third person that the mayor was “playing the theologian.” Dever was content with that line. Yet in another sentence I confronted her in the second person: “your job is not to play theologian, defining what a church is or is not.” He didn’t like that. By one or two degrees, the second-person rendering felt more disrespectful to him than the third-person rendering. “And we worked hard to strip our lawsuit of any such snark,” he told me.
Whether or not you agree with how Dever judged the tonal differences between a second- and third-person rendering here is not the point. The point is the carefulness that he and his elders took to avoid acting the part of scoffers but instead to honor the mayor.
“Scoffers set a city aflame,” says Proverbs (29:8). And haven’t we seen that on social media and in our nation? Christians, again, too often sound little different than the world, but just like the political operatives here in DC. When people disagree with us politically, disdainful and contemptuous talk feels both natural and even faithful. We believe we’re fighting for truth and justice.
To be sure, we must address abortion. It’s wicked. We must address racism. It’s evil. And we should use strong words like wicked and evil.
Yet, we shouldn’t forget that, apart from the grace of God in Christ, we too are wicked and evil, and that our most important word is a word of love and grace. Therefore, we must figure out how to both fight for truth and justice and talk to our political enemies as if we loved them. As if we honored them as God-imagers. As if they are real people.
To suggest that we should both speak truth and show love is crazy talk in worldly politics. But, saints, shouldn’t this set us apart?
My counsel to forsake demonizing and instead show honor applies at all times, but maybe especially the Sunday after an election when people are reeling or gloating. So this coming Sunday, honor the winners and honor the losers. Show kindness and charity to all people, even as you speak truthfully and forthrightly. In so doing—I promise—we will sound very different than the nation around us. That will represent Christ well, and it just might help strengthen and heal our nation for whatever’s next.