I live in rural Pennsylvania, along a street with houses built in the early twentieth century when coal was subsidizing the town. I’m friendly with my neighbors. We all have dogs, so we commiserate about their barking and hatred of the mailman. In the winter, we complain about the cold and people taking the parking spots we shoveled out in front of our houses. We buy fundraising merchandise from each other’s kids and bring each other’s trash cans to the curb when one of us is out of town.
We’ve never talked politics. Through some sort of silent agreement, we have decided to avoid the topic. I think we are worried that, if our politics differed too much, it would be too difficult to be friendly neighbors.
It is a sad sign of how divisive U. S. politics has become. My area is primarily Trump country, with 64% of the residents voting for Trump. Racists and xenophobic comments are not uncommon. The culture war is raging, focusing recently on the banning of books. There are rampant accusations of election fraud.
My state did elect a Democratic governor and a Democratic senator to replace a retiring Republican one, and the national elections suggested a weakening of Trump’s influence in general elections. Still, MAGA Republicans threaten and continue to divide society. If my neighbors expressed support for their views, I would be wary of them. If I didn’t agree with them, they would be wary of me. If this division existed, it is difficult to imagine what might overcome it. As Christians, we are called to love the enemy, but how can we interact with people who express views so threatening to people, society, and country? Jesus’ life provides guidance, although I find it difficult to accept.
It Begins With Healing and Forgiving
Some of Jesus’ first actions are healing and forgiving. Jesus recognizes the way people are suffering and their suffering cuts them off from the community. Such pain and isolation can lead to depression and lethargy or burnout and self-medication.
In southwest Pennsylvania, part of Appalachia, there is a lot of hurt. It goes back generations with the loss of jobs, the seeming inevitable decline of hometowns, the decreasing job opportunities, and the hopelessness that comes from these long term forces. So many people just withdraw into their homes, conversing with an ever shrinking number of friends. Others turn to alcohol, marijuana, and opioids. They are people who want to hold on to what is good but do not see how to do it.
In his time, Jesus sees the hurt in the people who need healing. They might not be able to see or walk. They might have leprosy or some other illness that makes them unclean. When he encounters these people, he forgives them and then heals them. He first addresses the spiritual hurt and then the physical hurt and, in doing so, hopes to bring them back to the community. Many of those in pain, however, are not so easily healed.
Then Jesus Speaks with Them
In response to pain, some people lash out. To distract them from their hurt, they hurt others. Many in the crowd start to grumble in response to Jesus’ healing and forgiving. They complain about Jesus forgiving when he shouldn’t, about who he is forgiving, and about when he is healing. They get angrier and angrier, first complaining quietly to themselves and then challenging Jesus publicly.
In rural Pennsylvania, the years of systemic poverty, driven by corporations who colluded with state officials, have left a hurt people. Even though most continue to quietly work and make things better, many are angry. They lash out. They are increasingly hostile to all institutions, corporations, governments, and schools. One of the appeals of Trump is that he promises to tear it all down, “drain the swamp.” He is like Trevor in Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” who directs his gang to systematically dismantle a home, not for money or revenge but for the thrill of destroying it.
I also see this in myself and in my colleagues. Small, Catholic liberal arts schools are looking at some challenging years ahead. Higher education is changing. The way we’ve worked for 20 or 30 years are quickly becoming ineffective. We’re scared, fearing the loss of a life we love and value. Instead of trying to think out new possibilities for our school, we lash out in anger toward each other, toward the administration, and toward the students. We shove our pain onto others to try and get it away from ourselves.
In the gospels, Jesus is asked about fasting, eating, healing, exorcism, marriage, wealth, taxes, leadership, the temple, the commandments, who is included in the covenant, who is clean, where does he get his power, which traditions should be followed, and who is the messiah. It is a relentless questioning, and the undercurrent of hostility grows with each one.
When Jesus faces this anger, he often speaks in parables. The parables draw people into a story, but their point is to evoke a conversion. They are meant to speak to our deeper humanity, deeper than our reason, deeper than our hurt. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, it speaks to those – like me – whose identity is wrapped up in achievements and rewards. Other people’s achievements and rewards diminish mine, so other people become threats. The parable exposes how those who have worked all day have come to oppose generosity and other people. It is the dynamic expressed by Isabel Wilkerson in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, where any rise by black Americans is a threat to white Americans. Hopefully, the parable evokes a change in those hearing it, getting them to rethink their own lives and turn toward love of others.
It would be wonderful if parables, along with the forgiving and healing, ended hurt and hostility. It does for many, but some are still unmoved.
Jesus is Killed
Those captured by their hostility form groups, supporting and encouraging each other. They look out for their own interests and see opposition as evil or irrational. The group’s aim is to preserve and protect the group. The common good is only the good for the group as those outside are a threat. As the threat is perceived to grow, violence becomes more likely.
Toward the end of his life, Jesus faces such a group. They are no longer asking about his healings, debating him, or listening to his parables. They are seeking ways to trap Jesus, either religiously or politically. They bribe Judas to turn in Jesus, bring false charges against Jesus, and then make accusations against him to Pilate. It is not far different than claims about rigged elections and pressuring election officials to change the outcomes of a vote.
As there is no common concern, no reasoning, no opening of their imagination, what can be done? How does one love in this situation? How does one oppose the evil without calling forth legions to kill those advocating for it?
Jesus’ response is to expose the evil of their actions. Recognizing anything that is done or said will not only be ineffective but also will exacerbate their anger, he stays quiet. He allows their fear to unfold in action, even though he knows it will end with violence and death. Jesus lets everyone see the fruit of their actions, how their hurt, fear, and anger end in killing others. He is willing to be killed to expose this reality and hope that their hearts will be changed when they see what they have done.
I think these might be the stakes that we are facing when almost half of our country is driven by a hurt that manifests itself in grievances and mass shootings. My neighbors and I have sought to avoid becoming enemies by not discussing politics, but this is not possible in all aspects of my life. It is clearly not a possibility for those already threatened by these enemies. Trying to love them, trying to stop their hate and yet not condemn them as people, requires tremendous faith, hope, and love.
I might be able to lay down my life for my family and friends, but I’m not sure I could do so for my enemies. I’m not sure I believe that dying would change anything. I need help in my unbelief.
Nate Cohn, “Trump’s Drag on Republicans Quantified: A Five-Point Penalty,” The New York Times, November 16, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/16/upshot/trump-effect-midterm-election.html.
Department of State, “2020 Presidential Election Official Returns: Westmoreland” November 3, 2020.
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Pelican Books, 2018).
Jason King, “Appalachia and Laudato Si’: Developing the Connection between the Poor and the Environment,” Horizons 46.2 (2019): 246-269.
Staff, “Mastriano Supporters are Flooding Pa. Courts with Baseless Recount Petitions in Governor’s Race,” Tribune Review, November 23, 2022, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/mastriano-supporters-are-flooding-pa-courts-with-baseless-recount-petitions-in-governors-race/.
Staff, “A Partial List of Mass Shootings in the United States in 2022,” The New York Times, November 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/article/mass-shootings-2022.html.
Megan Tomasic, “Hempfield book challenge policy could mirror one used for websites,” Tribune Review, October 22, 2022, https://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/hempfield-book-challenge-policy-could-mirror-one-used-for-websites/.
Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020).