All or Nothing and the Death of Discernment

America is becoming infected with an all-or-nothing mentality, the result of which is the death of discernment.

We are red or blue, black or white, college educated or not college educated, pro-life or pro-choice. The list goes on, and the casualties mount. As we polarize, the center weakens; we see only extremes. We are extremes.

Abraham was a man of faith, commended as such by the authors of the New Testament. And Abraham was also a liar and a slave owner. Gideon was a man of faith, commended as such in the Book of Hebrews. And Gideon, after nominally refusing to become the king of Israel, named his son Abimelech, which means “my father is king.” David was a man of faith—a man after God’s own heart—and was commended as such in the pages of the New Testament. And David was also an adulterer and murderer. These men were worthy of admiration as examples of faith, and, at the same time, were immoral, rebellious, often blind to their sin, and wicked in very public ways. The authors of the New Testament were able to view them with discernment, praising that which was indeed noble and faithful within them, while not ignoring their very real faults. These men were both faithful and sinful.

Why have we as a society lost the ability to say that? Recently, the City of New Orleans has systematically removed public statues that commemorate various Civil War figures. The statues are being removed because the men in question fought for the Confederacy. This post is not, however, about the statues. Rather, it is about the way in which the argument over those statues reveals our eroding faculties of discernment.

Those defending the presence of the statues paint verbal halos around the heads of Lee and Jackson and others, minimizing their sins, which only infuriates those who would see the statues fall. Conversely, those who advocate for the removal of the statues vilify Lee and Jackson and others, minimizing their virtues, which only infuriates those who would see the statues remain.

It is not simply statues that testify. Trump supporters can hear no criticism of their champion; Trump haters can hear no praise. It was the same with President Obama. All Muslims are bad—terrorists waiting to happen. Or all Muslims are good, peace-loving people. I am either an LGBT advocate or a homophobic hater. If you come to speak at my university, but do not promote my agenda, I’ll riot until your visit is cancelled, for I cannot even hear you—you are bad, and only bad. Shall I refuse to acknowledge the brilliance and dignity of Martin Luther King, Jr. because he was also a serial adulterer? Great men have great faults; can we not simply acknowledge both truths?

This is nonsense, all of it. It defies common sense. Human life, and all its endeavors, is a mixture of truth and error, of honor and dishonor, of genuine piety and genuine sin, of right and wrong, and of various shades and admixtures. Only sheer folly refuses to acknowledge the tremendous faith of Abraham—which was credited to him as righteousness—because of his sin. It is a willful blindness, a chosen ignorance, and a public shame to do so. It is the death of discernment. And it is no different with Stonewall Jackson or Donald Trump or Barack Obama or MLK any other human being who has ever lived.

Except Jesus.

And that means that when Christians, who know that Jesus is the only perfect man, engage in this kind of polarizing rhetoric along with our senseless society, we leave ourselves without salt to preserve the rot, and without light to shine in the darkness. If the Church is just a reflection of the world and a shill for a socially or politically conservative viewpoint—whatever that is—then our prophetic voice is dead, and we should just be silent and mourn.

Basic discernment might be dying in the world, but it must not die in the Church. Our testimony to Jesus requires it.

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