Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why Are We So Ready to Attack?

About a week ago, I posted the following paragraph from C.S. Lewis' famous work, Mere Christianity:
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Chapter 7: Forgiveness)
Slacktivist, a self-consciously liberal blog, has been writing about the kinds of ways that conservatives continue to propagate "facts" that are not only not true, but which are often rather easy to disprove, for some time now. I'm sure that liberals do the same thing, but I haven't come across any conservative blogs who manage to articulate the problem as elegantly and consistently as Slacktivist does. Besides spending a fair bit of energy describing the nature of these deceptions, Slacktivist also devotes time to attempting to determine why such falsehoods are so persistent. Although I'm confident that his opponents find Slacktivist more than a little offensive, I also appreciate the humor he adds to this analysis, which obviously has a very serious intent, rooted in the C.S. Lewis quote I've already shared.

Lewis is an interesting figure, claimed by Christians of quite a few differing stripes. He is by no means "liberal" in the modern sense, but neither does he fit into an easy "conservative" box. Yet he is still respected by Christian thinkers on both sides of the spectrum.* While many certainly quibble with some point or another of Lewis' theology (and I'm certainly no exception), he seems to be among a fairly elite group of Christians for whom nearly everyone holds great respect.

For this reason, I feel that his words on the matter of our reactions to learning that something or someone isn't actually as bad as we may have been told need to be shared more widely. A friend shared a link on Facebook recently, which it turns out dates back more than a decade, accusing Pepsi of removing the words "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance on a supposedly "patriotic" can.

Here's the relevant Snopes link, but the basic facts are these:
  • The can in question isn't from Pepsi, but from Dr. Pepper (not even part of the same company)
  • The Pledge of Allegiance reference is a mere three words: "One Nation... Indivisible" — Hardly a reference to the entirety of the pledge, taking particular effort to remove the reference to God (which admittedly does fall in the ellipses area).
  • The can was released just after the tragedy of 9/11 (a time when the nation's indivisibility was especially highly prized), and was only on the shelves for about three or four months, and only in about a dozen states, yet the rumor is still being spread more than a decade later.
  • A headline from Time magazine at about the same time: "One Nation, Indivisible" apparently generated very little controversy.
Having already commented on the need to respond well once the truth is made known, I'm more concerned here with our apparent readiness to believe to worst of everyone, especially when it comes to perceived slights against God or the Christian faith. Cries of "persecution" are everywhere. I'm not here trying to suggest that persecution doesn't exist in America (although it pales in comparison to persecution that exists elsewhere), so much as that we seem collectively all too eager to jump on things like that Pepsi can.

Why are we so eager to claim that we are being persecuted? Why are we so ready to tear people and organizations down for failing to live up to our standards of God-talk? Personally, I think it does a tremendous disrespect to those who've truly suffered to claim persecution too readily.

They say that the price of freedom is vigilance, and I'm sure that's true for religious freedom, as well. But I'm not sure what we're seeing here is truly vigilance, when we're crying "Wolf!" at every little rumor. Rumors that often prove not to be true at all. How can we reserve our energies for those battles that truly matter, rather than wasting our time on stupid things like whether or not a limited-edition soda can mentions God properly?

*I'm not sure "both" is the right word to use here, as it implies that there are only two ways to look at Christianity: "liberal" and "conservative." It would take only a minimal effort to demonstrate that this is a vast oversimplification, and that Christianity is in fact extremely diverse with many, many different perspectives. However, for simplicity's sake, I'm going with the usual dichotomy.

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