The 2020 presidential election reached far beyond political boundaries to challenge fundamental moral values, and the resolution of the electoral contest will not mitigate the moral discord that has destabilized the political sphere and disrupted our personal relationships. The emotional toll is heavy for those on both sides of the aisle.
At the risk of alienating some readers, I will admit that I resent the decision of Trump voters—especially those who share my faith—to empower a leader because he advances a certain political agenda, though he uses his power personally to harm others. In my view, intentional and unremorseful violations of human rights and dignity should disqualify one from leadership; support for those who impose such harms amounts to complicity in their wrongdoing.
When the McCarrick report was released, Anna Bonta Moreland wrote in First Things that she “will never trust the clergy as a corporate body again” because “the Church has broken that relationship—not really because of the rotten apples themselves, but rather because of a system of protection and power that enabled someone like McCarrick to ascend in the ranks while fondling young men.” I submit that a similar system of protection and power has enabled President Trump to ascend in the ranks while fondling women without their consent, authorizing what amounted to the kidnapping of children, targeting people of color with racially problematic language and policy, and undermining public trust in democratic institutions.
Whatever goods might come from leaders like McCarrick or the current president—and whatever dangers we may sense in the other side’s agenda—there is insufficient justification for tolerating such direct and egregious wrongs.
There are plenty of people who disagree with me, however. Nearly fifty percent of the country, in fact—including friends, family, and presumably many of you, dear readers. The vote was split fairly equally and familiarly along party lines, exacerbating the tension between the factions.
It is easy for me to think that their position is due to ignorance or malice, or even, as many people of color suspect, racial resentment. This perception has been reinforced in this post-election season as they have tolerated or promoted unfounded claims of election fraud and the shameless attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters, especially in areas where people of color make up a substantial proportion of the population.
However, those on the other side likely will accuse me of similar shortcomings, or worse.
It seems we have developed a deep distrust toward the other’s commitment to the common good—perhaps because we emphasize different components of it, though I suspect the rift goes much deeper. Seeking unity has thus become tantamount to compromising our moral values. I fear that, in general, we have failed to heed Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning: “The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
We cannot continue at this level of hostility, and it is clear that there is no silver bullet argument that will get us all to agree. I cannot convince “the other side” to care about human rights violations any more than they can convince me that a leader’s direct participation in such violations is preferable to his or her indirect involvement with that of abortion; I cannot convince them that character matters any more than they can convince me that the U.S.A. will look like the U.S.S.R after four years of Democratic leadership. I guess both of us must wait patiently for the conversion of the other.
So where do we go from here? Is it possible (or even desirable) to reach across this divide—to look beyond the wrongs “the other side” has enabled so that we might rebuild our broken relationships? I think it is, but we have to start with ourselves.
Saint Augustine is a helpful guide.
In his Confessions, Augustine acknowledges his own shortcomings and his need for conversion, praying, “Make perfect what is still imperfect in me.” Recognizing that humility is the beginning of wisdom, he confesses: “There is joy in my heart when I confess to you, yet there is fear as well; there is sorrow, and yet hope. But I confess not only to you but also to … all who accompany me on this pilgrimage.”
And so, following his example, I confess that at times my anger over actions has morphed into disrespect of persons. I confess that I don’t always know how to maintain that distinction, and I have likely hurt people because of it. I confess that in my zeal for justice, I sometimes have failed to stay charitable toward opponents, or to be fully present and open to those in my intimate circle. I confess that my sense of justice is partial, as it must be on this earth, though I can be quick to maintain its completeness. And finally, I confess that in my efforts to be the hands and feet of Christ, I have neglected at times to reflect Christ’s heart—a heart that is always open to encounter.
This openness to encounter can move us forward. Indeed, Pope Francis has envisioned this in Fratelli Tutti: “The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters.” By engaging humbly and truthfully with those who do not share our values, we demonstrate a commitment to restoring right relationships (the aim of justice) that lends authenticity to our affirmations of human dignity. When we are aggressive or condescending, our hopes of moral persuasion dim. Even if neither side ever becomes convinced of the other’s rightness, however, maintaining this open posture will invite dialogue rather than attempt to coerce moral transformation. This can only be a good thing. As Saint Paul urges, let us “live in a manner worthy of the call [we] have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Importantly, part of “bearing with others through love” means grieving over the other’s moral failings, as well as our own. Again, we can take our cue from Augustine, who writes, “My true [brothers and sisters] are those who rejoice for me in their hearts when they find good in me, and grieve for me when the find sin. Whether they see good in me or evil, they love me still.” It is appropriate to experience emotions of grief during this time, and if these emotions are rooted in our love for the other—in the desire to see our brothers and sisters live up to the fullness of their dignity—we can pray, with Augustine: “Let hymns of thanksgiving and cries of sorrow rise together from [our] hearts, as though [we] were vessels burning with incense before you.” We can offer up the emotions that arise in us as prayers of intercession that can move us toward hope and healing.
While we must continue to pursue justice as our conscience prods, let us do so with grace, with love for the other, and with the hope that all will know the justice of God as closely as possible on this earth. As Pope Francis exhorts us, “Let us begin anew from here; let us look at the Church with the eyes of the Spirit and not as the world does. The world sees us only as on the right or left, with this ideology, with that one; the Spirit sees us as sons and daughters of [God] and brothers and sisters of Jesus. … By loving humbly, serving freely and joyfully, we will offer to the world the true image of God.”
Kathleen Bonnette, Th.D., is the assistant director of the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Atlantic-Midwest Province.