On the Limits of Identity Politics

All of us are created in God’s image, and all of us are sinners in need of a Savior.

James Tissot (1836-1902), “What Our Lord Saw From the Cross”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “What Our Lord Saw From the Cross” (photo: Public Domain)

Over the past several months, my social media feeds have gone topsy-turvy, and a conversation in a hotel parking lot sums it up. I was having my morning coffee and this guy was also having his coffee, out in the open air, keeping our distance, two travelers trying to stay as a safe as possible despite needing to be on the road for our various reasons. He struck up a conversation.

He opened with a line about how he found the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd to be inconsistent with a truly anti-racist point of view. I think he expected me to murmur a nicety of assent, but of course he had no idea I was on my second cup of coffee. Our conversation took a series of turns, and by the time we were done with our drinks, we had agreed that there existed a variety of different types of injustices that need to be addressed in our nation, and the reality of one issue in no way negated the need to deal with another.

It was a refreshing conversation. Here we had begun with what could have been a polarizing set of arguments, in which both of us took a side and dug in our heels and refused to cede any ground. But it turns out we both cared about civil rights and protecting the innocent and laws that are just and merciful in proper proportion. I think many Americans feel this way, and yet to look at social media you’d never know it.


Moving Beyond Party Lines

As Catholics, our measure of truth and goodness isn’t found in a political party’s platform. As Catholics and as citizens, we are free to agree with policies that are beneficial and to condemn serious sins, and we are to do so without regard for superficial associations. When an enemy does what is right for a change? We can applaud that good action. When an ally does what is wrong? We need to speak out against that evil.

This attitude is rooted in the love of truth, goodness and human dignity.

As Catholics we love all persons because of their inherent goodness and worth as creatures made in the image of God. God wants this person in front of me to spend eternal life enjoying perfect intimacy and happiness with him – and thus I should want that as well. Our love for others is not contingent on their good behavior, and in no way requires us to pretend their sins don’t exist. If I care about someone’s good, I care about helping him or her become holy.

Years ago, someone I knew was tentatively diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. One of the aspects of this disorder is a tendency to paint other people as all-good or all-evil:

“People with borderline personality disorder also tend to view things in extremes, such as all good or all bad. Their opinions of other people can also change quickly. An individual who is seen as a friend one day may be considered an enemy or traitor the next. These shifting feelings can lead to intense and unstable relationships.” [From the National Institute of Mental Health’s description of Borderline Personality Disorder]

This tendency has become the new normal in political and social thought. People are either heroes or villains. If you are a hero, no fault, no matter how serious, is of any importance. There’s a way to excuse it or explain it away. If you are a villain, none of your good works matter. Someone can move from “hero” to “villain” in an instant. This is not mentally sane social behavior.

As Catholics we take it as a matter of doctrine that all of us are sinners in need of a Savior, and also that all of us are created in God’s image and have inherent worth.

If you try to pare down your Approved Sources List to only those who have never done or said a single thing that is wrong, we can save a lot of time by noting your list is going to contain the persons of the Holy Trinity and that blessed woman chosen to bring to the Redeemer into this world.

Well, that’s a great set of sources, but, newsflash: God created you to live in communion with other humans. That means learning from others, communicating with others, and bearing up with the sins of others.


The World Needs More Sane Christians

We Christians have an essential role to play in making our governments as just and peaceful as we are able. That means we have to start with what we’ve inherited for a system of governance – no matter how good or evil it is – and then we work from there. None of us is omnipotent. Our desire to create Heaven on earth will not cause all corruption to cease. We have to work with our fellow fallen, sinful human beings to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

You can’t do that if you are insane. If you think that your political allies are without sin? You are insane. If you think that your ancestral heroes are without sin? You are insane. If you think that your human opponents are pure evil and irredeemable? You are insane.

Don’t go there. It’s bad for you and will eat away at your soul.

Instead, be honest about yourself and others. What are the good things this person brings to the table? What are his or her virtues? What are his or her faults? What are the egregious sins this person has committed, and what can I learn from them? In what ways do I need to correct or control for sins of the past, whether that be something that happened this morning on social media or the lingering effects of an atrocity committed a thousand years ago? How can I make amends – how can I bring about healing – for those sins without committing other sins?

That’s our challenge as Catholics. We begin with ourselves, of course. We begin with prayer and fasting and trying to grow in personal holiness. But there is indeed a place for words and action, and it behooves all of us Catholics to be involved in public life in accordance with our various vocations.

So I applaud those who are honestly trying to work through the many serious issues our nation is grappling with right now. But I beg you: Do it with mental clarity. Don’t let a mistaken sense of loyalty cloud your judgment. Be loyal to Jesus Christ. Be loyal to truth and goodness. Be loyal to mercy and justice. Be loyal to the cause of seeking the ultimate good of the people around you, even if that means recognizing that you and others have faults in need of redeeming. God bless.