Over twenty-four centuries ago, Thucydides wrote the first account that could be construed as “history,” eschewing myth and magic, seeking instead to offer facts and reasoned interpretation of the political and social dynamics of Athens during the Peloponneisan War (against Sparta). What he notes as the effects of war and turmoil upon civil society seem parallel to some of the effects of a contentious campaign season in a time of economic stress and social strife in the U.S. today:
Practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state …. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfit for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect…. As a result … there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The plain way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society became divided into camps in which no man trust his fellow.
(from History of the Peleponnesian War, transl. Rex Warren, (c) London 1972 and Thomas Cahill in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (c) 2003)
Those who would follow the Way of Jesus are challenged to honest speech, to “Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No” (Matthew 5:37). We are challenged to Speak Truth to Power, whether “Power” be Pharisees or Pilate, government or politicians or those with social and economic clout. And we are challenged to Speak the Truth in Love (Ephesians 4:15), which in a social context means respecting the dignity of others and honoring the ultimate goal of compassion, justice, and shalom — flourishing for all.
Is it possible to be a viable political candidate and speak according to the Way of Jesus? Can one at least try?
In these last weeks of campaign season rife with particularly vicious words, demeaning comments, lies and denials, intentionally vague or misleading statements, and “general deterioration of character” not just in politics but in the populace, even across many nations, can we say “Enough!”? Can we name the ugly truth of this corrosive behavior and its effects honestly, out loud, from a place of caring?
Whether we can change the discourse or not, to keep silent about it is to be complicit. Let us challenge what is with what can be, and do so demonstrating the very behavior and values for which we call. Perhaps all we will accomplish is the preservation of our own souls. Or perhaps, we will help bend the arc of history a little more towards true justice, hope, mercy. Either result is worth our effort.