In his book Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis creates a fictional character called Screwtape to depict the many ways the devil dupes good people into engaging in negative behavior.
One of the ways Screwtape entices his victims is to lure them with politics. He takes our good intentions, wraps them in fear, and convinces us that we’re on the right side of history. Then he tempers our emotions with rage, as we feel compelled to convince the other side they’re wrong and need to join our bandwagon, or worse yet, we demonize the other side, which distracts us from any rational, meaningful dialogue to find the truth.
The result of this folly is that we lose our focus on God and Wisdom. Our politics becomes our religion. Our fear and self-righteousness turns to anger and judgment. The unholy spiral of vicious attacks and finger pointing unknowingly wraps us around Screwtape’s bony-knotted finger.
Screwtape must be proud of his work these days.
Regardless of which side of the political fence you sit on, it seems the tone and tenor of our conversation on both sides, in the news, on social media, and in our neighborhoods has increasingly become unholy over the last decade. Life long friends unfriending each other on Facebook simply because they disagree with their politics, must leave Screwtape laughing with glee. Love has lost its luster, he must rejoice, replaced by our self-righteous cries, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
If we take a step back however, put down our picket signs, quiet our angry rants and chants, take a break from the one-sidedness of Facebook, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, I wonder if something deeper, something good is rising out of the ashes of our anxious hearts.
There is a universal law called the Law of Three.
It suggests that God’s movement, God’s surprise is often found in the tension between two opposites. Parker Palmer in The Promise of Paradox and Cynthia Bourgeault in The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three suggest that this law is always at work in our lives and in the universe. And if we can see it, name it, we find where God is moving us toward something deeper, better.
The two opposites Palmer says are a necessary tension like the sun and moon are vital in keeping the oceans in balance and contained. Neither opposite is intended to collapse into the other, and neither is right or wrong. Rather, they are both necessary parts of the whole, which through their magnetic pull bring about a new balance, a synthesis that springs forth as the Energy and Wisdom of God mixes and transforms the tensions into a third way emerging out of love, compassion, and truth.
Applying the Law of Three to our current political landscape, it would seem the two opposites in our country are the extreme liberal left and the radical conservative right. Both sides are entrenched in fear, shouting at each other over the fence like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. And those of us in the middle are being tempted and taunted to join this vicious downward spiral.
The choice is ours, however—we can remain steeped in our anger and self-righteousness, which only reaps more discord and fear—or we can discover the third way which seeks to evolve from the center of the paradox in the midst of the tension: the invitation to return to civility, to reground ourselves in love and dignity.
Learning how to have a conversation, a social interaction with someone you disagree with, trusting you might both learn something new from each other, you might both gain deeper wisdom.
Understanding that each of us is usually only half-right, and both of us have good intentions, so that our collective, objective search for wisdom can lead us to the wholeness of truth.
Returning to the core values of love, compassion, and dignity; realizing that the process we use to have conversations about what we believe—a process rooted in truth and dignity for each other and not based upon personal attacks—is far more productive than anger and fist raising.
Discovering new truths, deeper wisdom, as we acknowledge our common fears and set a higher standard: agreeing to discourse in love and respect.
Take, for example, the hot topic of immigration. My guess is most people would agree we need safe borders to protect us, just like most of us lock our doors at night to protect our loved ones. I would also venture to guess we could agree that legal immigration is a good thing, a compassionate virtue that is at the heart of our nation’s soul.
The question we are wrestling with as a nation, trying to find the core, balanced truth is this: how do we accomplish both of these objectives? How do we discover the wisdom in the middle of what might appear to be somewhat opposing goals?
Screwtape would hope we continue to demonize each other as we grapple with this issue. His wizardry would have us continue to flail our fists and call each other names like we did in kindergarten. Screwtape, I would guess, is delighted he has turned us against each other as our cynicism and political activism shouts with anger and disgust at “the other side.”
But what if we outsmarted Screwtape? What if we realized he’s the enemy, not our elected public servants, not each other?
Screwtape has been stirring a simmering pot of anger and fear in our souls for too many years now. What if we stopped demonizing each other, took a bird’s eye view, and saw the Law of Three at work inviting us down another path: a return to civility, a return to living the law of love, practicing being kind?
There’s a growing group of people across our nation who have seen the need to return to civil discourse as a virtue that desperately needs rediscovering. A cutting edge of this “civility project” began in Houston, Texas several years ago with two individuals who created the Institute for Civility in Government. They saw the rising trend of disrespect and anger mounting in the public arena over the last decade and decided to do something about it.
Since its creation, The Institute has been writing books, creating workshops, and going into businesses, schools, and government offices training people how to recreate civil discourse. Respect. Dignity. Kindness.
This civility project has been spilling over into many cities throughout the United States. For example, in Grand Rapids, there’s a small group made up of citizens, judges, lawyers, professors, business owners, and non-profit foundations who have come together over the last three months to dialogue and brainstorm how we might be called to foster trainings and workshops in our city to help us relearn civility.
This group has divergent political opinions. But it’s not the politics that draws them together; it’s the desire to learn how to reboot our individual and public discourse with kindness and compassion as core virtues.
The local group is in its infancy. Yet, as it and dozens of other civility projects unfold across our nation, these pockets of common citizens coming together provide a sign of hope that good is emerging from chaos.
It’s my hope, my dream and belief that the Law of Three is at work in our nation. The polarization we are experiencing has created a ripeness for all of us to move the negative energy we feel on both sides of the fence into a united goal, a third more positive way of returning to civility, kindness, love, and respect. With a renewed effort and refocus, and a dose of God’s wisdom and grace, I believe maintaining each other’s dignity at all costs will once again regain its popularity.
Screwtape might have won the first round this past decade, but the Creator has a way of working his magic and turning turmoil into love. Perhaps the invitation and our responsibility are to discern his Presence and discover the Deeper Wisdom toward which he is nudging each of us, individually and collectively.
If we want to see good in the world, we have to do good. We have to beat our swords into plowshares.
—brian j plachta
Can you forgive yourself for being perfectly human?