The Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
What does this mean?
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
I don't know about you, but I am more ready for this election season to be over than any I've ever experienced.
Eighteen months of campaigning. Eighteen months sorting fact from fiction. Eighteen months of partisanship, obstruction, gaslighting, and paranoia. In recent weeks the veneer of substantive political discernment has been ripped away completely, revealing a sordid game of lurid sexual misbehavior and assault (fictional and actual), an almost complete disregard for facts or the rule of law, hacked emails, torched campaign facilities, graffitied mosques, and invective that buries itself so far beneath what we should expect from our elected leaders that we'll need to look up to even see what disappointing public discourse looks like.
Here's the thing, though: we've taught our politicians that this sort of campaigning works. We have elected leaders who have capitalized on polarization, fear-mongering, and scapegoating to get themselves elected, only to discover they cannot work with fellow elected leaders who used the same tactics but don't have the capacity to set them aside once the campaign is over and the work of governance begins.
Thankfully, Brother Martin gives us a way out of this festering swamp of half-truths and character assassinations - if we have the courage to choose the hard path of truth-telling and fair listening instead of the easy slide back into mudslinging and obstructionism. Famous for his invective, it seems as though Luther was the last one who should have written about bearing false witness, but in his definition of the 8th Commandment Luther lays out a vision of a community we would be fortunate to call home. To be sure, politics in Luther's time didn't resemble the modern nation-state. Luther wrote his Small Catechism for households to learn how to deal with each other - the concept of representative democracy wouldn't be put into play in the U.S. for another two centuries. Yet Luther's Germany was experiencing a political revolution in addition to a spiritual reformation. Without the support of princes willing to defy the emperor and the pope, Luther would have been executed long before any sort of transformation was able to take hold. Luther himself spoke bluntly to princes and commoners alike: he admonished the peasants when they rebelled against their feudal lords, but also criticized the lords when they violently put down the Peasants' Rebellion of 1524-1525. One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Luther's work was his willingness to debate, to question himself, to convince and be convinced by means of disputation, and to acknowledge his own shortcomings as well as the admirable qualities of his friends and opponents.
When I meet with couples for counseling prior to marriage, we always spend time in an exercise called "Active Listening and Assertive Speaking". In the exercise, each partner takes three opportunities to state a desire they have for the relationship, using "I" language and avoiding "you" language ("I feel frustrated when the kitchen is a mess" instead of "You never clean the kitchen"). When each partner has stated their desire, the other partner is asked to repeat the statement back in their own language, in such a way that it is clear they have understood what their partner is saying. I remind each couple that in many instances we listen defensively, looking for excuses and opportunities for denial. Active Listening involves listening to understand, not defend. It doesn't even involve listening to agree - the point of the exercise is to remind each partner that part of bearing true witness in their relationship is to see things from their partner's point of view and understand why they may feel the way they feel.
Imagine how our politics would change if we approached the election season with that same mindset! Disagreements are bound to happen, but what a better democracy we might have if our candidates could say, "My opponent X is right to note that this issue is a problem for us. My opponent has attempted to address this issue by doing _____, and while I don't think it worked, I am grateful for my opponent's work on it. Here's what I think we should do to address it: listen well and then you the voters should vote for what you think is the best solution for all Americans."
There are anecdotal tales of presidents, legislators, and staffers regularly crossing the aisle and meeting together to actually achieve the hard work of governing in such a way that the maximum benefit for the most people could be achieved. This sort of work is impossible in an environment dedicated to seeing the worst in those who disagree with you. I hope and pray we will learn from this election and turn toward a better way in the future, and to that end I am rededicating myself to discuss issues instead of people as much as I can. I hope you'll join me in that effort.
Yours in Christ,