Being the recovering political junkie (and nerd) that I am, I started watching presidential debates when I was a kid. I’ve witnessed the cheap shots (Michael Dukakis being asked to imagine his wife’s brutal murder), the zingers (“you’re no Jack Kennedy”), and the downright bizarre (Al Gore’s lockbox, anyone?). But I’ve never seen a debate as tense, as openly hostile, as the one between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last night.
It left me (and probably a lot of other people) cold.
There are some debates where you can almost imagine the two candidates grabbing a beer together afterward. This was not one of them. It was more like a bar fight — Obama and Romney circling each other like a couple of high school jocks with something to prove, not even trying to conceal their dislike for each other.
Maybe it’s just as well politicians have stopped pretending to like one another. Maybe they’ve realized there’s little point acting all chummy when you’re face-to-face, all the while spending billions to shred your opponent on the airwaves.
But for those of us who are Christians, perhaps the real question is this: since when did Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” come with a list of exceptions?
Both President Obama and Governor Romney claim to be men of faith who revere the teachings of Jesus, as do millions of Christians who’ve staked out a position in this election, whether on the left or the right.
So why do we act as if these teachings no longer apply the minute we enter the political arena? What makes us think we can temporarily set aside these commands about loving your enemy and not repaying insults?
I don’t just mean the candidates themselves. I mean all of us who were calling for blood during last night’s debate. I mean all of us who’ve staked our hopes on the outcome of this election and were quietly (or not so quietly) urging our candidate to strike a fatal blow, to be merciless and unrelenting on the other guy.
Our complicity in the polarization of our society betrays our lack of faith. It shows just how little we believe in the teachings of Jesus.
“Turn the other cheek” is all well and good for Sunday School, but it doesn’t really work in the real world — on the campaign trail, in the boardroom, or on the battlefield.
But Jesus offers no comfort to those who would compartmentalize his teachings. In fact, the original context of “turn the other cheek” was nothing if not political. It was meant precisely for the campaign trail and the battlefield. Jesus was telling his Jewish compatriots how to respond to the everyday injustice of Roman occupation. If his words don’t apply in the political arena, then they don’t apply anywhere.
Maybe it’s because we’ve got so much hope — too much, perhaps — riding on the outcome of this election that it’s just too difficult for us to turn the other cheek, to love those on the other side of the debate. But isn’t true commitment measured by doing what’s asked of us precisely when it’s most difficult to do?
After all, “love your enemies” is not something we can do on the inside only. It has to be demonstrated by our words and actions toward the other person. Otherwise it isn’t real.
We cannot be salt and light if we continue to compartmentalize the teachings of Jesus. Because Jesus didn’t compartmentalize. He called on his followers to embody a new, all-encompassing reality — social, political, AND spiritual — right here and now. To do so, we have to stop clinging to the values and tactics of the old system.
If we really want to change the world, we must learn to turn the other cheek. Even on the campaign trail.