When Two Sides Are One Too Many

Every time NFL season rolls around, I recall a joke I wrote in my early days of stand-up comedy. (This was back when the biggest controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick was his interception to the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman in the NFC title game.) It went like this: “I love watching football, but with so many off-the-field headlines about domestic violence and brain trauma, I can’t help but feel a nagging sense of cognitive dissonance every time I tune in. I feel like the guy who’s like, ‘I know slavery is wrong and everything, but…I love a good plantation.’”

In progressive Portland, the idea that anyone could be so enamored by the cultural traditions of the Old South that they could overlook the horrors of American slavery is, well, laughable. It’s funny because it’s ridiculous—and also because it’s true.

Since then I’ve sworn off the NFL, but there are similar moral quandaries in fandom of NBA basketball, console video games, fast food, or really, any form of mass-produced entertainment. If you pay attention, you’ll inevitably discover some horrendous morsel of truth that reveals how your particular sausage is made. Rather than face that horror straight up, it’s so much easier to equivocate. I find myself saying things like, “Well, the science hasn’t been settled on that issue,” or, “It can be argued both ways,” or “It’s not as bad if I eat it while I’m walking.”

If you try hard enough, you can frame any issue as if there are two equally valid viewpoints.

This is what so many people were upset about regarding our president’s response to last August’s white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was his use of the phrase “on both sides,” implying a moral equivalence between Nazi sympathizers and those who oppose them. In the aftermath, I saw or participated in a bevy of online discussions with people who were engaged in all manner of mental and rhetorical gymnastics to either excuse or soften the hatred and bigotry on display.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that anyone who criticizes progressive protests is racist. There are times, however, when racism is blatantly obvious.

If you try hard enough, you can frame any issue as if there are two equally valid viewpoints.

The inertia of tradition, fueled by laziness and ego, tends to make us resistant to change. The inciting incident that sparked the alt-right rally in Charlottesville was the removal of a Confederate statue. While there is an argument to be made that those statues represent history that should be preserved, many people I talked to were so adamant that the rally had nothing to do with race that it was as if complicity in white supremacy was an evil spirit that could only be warded off by an incantation of “the other side of the issue.”

Like I said, I get it.

So did the Apostle James, except that he didn’t use academic-sounding language like “cognitive dissonance.” This is what he said: “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8b, NIV). Earlier in that chapter James uses a lot of stark, confrontational language in an effort to persuade his audience to stop waffling about their commitment to God. He’s pretty hardcore about it; to James, double-mindedness is tantamount to wickedness.

And yet it’s clear that James sees our biggest dangers coming not from without but from within. His prescription deviates from the activist playbook. We are to resist, yes, but we also submit ourselves to God, purify our hearts, grieve, mourn, and humble ourselves.

We cannot hope to resolve our differences with each other if we cannot first resolve our inner tension with sin and pride. As an aspiring pastor with an activist streak, I know that it’s essential for me to remember to honor the work and image of God in those against whom I might find myself temporarily or ideologically opposed.

We all have stands we must take, but my hope is that like Abraham Lincoln, we’ll be less concerned with seeing both sides than making sure we’re on the side of God.

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  1. I love you Jelani. The sin of slavery is horrible like other sins that beset me (and, I believe, you). May the Holy Ghost invade our sinfulness, expose it, and take it from us.

  2. The two sides that are clashing are progressive Christianity vs authentic Biblical Christianity.

      1. I was implying nothing. I was only making an observation of a major divide in Christianity today.

        1. I agree with the observation that there is a major divide, but whether intentional or not your first comment still implies that progressive Christianity is neither authentic nor Biblical. Would you like to clarify your position a little?

  3. Jelani, thank you for your post. I think double-mindedness is one problem, and denial is another. As a white baby boomer, it has been easier at times to equivocate than to face and acknowledge systemic white privilege/supremacy and the corresponding racial injustice. I am learning to lament, and seek God instead of disengaging or withdrawing from the situation. James said something else that has been very convicting for me: “If anyone then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:17) Once we see systemic racism and white privilege, James doesn’t let us disengage–if I do, for me, it’s sin.

  4. It’s astonishing to remember that, no matter what the lawyers, political leaders, and ordinary citizens said about slavery and the many laws that were passed, everyone who bought or sold people were criminals. Moreover, those who watched and did nothing were criminal accessories. It doesn’t matter that it was officially “legal.” It was – and is – still criminal. There were NOT two or more sides, no matter what people thought. There was ONE side: buyers and sellers were criminals, whatever else they may have done or said, no matter some of them were “fine” church-going persons.

    1. You have confused words criminal with moral and doing so doesn’t help find a solution to the divide in our nation. It only uses rhetoric to inflame an emotional issue. I would add – in a magazine supposedly read, contributed to and edited by Christians there is a surprising lack of scriptural support for your claim. Both old and new testaments show slavery not only existed but was supported by laws that were given concerning it. So it is more how slaves were treated that is immoral. From a biblical perspective they should have earned freedom by the seventh year of servitude. The institution of southern slavery was immoral only because it broke Gods laws.

      1. No, I have not confused criminal with moral. “Criminal” is used purposely; no matter the laws and customs designed to make slavery “legal.” Treating “your” slaves nicely doesn’t make it moral. And slavery wasn’t simply “southern.” Northerners held slaves as well, and when slavery finally became repugnant in the north, northerners made huge investments in the southern slavery system. The system used the Bible to justify this evil practice, and we can’t revert to that today. The issue should be inflamed so that we are more knowledgeable about the horrors of it. I suggest reading “The Half Has Never Been Told,” by Edward Baptist. Enslavers, whether buying or selling, were criminals, period.

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