There’s an expression in English that is difficult to translate into Russian: “the benefit of the doubt.” I tease some of my translator friends that the reason this is so hard to translate into Russian is that it basically doesn’t exist here. “To give someone the benefit of the doubt is a very American way of thinking,” I often say. “We’re endlessly trying to see the positive.” Because of that, Americans tend to come off as trusting, friendly, and open. Often too much so to many cultures in this world. No matter: I still cling stubbornly (even after 7 years away) to my culturally indoctrinated belief that to give people the benefit of the doubt is truly a more Christ-like position that will develop stronger relationships and create a more positive and joyful life. And it remains in my mind one of the best things about American culture.
But sitting here, thousands of miles away, observing all that is taking place in my homeland, I say with deep grief and utter sorrow: I believe I am observing the death of this, one of the best of our traits. It is one of the greatest gifts we have to give this world, but is quickly becoming ash and dust in our hands. And if the ability to act with reason and respect towards one’s fellow human beings dies, I can only point out with an alarming sense of dread in the pit of my stomach what has happened in other generations, in other nations, in other days—history can be a painful but sharply accurate teacher. Wars, revolutions, and genocides have often begun from the same roots: us vs. them thinking, the development of hatred of “the other” in the human heart, and the trading in of the benefit of the doubt for the assumption of evil. What happens to a society that experiences these on a massive scale? I shudder to think.
From my reading of the New Testament and understanding of the Christian faith (which may not be perfect but does have 25 years investment), the only real “us vs. them” kind of thinking we are supposed to engage in is with the spiritual forces of evil (“our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood…” Eph 6:12) This does not mean that we must agree with and placate everyone around us--that we do not fight for human justice--that we do not engage in authentic struggles with those people who are doing humanity harm. For example, the underground movement against Nazism in Germany had many people of faith who were deeply convicted that dark forces had taken over their nation, and they were ready to do whatever necessary to bring about God’s righteousness and justice in a day of unprecedented evil.
However even in those days, there could be no doubt who the true enemy was. Behind every Hitler and Stalin and Mao there hides the Ancient Serpent, and we would do well to expose him as the one pulling the strings of evil everywhere. We would do well, I say again, to go after the source, which even the smallest and weakest of us is equipped to do. “One little word shall fell him,” writes Luther in his rallying hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Oh, Jesus, You are that word, and You have given Your name to all who call upon You! Father in heaven, have mercy on us, Your church, Your bride. Teach us this truth, especially reveal it now in America as never before!
Sorry, yes, I digress into cries for mercy. It’s easy to do these days. Although a necessary digression perhaps, I’ll turn back to my point. I talk with friends, family, acquaintances in the U.S., I read the news (sparingly, because I honestly cannot emotionally handle very much), and I hear so many heartbreaking stories on both “sides” of this intense conflict. (“Sides,” e.g., police vs. protesters, Democrat vs. Republican, mask-wearers vs. non mask-wearers…the list goes on and on.) Often these things leave me quite simply stunned. I cannot believe these things are happening, I cannot comprehend what people are saying to me. So far away, not living in it, being an outside observer, I can only tell you that there is a common thread that is binding it all: anger, fueled by deep-seated fear.
Justifiable? Everyone, and I mean everyone, will answer unequivocally: “YES!” But what am I supposed to do, outsider as I am, listening to each side tell me how justified they are to allow seeds of anger and fear to grow into a tree of hatred in their heart? As soon as people start listing the sins of “the other side” and the boiling rage bubbles to the surface, I freeze inside. My heart hurts. I want to play “devil’s advocate” (yikes what an expression!) but I don’t bother. If you try to speak from the other side, you’re an instant threat. You are the other. You are with them and not with us. But what about those of us who cannot or will not choose a side? Because we see beyond each side to the very human problems and pain that are in every heart?
I don’t mean to say all Americans are like this, certainly there are many working tirelessly to bring about good in these days, doing what they can to bring justice, peace, and healthy resolution to conflict. They are trying with all their heart to focus on the right things. Many have rallied the spiritual troops so to speak, and intercession for America is at an all time high. Many have used these days to fight for social justice and reform, and we know Jesus deeply cares about the poor and oppressed. The intensity of these days are stirring the intensity of the fight, and I believe as long as the focus stays in the right place and doesn’t veer off onto demonizing people this is going to be an incredible outpouring of the Spirit. Let’s stick with demonizing the demons and loving the people. It is, after all, the foundation of the Christian message.
What is the solution then? If every one of us who claims to be a Christ follower would take the time to wrestle in the spirit with the evil and prejudice in our own hearts, it will be nothing short of revolutionary. We must see that we cannot see the truth about ourselves and others without the baptism of compassion that belongs to Christ. We must be ruthless in these days to choose to let “perfect love drive out fear.” Love will mean we listen with respect to others, even when we don’t agree. Love will mean we forgive. Love means we cannot demonize and hate any human being, hanging upon them every wrong thing in our society, but instead we choose to bless and pray for them. (Which DOES NOT MEAN we turn a blind eye to evil, but we instead fulfill the commands of Jesus and later Paul who say “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”) Love means we may fight and wrestle and struggle but all the while keep our eyes fixed on the author and perfecter of our faith, so that our love does not turn into self-righteous indignation.
I believe there are innumerable people still remaining in my homeland that are both passionate and compassionate, regardless of what “side” they are on. They will fight the good fight of faith in these days, dealing ruthlessly with evil and yet lovingly with their fellow man.
Yes, I believe there are many, because, after all I am an American. And what can I say? We Americans love to give the benefit of the doubt.