A Message We (and our Enemies) Need to Hear

This year’s commencement speech by New Jersey senator Cory Booker was widely well received by Penn audiences. In it, he urges the audience to demonstrate love for others through our small but consistent actions, using the terms “moral imagination” and “creative compassion.” Booker clearly made an effort to avoid issues of politics, but when he did start mentioning politics, he used it to effectively communicate his second point regarding current shortcomings in our nation. He asked, “can we be a nation that can disagree but still find that common ground…love those people who you disagree with…who curse you…[whom] you see as an obstacle even to justice?” That was the kind of statement everyone could resonate with. Just think about the countless enemies you have, and how easy it is to reaffirm to yourself how worthy those people are of the title. But to put Booker’s plea of loving those people into action—how easy is it to latch on to that idea?

This essential message of loving our enemy is naturally an unpopular idea, but it is just as true as when Jesus first said it in the Gospel of Matthew.1 In many cases of discourse in the U.S., we believe that we are open to listening to a variety of views, when in reality we deem certain views either acceptable enough, or hateful and irrelevant. If our love for our allies simply comes from them being our allies, we don’t get much further than pursuing self-interest. But to love an adversary, to whom love is extremely difficult to extend, we must truly look beyond ourselves to bring love and change to this world that so desperately needs it. We, in this democratic nation, have to reconcile with the fact that our view is not the only view with good in it, and that more good can come to us all if we are willing to look beyond ourselves.    

As president of the Young Democrats’ Club in high school while a member of a very conservative church, I became disillusioned by how both sides attacked each other and over time, I grew politically indifferent. Later on, as I started to approach politics with a more theological mindset, I came to believe that, in general, it is problematic for Christians, who should primarily be pursuing virtue in government, to agree too much with any one political party. If you do agree a lot, it's probably a sign that you allow your culture to shape your understanding of the Bible rather than vice versa. Being convinced of this, I, as a Christian, feel an odd combination of detachment from and affiliation with many political views in this country. What I've realized is that more sides of an argument than we think are pursuing some truth in some way from some angle. It is our responsibility to extract the virtue from each person's views and arrive at decisions that achieve the "optimal virtue."

In order to achieve “optimal virtue," we need to improve how we think about and discuss political issues. My understanding of politics is that it is a lot like chess (bear with me). In chess, we think of moves in terms of “merits” and “detriments,” so we try to find moves that have the highest merit. Ignoring a move in chess without assessing its merits simply because it doesn’t seem to address what we like can cost us the game. Likewise, when we consider political stances, we should not only stand on the things we value; we should identify the merits and detriments (we struggle more with the former, but both are important) of other arguments in order to find “the best move.” There are no flawless man-made beliefs. Liberals and conservatives in this country, well-intentioned as their views may be, are ripe with hypocrisy. Liberals are willing to view gender as a non-binary, but then claim that there is no grey area when it comes to social justice issues—you are either an ally or an oppressor. Conservatives ardently fight against sexual liberation on moral grounds, and yet tolerate casinos, strip clubs, and divorce courts having their way with society. These imperfect ideas are perfectly human, but in order to avoid getting caught up in ideas, we have to look past the hypocrisies of others and see and love the person, just as we would toward a family member or best friend.

There are a lot of ways that discourse and action could improve in this country, but the most important is loving others despite their contrasting arguments. It would be nice if liberals engaged with Trump supporters and sought out the genuine virtue and concern of their arguments, while also treating the President himself with a bit more respect. Many refuse to love people they consider bigoted and pan-phobic, but if we genuinely believe that love conquers hate, we should demonstrate it in what we perceive as the face of the greatest evils. Conservatives, even in a time when objective truth is being challenged, can benefit from learning to adapt truth to positive areas of progress being made, such as in improving the treatment of women and minority groups. Especially in the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, conservatives should learn to love and value others more than their own safety; in this, those who defend truth while serving suffering communities can also proclaim selfless love.

Toward the beginning of Cory Booker’s speech, he said we are “far more involved in a larger common struggle than we know.” I often visualize this common struggle as a chess game, where all society is on the same team playing against a daunting adversary (“the Enemy of Virtue,” dare I say). This enemy has even infiltrated our own ranks, adding double agents that distract us from the game at hand. A big part of this struggle is determining what “virtue” is in a society that hammers you on all sides while contradicting itself about the very nature of virtue. Many believe that the answers are “inside of us.” But we fail to realize just how much our views have been biased by most un-virtuous sources. Many of us feel that the solution is to simply strive for “progress.” But progress is never pure—it always brings baggage. What God has equipped us with from the beginning is a plethora of humanly perspectives of the pursuit of pure, objective, godly virtue. The process of understanding these perspectives, a true embrace of thought diversity, is what a democracy calls for. By loving another person even when we are not friends with each other, we can harmoniously disagree, and yet be more unified than ever before. 

1. see Matthew 5:43-47

Ramsey Reyes, C'16, is currently a master's student studying piano performance at Temple. He plays Catan, chess, and basketball frequently, and knows LeBron was the real Finals MVP this year.