The presidential election in the United States and subsequent events pertaining to the election raise questions, especially for those unfamiliar with the American political system. If we didn’t have names and places in the news, we might think the reports referred to something like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution or Syria or some obscure new African nation where an infant democratic process is more easily corrupted or where ancient tribal enmities many generations old prevent detente opposing sides. Who would suspect the Untied States of America, founded on democratic principles and, for a couple hundred years, the model and defender of liberty around the world, would be the scene of events reminiscent of a Latin American ‘banana’ republic?
As one who spent a third of my life in the U.S., I am as mystified, curious and deeply saddened as anyone, but I am not surprised. Over the last 60 years I have witnessed the increasing polarisation of the people of the United States, which has grown to the point where real dialogue has almost disappeared, replaced by confrontation. And not just political division, but the same polarisation is demonstrated in religion, economics and just about every other sphere of human activity.
The Bible story that comes to mind is found in Genesis 11: the story of the Tower fo Babel. You know the story: how the people decided to build a tower to heaven. They were making a good fist of it, too, until God got worried about their success and scrambled their language so that they could no longer understand one another. Unable to communicate, the people could no longer effectively work together, so the work on the tower halted.
Whilst the story is an old Babylonian legend, originally told as an aetiology to explain why there are so many languages, it is used by the authors of Genesis to explain the existing estrangement among peoples, which is exactly what we are seeing in the United States. The good news in Genesis 11 is hidden in verse 6:
“And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”
In other words, when people really understand one another, nothing will be impossible for them. NOTHING will be impossible for us, if only we make the effort to understand one another.
The story of the first Pentecost is the tale of the reversal of the curse of Babel, for after the coming of the Holy Spirit, people from all over the world suddenly were able to understand each other. Unfortunately, this story is also but a legend; however, it thunders out possibility and hope.
This brings me to a second phenomenon that, while certainly evident among Americans, affects human beings generally, and gets in the way of real dialogue between people. In psychology it is known as ‘compartmentalisation’, defined as a defence mechanism by which people suppress their thoughts and emotions. It is not always done consciously, but this can often justify or defend a person’s level of engagement in certain behaviours. We use this mechanism to avoid the anxiety that arises from the clash of contradictory values or emotions.
One example of compartmentalisation that has never ceased to amaze me is the way some very intelligent scientists I’ve met are able to hold on to a literal biblical account of creation. It’s baffling, but it is not as worrying as the ability of devout Christians to support all manner of worldly evils, simply by putting their religious belief in one compartment in their psyche and their political practice in another, never the twain to meet.
Compartmentalisation is the only possible explanation for the strong support of Donald Trump by otherwise very religious evangelical Christians. While one may argue the merits or otherwise of his political achievements, even his supporters acknowledge his moral flaws. His obvious narcissistic personality disorder prevents him making decisions for the good of others unless it serves his ego needs, his psychopathy and errant moral compass depict a polar opposite of the Lord that Christians have promised to serve, and his actions with regard to the pandemic, racist groups and protest movements have demonstrated his unsuitability for leadership.
Much has been written and much more will be scribed about the”Trump phenomenon;” however, it will be with us in one form or another until we deal properly with the social situation that lies behind it. Furthermore, this curse is not only an American problem. Australians have seen a sample of it in the rise of Pauline Hanson, and there will always be the threat of worse things to come until we learn to understand one another and, as a precondition, to understand ourselves.
Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt. 5:23-24) Basically, he is saying you cannot have a right relationship with God if your relationships with others is not right.