Searching for Hope in Political Chaos: Conversations with Merton & Kierkegaard

There was a bumper sticker that was prevalent about a decade ago in Christian circles. It read, "God is not a democrat or republican." Despite its reductionist ethic, it communicated a unity amongst diversity that we seem to have lost. Read most online social platforms and your screen will be flooded with partisan claims conforming God into the image of our political affiliation.

The polarized political rhetoric has also led to another message: we are in dire times and unless we vote for a specific candidate, our world is doomed. Naturally, that candidate is the one we agree with. For a while, I thought this message was new to the current American climate which seems increasingly fractured between right and left. Yet in readings of two of my favorite Christian thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard and Thomas Merton, I've come to realize that every time experiences dread and faces the same feeling of hopelessness that we do in our current context.

With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump looming, and with a mass influx of amateur political commentary about to flood our screens, I offer a different perspective brought to you by thinkers from our past who provide keen insight for our current dilemma. It is one I find to be corrective to the damaging, dividing route I see occurring in America. This article is admittedly a bit more academic that most other articles I publish here on Huffington Post. Yet I rely on the words of giants whose words not only provided wisdom for their contemporaries, but for us long after their passing.

From the personal notebooks of Father Thomas Merton, a 20th Century monk, we learn that his world faced the same contentious division that we likewise face half a century later. Merton is known for his directness, and his political commentary is certainly not without exception. He indicts all people of the same sin, "The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error." The cause of the fracturing of our community is the very thing that should unite us: truth. Instead of recognizing that each person has a subjective interpretation of what truth might be, we tend to confuse our interpretation with what we convince ourselves is objective, unbiased truth. When we do this, our ability to listen and learn from those with whom we disagree disintegrates. As a result, we fight and convince ourselves that those with whom we disagree is full of ignorance, and holds views that we consider dangerous.

Regardless of which candidate is triumphant in the 2016 presidential election, I fear that our society has become too accustomed to the idea that the person to whom we disagree is the enemy. I've been asking myself a lot over the past few months the question are we too far gone?

Have we become comfortable with an enemy mentality? Can we recover our communities and reunite in peace?

Can conversation become a spiritual practice?

These questions are similar to those asked by thinkers in the past. Merton offers a workable solution, albeit one which requires significant effort on the part of many.

Merton states that we must recognize that each of us is a contemporary pharisee. Merton defines this as "a righteous man whose righteousness is nourished by the blood of sinners." The pharisaical action in which no person is excluded is that "in order to be right, it must be sufficient to prove somebody else is wrong." This is the sin of humanity, past and present. In our exclamatory endeavor to "pursue truth" Merton rightly calls our true motivation "to be in the right." He further writes, " What we seek is not the pure truth, but the partial truth that justifies our prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness."

This mentality not only furthers the divide that exists in our communities, but it is the cause of viewing the "other" as enemy. This pattern is cyclical, and exists on both sides of the political spectrum. Merton writes, "No wonder we hate. No wonder we are violent. And no wonder we exhaust ourselves in preparing for war! And in doing so, of course, we offer the enemy another reason to believe he is right, that he must arm, that he must get ready to destroy us."

The suggestion to move beyond this enemy mentality does not mean that the discussion of what is good for our communities must cease. To the contrary, we must continue to pursue this good. I have and will continue to participate in the effort to make sure Donald Trump is not elected into one of the highest offices in the world. I do this not only because I disagree with him, but because I view him as a grave threat to freedom, and that, as a Christian, he stands in opposition to the many virtues held by the Christ. With that said, I do not believe Trump or Hillary Clinton hold the ability to bring our communities back together. That power rests only in us, the people.

The method to reunite is love. The cynicism that permeates in our world will likely cast this suggestion aside as too soft or unrealistic. Yet that same cynicism has likewise led to the current state we find ourselves in. We must move past this. Love possesses a power to unite and forgive that cannot be matched. Merton writes, " Love, only love, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this can open the door to truth."

It is in love for each other that we find hope. This love is not easy. It is the greatest task facing each individual. It is easy to love those we agree with. It is burden we must all carry to love those we find ourselves in opposition. Yet love binds and allows room for forgiveness - a forgiveness that we all so desperately need. Love triumphs over principle. Moral principle, in even its most earnest form, heeds separation. In an essay criticizing the mass media of his day, 19th Century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, writes that " 'On principle' a man can do anything, take part in anything and himself remain inhuman." Kierkegaard rightly understands that our ethical convictions can deceive us into thinking we are always pursuing good, when in fact that pursuit leaves us and our communities in ruins. Love protects us from this result, and love demands proximity to those we find disagreeable.

Tomorrow, as we become captivated by the debate between two presidential candidates who will inevitably find each other deplorable, may we transcend the divide that political rhetoric so often ensnares us in. It is my hope that as we observe the hatred that exists in the political sphere that we realize that our hope does not rest in the political ticket, but in ourselves and in our communities.