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One of the most unsettling images in recent American politics came last Saturday as protesters pushed past Capitol Hill police and tried to claw open the massive doors of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It struck me as visceral and strange and disturbing.
They were protesting the swearing in of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and though they may not have had a clear plan, I wondered: What would these protesters have done if they had gained entrance to the court?
I’ve reported at dozens of political rallies and campaign events for over a decade, and I’ve seen plenty of juvenile protests, insulting rants (including from candidates), and vulgar slogans on signs and T-shirts.
But I’ve only felt genuinely unnerved a few times, and that’s usually when the mood shifted just enough to introduce the potential for real trouble.
At Trump’s presidential rallies in 2015 and 2016, he always had a moment when he’d lampoon the press as it sat hemmed in a little pen across from the stage. Reporters expected it, and it carried little sting when he’d call all of the people in the pen miserable and disgusting.
But the reaction from some audience members was sometimes unsettling. I never heard anyone level a physical threat, but I did hear angry bursts of profanity and disgust directed our way that made me watch my back when I walked through the parking lot alone after the events.
It always turned out fine, but I was always thankful it did.
During the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012, pro-life activists carried signs and prayed at a busy street corner, where a long row of Planned Parenthood supporters stood across the street chanting back at them. Within minutes, a troop of police officers in riot gear stood between the two groups, hoisting their shields and pulling down their helmets.
It turned out fine, but I was thankful that it did.
And moments like those always remind me of the fragile line we walk in a country that is deeply divided over so many fundamental issues of life and death and everything else. God has shown great mercy in restraining violence from activists across the spectrum of worldviews. The occasional but tragic outbreaks of riots in American cities is always a sobering reminder of how low we could go without God’s help.
This week, former Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t help the climate when he revised former first lady Michelle Obama’s admonition that “when they go low, we go high.” Holder rejoined: “No. When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”
Holder clarified he wasn’t encouraging Democrats to literally kick their opponents, but he also potentially encouraged a mindset where trash talk could lead to true trouble. Michelle Obama had a chance to respond to Holder’s remarks, and she rejected his take. That’s not what we’d want to teach our kids, she said.
What do we want to teach our kids? Certainly, we want them to know worldviews matter, the truth matters, and standing up for right virtues is sometimes a messy business. But for Christians, it should also be a mature business.
How we speak to and about those we disagree with—including other Christians—sets a tone. But it can also set a table: If I’m determined to tell the truth, even when it’s unpopular, some people are going to hate me. But if I’m determined to lampoon and belittle people who oppose my views, I’m going to let go of opportunities to love and serve people who need Christ more than they need me.
That’s a thin line that has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with the things that ultimately matter the most.