Neighbor or Nemesis: The Kindness Conundrum

Recently, Twitter lit up after a photo made the rounds of Ellen DeGeneres enjoying herself at a football game with President George Bush (and his wife, Laura). Apparently sitting near someone who generally resides on the other side of the political aisle is now considered a traitorous act. Thankfully, Ellen didn’t cower before the backlash but rather chose to address it head-on during her show. She graciously defended her friendship with the Bushes and stood up to the “mob” by reminding the world that being kind to everyone doesn’t just mean being kind to those who think like you do, but it literally means being kind to everyone. 

While most Americans found her comments refreshing and even inspirational given our heightened political divide, it’s worth noting that not long ago Ellen’s comments would have been considered unnecessary and, well, obvious.  Unfortunately, the conscience of the culture is changing faster than we can adjust. Just five years ago, virtually all Americans recognized only two genders. Yet my son started college this year and was asked to share his “gender pronouns” three times in the first 24-hours by university officials in public forums. That’s some massive change in the blink of an eye. Most of us spend our days just trying to keep our bearings straight. In the midst of the chaos, conservatives are doing their best to protect their values from the onslaught of attack. The left is trying to redefine history and use that to direct the future.

Both sides have drawn a line in the sand and those lines have become much more than a difference of opinion. In fact, it’s worth noting that each side sees the ideas of the other as representing grave SIN. Say what you want about relativism and about the denial of sin by the culture. I’ve come to realize that the left doesn’t deny sin. It merely redefines it according to secular humanist criteria. If you are a “climate denier,” you are not just a fool, but a threat to society. If you prefer that immigrants enter the country through legal means, you are racist, xenophobic and downright heartless. And the list of sins goes on ad nauseam. While I identify with the right, I will readily admit we are just as passionate. When we fight against the abortion culture, defend the family and promote chastity and God’s plan for marriage, we believe with all our hearts we are that we are fighting against an intrinsic evil.  We are fighting against a culture of death. This cultural civil war is a moral war – and each side sees themselves as members of a virtual crusade. And when it comes to those things we hold most dear, emotions run deep and alliances are solid. Loyalty is sacred and crossing a line is deemed treasonous. 

But for Christians, staking claim to our values and fighting for justice makes it all the more imperative that we love one another. Otherwise, what are we truly fighting for? Justice disposes us to respect the rights of others and to establish harmony in human relationships (CCC1807). So ultimately, justice is about loving our neighbor. In other words, if we, as Christians, are not showing love toward those with whom we disagree, we are undermining our own mission. As Christ, Himself said, a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25). It stands to reason that whatever happens, whomever we meet, whatever their value system, we must never forget that our directive has not changed. No matter what happens, we are called to love our neighbor. Lest you believe that in the case of sin, this is not so, Lorenzo Scupoli begs to differ.

In his classic, Spiritual Combat, Scupoli warns us,

Even if a neighbor’s fault is publicly known, let charity suggest some excuse. Let us believe there are some hidden virtues, for the preservation of which God is pleased to permit the publicized deficiency; and let us hope that the fault in which God suffers him to remain for a time, may eventually bring the erring one to true self-knowledge…

Where the sin, besides being commonly known, is also of the utmost gravity, and the sinner hardened in impenitence, we should raise our heats to Heaven in deference to the inscrutable wisdom of God. For we should be mindful that many have emerged from the depths of depravity to become saints, while others have fallen from angelic heights of perfection to satanic depths of sinfulness. 

These reflections should convince every thinking person that carping criticism should begin with oneself. If one finds himself favorably disposed toward his neighbor, it is owning to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whereas his rash judgements, dislike and contempt of others, owe their rise to his own malice and the promptings of the devil.  — Spiritual Combat, pg. 136-137 (TAN version)

Scupoli’s words do not mean we must agree with our neighbor. They don’t mean we must validate our neighbor’s choices. But in this world of my values vs. your values where the chaos of relativism is thrown in our faces everywhere we turn, we must remember that loving our neighbor does not represent a genuflect to relativism. Nor is it a nod toward evil. 

Years ago, I was met with a situation I hope I will never forget, as I was directly faced with an opportunity to love. An opportunity I very nearly missed. It was a beautiful night. My two young daughters and I were enjoying a wonderful weekend that culminated in a hotel stay for an annual event that we attended. Upon entering the lobby of the hotel, we found ourselves among a crowd of men dressed to the hilt in feminine garb. They wore elegant costumes awash with sequins, beads, and glitter. Upon their wigs, they wore large crowns, adorned with sparkling jewels. On their arms and faces, you could see evidence of their manhood — facial hair, arm hair, muscles, and graphic tattoos. We must have walked in on the registration for some kind of drag convention. 

I stood there, trapped in a crowd of men, with daughters ages six and ten years old, wondering what in the world I was supposed to do. Frankly, I was in shock. I had never met someone who dressed in drag. And now, with my innocent little girls, I was seeing drag queens everywhere I turned. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the option of leaving the hotel and I became more frustrated by the second.  With every moment that passed, I felt my daughters’ innocence being stolen by those men. 

And I judged them. I judged them for exposing my daughters to a lifestyle to which I never wanted them exposed. I questioned them in my heart for the choices they’d made, and I was angry that my daughters had to witness those choices. 

My frustration rose as we passed people dressed for this event on the way to our room. But somewhere between the lobby and our hotel room, something happened. As we were leaving the elevator, we came face to face with two of the most elaborately dressed male “women” I had ever seen. My eyes met theirs, and they smiled at me. When they did, it is no exaggeration for me to share that I experienced the grace of God. While initially, I cringed when I saw them, out of the blue I felt the Holy Spirit move me. I know it was the Holy Spirit because I had been like a mama bear — tense, wary, protective and angry. But instantly, I felt a peace and love that I hadn’t known was there. And I immediately saw these men as souls created by God. I was reminded that He loved them as much as He loved me. That they were precious, and that I was not to pass judgment, but rather to love them. And at that moment, I did. I returned their smiles with a heart full of love and respect for their dignity, for their humanity.

One of my favorite role models (as many of you know), is Servant of God, Elisabeth Leseur, whose atheist husband became a Catholic priest upon her death, after years of her silent prayer and sacrifice for his conversion. She never once said a word questioning his views or defending the Church, and her diary is an amazing witness to the heart that each of us aspires to develop. Elisabeth didn’t judge others. Rather than asking why others behaved a certain way, she asked, How can I be a better example? How can I pray more, sacrifice more, love more so that others will feel the love of Christ? And then she went about fervently doing those things. At one point, she made a vow, 

To try always to understand everything and everyone. Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make Him felt without speaking of Him; to strengthen one’s intelligence, to enlarge one’s soul more and more; to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference.

Elisabeth Leseur was the embodiment of Scupoli’s wisdom. And she inspired me that evening.

As I sat there watching my daughters happily bounce around the hotel room trying to avoid anything that resembled sleep, it occurred to me that my children were not nearly as scandalized by those men as they were by me on a daily basis. Yes, they witnessed things that raised questions and could have been scandalous. But how often were they (are they) scandalized by my sins? I am with them all day, every day. And what kind of example do I offer them? There are times when I get frustrated by their anger, impatient with their impatience, self-righteous about their selfishness and angered by their unkindness. 

The truth is, when my children witness my anger, my impatience, and my selfishness, they learn volumes more about fallen human nature than they did that night. Please do not read here that I am endorsing alternative lifestyles. But that night when I was confronted with so many men who were struggling with their identities, I was reminded that sin is widespread, and I, too, am in need of redemption. I was also reminded that the answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? is always the person I am encountering at that very moment. 

Kudos, Ellen, for taking a stand in these turbulent times and reminding us that kindness is for everyone.


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