Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish: A framework for political discussion
The events of this week at the US Capitol have left me, like many, shaken. The takeover of the capitol was something I only believed happened in “banana republics”, not in a country claiming to be built on the foundation of reason and persuasion as the method to settle disputes. I have attempted to write my reaction to these events many times, only to find it difficult to do so.
But it finally struck me that my reaction can also be a solution. I thought of the following quote, considered a Dominican Maxim: Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish. This provides, I think a helpful framework to provide a way to move past the political vitriol in a way that affirms a fundamental stance for any Dominican.
The Dominican Order was founded for “preaching and the salvation of souls.” This is always a quest for the truth, which as Catholics we believe is a person. Our faith lives are ultimately tied up in the loving relationship of Jesus, who is the Truth.
And so, how is it that this phrase, Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish, can help us moving forward? Is it possible that we can ever move beyond the political vitriol in this country? For that matter, is it possible to move past the religious vitriol that too often destroys our witness to the gospel? And can we rightly call out those times when religious vitriol forgets its ultimate mission is to proclaim the gospel and never to become too closely aligned with any one person or political party?
I believe it is not only possible, but it is necessary. As a Dominican, I believe the pathway forward is the right combination of faith and reason, of feelings and thoughts. And I believe the pathway forward is also one that requires prayer, meditation, and calm. How often did Jesus retreat to the desert to pray? If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, how is it each of us is called to enter more deeply into that relationship with the Truth?
So, how can this Dominican maxim help? Let us examine each part in turn.
Never deny. The greatest virtue is charity, or love, because God is love. And so, in any discussion we must begin with the premise that we are always to care the good of the person with whom we are discussing. This is so easy to say, but in real life is much harder to do. In the situation of sharp disagreement there can be the temptation to only seek to win the argument. Today, the lack of charity can be seen in the use of derogatory terms to malign the other person. Terms such as “wacko”, “idiot” or worse are used to dismiss any argument by another person.
To “never deny” is to express the hope to listen with an intent to understand another. Even if the ultimate result is we may still disagree, the beginning is always to respect the person holding the view, since, like all of us, they are created in the image and likeness of God. Also, most every argument has some kernel of truth in it, even if on its face it is wrong.
Charity demands the goal of every encounter is to be drawn more and more into the truth. By dismissing the argument on the grounds we already know a position is wrong, we deprive another person (and ourselves) a way of encountering truth. It could very well be the case we are wrong when we think we are right. And even if it is the case the other is in error, our disregard for them may very well mean they remain in their error and do not seek the truth because of our poor witness.
Seldom affirm. In “never denying”, the suggestion is not universal acceptance of everything that is said. Doing so could result in a costly relativism where every argument is seen as good regardless of the evidence that supports it. Saint John reminds us in his letters of the important role of discerning what is from the Spirit of God and what is not.
So even if something presented has a kernel of truth, care is taken to affirm the truth after proper examination. A dose of healthy skepticism aids in the discovery of both what is true and what is not. Only what is true should be affirmed. It is never acceptable to affirm evil.
Always distinguish. Words are analogous. Any word is a limited symbolic representation of something else. As such, whenever we use a word we rely on the person who hears or reads the word to comprehend it in the same way we do. Most know this is not automatically the case. Most people have probably been in an argument where the same word is used but each person understands it differently.
Even if the specific word is not understood, the other person can assume the meaning is understood. The admonishment to distinguish means to seek clarity that the same word is understood in the same way.
“But you know what I mean.” No, not really. I may know what you wrote or what you said. And even then, I may not know what you mean. “If by X you mean this” is an appropriate phrase to arrive at a common understanding. Clarifying meaning is always necessary.
And so, what does this mean? Two bishops have written about the importance of looking deeply at who we are as a country. Bishop Robert Barron has suggested this is a time for a national (and personal) examination of conscience. He is right. These events did not come out of the blue. They should not have surprised anyone.
Why do we need a national examination of conscience? Bishop Christopher Coyne puts it best. “One phrase I hear repeatedly is “We are better than this.” These words propose that this is not who we are as a country. Sadly, though, we are not “better than this.” To quote one football coach, “You are what you are.” When your record is 4-11, you can’t say, “We are better than this.” You are a 4-11 football team. Right now, we, as a country, are not “better than this.” We are what we are – divided, angry, sick – both figuratively and bodily, fear-filled and lost. We may become “better than this” and I know we can be “better than this,” but right now, we are not “better than this.” We are what we are.”
Senator Mitch McConnell described the vote on Wednesday as the most important of his 36-year career in the senate. We must become better than this. Senator Mitt Romney said pointedly in remarks that leaders lead by telling people the truth. Mitt Romney is right. Whether we voted for him or not, Joseph Biden won the election. Donald Trump lost. That is the truth.
There are other truths we must confront. We must ask, what would have happened if the protestors where black? Would the outcome have been different? Protecting religious freedom is important. But couching racism, bigotry and violence in our actions using faith to justify them is not religious freedom. Some Catholic priests and bishops have walked away from their obligation to tell the truth by embracing wild conspiracy theories. Racism and bigotry are alive and well in our country. And it is altogether too common that we justify turning away from those in need, often blaming them for their own difficulties.
It is also true that many in our country feel left behind. They struggle economically and look to the government to create the opportunity to provide for their family. Too many are without health care, adequate shelter or opportunity. Rather than embracing an image of our country as the shining city on a hill, too often we build barriers to keep anyone else who is in need out of the shining city, even though Matthew 25 tells us to see all other persons as Christ, meeting their needs. We cannot become less violent when we continue to allow unborn babies to be killed. But we cannot be pro-life if we do not take seriously the command to feed the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison. We cannot turn a blind eye when people do not have basic needs.
We must examine our consciences, every one of us. We must listen more. We must seek the truth together. We must find the best ways to do this, not jumping onto social media immediately when our emotions get stirred.
And as Christians, as Catholics, we must pray more. We must ground all we do in a relationship with Jesus and with the Church. Let us pray that we may indeed be a nation that trusts in God and demonstrates this trust by caring for the poor and vulnerable, by fighting racism, by listening to each other, and seeking the truth. God help us.