Righteous indignation must always lead to just action or it’s not righteous.
Why does this matter? The approach right now on the political left and right is to act righteously indignant about everything meaning, in practice, “I have every right to be angry, what they’re doing is WRONG!” This may be true. But the indignation — the anger — is not righteous if it leads to unrighteous behavior.
Let me give an example from each political extreme, using the Kavanaugh confirmation process.
The political right and Republicans in general:
“I can’t believe the radical leftist democrats are politicizing this so much! They’re making things up and destroying this man’s life!”
Then comes the escalation: “They are all evil demoncrats (a favorite online slur) funded by George Soros and the Clintons. We have to stop them at all costs!”
And this leads to unrighteous words and actions: “We have to ram this nomination through to prove to them they can’t win! Democrats are satan-worshippers (I’ve actually heard this). If you support Democrats, you’re not welcome in my home!” Or worse: “You are not welcome in this family” (I’ve heard this one too.) It then leads to not-so-veiled threats of physical violence and a flurry of nastiness.
The political left and so-called “progressives” in particular are the other side of the same coin:
“How could the Republicans move forward with this nomination? It’s so clear that Dr. Ford is telling the truth and Kavanaugh is lying. They are playing politics with the position of highest trust in our nation and refusing to investigate this fully!”
Then comes their escalation: “Republicans clearly hate women. This is an attack on all women and a classic display of toxic masculinity. We must protest and threaten and attack. His 10-year-old daughter prays? We can’t have this religious extremism in our country (I’ve actually heard this.)”
Then comes the unrighteous words and actions: “All Republicans are evil. If you are a Republican, you’re not welcome in my home. I will teach my kids to hate you (I’ve actually seen this) and they will fear you.” And then blanket statements about all people with any conservative or religious values like, “you’re a bigot (I’ve heard this one too.)” Shortly after are the threats of physical violence, defacement of property and defamation of character.
To be sure, there is a time for action. And I understand that people on both sides are deeply passionate and do, in fact, believe they’re right and the other side is wrong. But a great check as to whether your indignation is righteous, and therefore if you should act, is if it leads to a just action.
Just action restores, instead of destroying. Just action may have grave consequences, but it is not taken rashly. Just action deals with the root of a problem, not just the fruit. Just action leaves room for sorrow, compassion, repentance and contrite restoration of relationships.
If your “righteous indignation” leads primarily to broken friendships, estranged families, anxiety, pent-up anger and violence, it is probably not righteous.
America, do not lose your passion. But we must be so careful. Unrighteous indignation leads to division and violence. I fear we are on this path. It will not be easy to take a different path.
But it can start with simple acts:
- Don’t post that argumentative response on social media.
- Call that friend you disagree with and have coffee.
- Refuse to allow your first instinct be demonizing those who disagree with you.
- Consider a warm embrace instead of a cold handshake.
- Welcome family and friends with whom you disagree into your home.
We must find a new way.
As retired Marine Col. Mark Mykleby said last week (referenced in a recent Thomas Friedman NYT piece): “When I walked out of the Pentagon after 28 years in uniform, I never thought I’d say this, but what is going on politically in America today is a far graver threat than any our nation faced during my career, including the Soviet Union. And it’s because this threat is here and now, right at home, and it’s coming from within us. I guess the irony of being a great nation is the only power who can bring you down is yourself.”
May there be a revival of compassionate, patient, hard dialogue which leads to restoration of relationships and maybe, just maybe, saves our country from a death spiral.