Michelle Obama called herself a “single mother” last week and we’ll probably be hearing about it years from now. Some Obama opponents consider it evidence the president is an absentee father, others that he’s gay, others simply that the Obamas don’t understand the plight of single mothers. Here’s proof, thousands told themselves, of what Obama really is.
Mitt Romney referred to “binders of women” considered for government positions, and it was proof of his latent paternalism, his sexist treatment of women as objects to be stored away until useful in the schemes of men. Now we know what Romney really believes.
We love this game. Maybe it’s an enduring fascination with detective stories, or the persistent influence of Freudianism. Maybe it’s the notion among journalists that real reporting is unearthing some reeking black secret, rather than learning enough about their subject to explain it well. Maybe it’s just that ugly little things buried in the souls of others make our own souls feel less sullied.
Whatever the impetus, we all know the game, which is to dissect a person’s words in order to reveal hidden truths. Journalists do it. Politicians do it. Preachers do it. Lawyers excel at it. If we can’t find an outright slip of the tongue, we’ll just yank some words out of their context, or extract them from a moment of weakness or anger.
When the opportunity arises, I show my sons how a lie can be told with the truth. “Your brother just called you ‘the worst brother in the world,'” I’ll note, “but he was smiling when he said it. Would you be lying if you told someone tomorrow that your brother called you that?”
“No. But also yes.”
“That’s right. We can report exactly what someone said, and be liars in the process.”
They nod. I tell them about Satan, using that favored method of modern theologians, prooftexting, to tempt Christ to hurl himself from the heights. Christ’s reply illustrates that when we offer a truth absent its counterpart, we are simply telling a clever lie.
In which case we’re all liars, every child of God and the devil, because we’ve all uttered, more often than we care to admit, truths without their counterparts.
My friend lied about me (and stood up for me when other people said I was a jerk).
My father ignored me (and kept food on the table and a roof over my head).
My daughter never calls (and she’s taking care of two toddlers day and night).
My pastor’s sermons are so judgmental (and he is the first one there when someone is gravely sick or dying).
There is ugliness in everyone, and there is the light of God, and maybe the part we choose to see says more about us than it does our target. We see the worst in people we don’t like because it’s not enough that they be wrong, we need them to be evil, because if they are evil then we are good, and each of us desperately wants to be on the side of the angels, if only because, deep down, each of us knows how often he’s aided demons.
Grace is in order. Would it make a man less wrong, or me more right, if I point out his error without making him the devil, too? No, but giving that up means I’m no longer coasting on the false sainthood called Not Being Them. It means I’m back to working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.
Which is probably where each of us needs to be, working out his own salvation, rather than searching for signs that his enemies have forsaken theirs.