Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville (Wikipedia)

In an online election-eve article titled “Jesuit tools to help you survive the election (and its aftermath),” Fr. James Martin, SJ, laid out some tips for America magazine readers on “navigating the rough emotional waters over the next few days, weeks and perhaps months or years.” Naturally enough, they come from Jesuit spiritual practice.

And, also quite naturally, they’re good advice not just for Jesuits, or for Catholics.

It’s been three weeks now since the Nov. 3 election, and soon-to-be-ex-President Trump still hasn’t accepted the outcome. Perhaps consequently, most Republicans think the election was somehow stolen. (A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 68 percent of Republicans said they were concerned the election was “rigged,” while only 6 percent of Democrats and one-third of independents were similarly worried.) And Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court has devolved into bitterly politicized snarling and backbiting, issuing no fewer than six separate opinions, including concurrences and dissents, on a decision restricting the ability of state and local government to enforce public health guidelines on churches. Not only are the culture wars back in force; they’re further polarizing the Supreme Court.

So Martin’s concern about “rough emotional waters” after the election wasn’t misplaced.

“Every single person I know has told me that they felt an enormous amount of anxiety not only about the outcome of the election but also about dealing with people on the ‘other side of the aisle’,” he said said in his article posted to America’s website on Nov.2.

Editor-at-large of the magazine and author of several popular books on Jesuit spirituality, he shared several ideas from St. Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual exercises. One, Ignatius called “indifference.” Martin doesn’t like that term, and warns it doesn’t mean, “I don’t care about anything” or “Who cares?” or “Whatever.” He prefers to call it detachment, and it sums up how to deal with the crazy, divisive politics of our era.

“Overall, you do not need to let the hatred, craziness and contempt inside of you,” Martin concludes. “You can ‘detach’ yourself from that to focus on the more important issues in your life and in our country. Again, it is not ‘Whatever.’ It is having an interior freedom to allow you to function—and to act.”

So how do we deal with the divisive, ugly aftermath of the November election? Asked and answered: In a word, we detach.  

But I think there’s a little more to it than that. Some of it I learned as a legislative reporter, and some of it goes all the way back to St. Ignatius. And to Martin Luther. For two 16th-century religious reformers who found themselves very much on the “other side of the aisle” of their day, they had more in common than you’d think.

But I first learned it in the hallways and hearing rooms of the Tennessee State Capitol.

When I was a reporter for the newspaper in Oak Ridge, I’d go over to Nashville during the legislative session when a bill of local interest was moving toward passage. Our editor was active in the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Association, and AP bureau chief Bill Rawlins took me under his wing when I was starting out. He was an old-fashioned statehouse reporter, the kind who’d sit through committee hearings to the end, knew the lawmakers and had an eye for the personal relationships that make the legislative process work.

Once after a particularly tempestuous committee hearing, I tagged along with Rawlins as we walked through the Legislative Plaza — a large suite of offices and hearing rooms under the War Memorial Plaza adjacent to the Capitol building — and took an elevator up to the House or Senate chamber. I noticed a couple of legislators who had been debating fiercely in the hearing just a few minutes before. Now, waiting for the elevator, they were chatting affably. I remarked on it.

“Oh, that’s typical,” Rawlins said. “They may need each other on the next bill, and they all know that.”

It’s been a good 50 years since that day, and I can’t swear I remember Rawlins’ exact words. But I never forgot what he said as I went on to write about politics and government in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Illinois, as well as my local delegations to Congress. Politics can be a nasty business, but at the end of the day it’s about relationships. And it works best if you keep your relationships mended.

That’s also true, if you stop to think about it, of a lot of what we put under the heading of spirituality.

In his pre-election article, Martin notes that Ignatius begins his Spiritual Exercises by recommending something he calls “presupposition,” which boils down to giving the other fellow the benefit of the doubt. “One might suspect,” he begins, “that his opening lines would be something about God or Jesus or Mary or perhaps regarding some form of prayer. But instead they are about a key aspect of human relations.”

Martin goes on to explain how it works in the Ignatian spiritual exercises, and how it might work for us as we try to mend or restore our human relationships in a time of bitter political division:

… One should always be more eager to put a positive interpretation on a person’s words than a negative one. And, Ignatius counsels, if it is not clear how someone means something, one should ask for clarification. Essentially, it means giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Give them, as an old Jesuit used to tell me, “the plus sign.”

This is essential if you are to make it through the next few weeks. Maybe you cannot understand why the other person voted that way, but can you at least give him or her the benefit of the doubt? You have no clue what is going on in his or her mind or life. Even if you are infuriated with the other person, can you try, for a few moments, to give him or her the benefit of your doubt? After all, imagine how you look to him or to her.

The “plus sign” will help you weather the storm with more equanimity and with less danger of jumping down the other person’s throat.

Another churchman, ordained Lutheran pastor and emeritus professor Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, draws a very similar lesson in a column in Christian Century in magazine. Stung by the 2011 shooting of then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, he compares political “commercials and media appearances by candidates of all stripes” to Luther’s exposition of the Eighth Commandment (by Luther’s count), in his Small Catechism of 1529:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

“Ow!” says Marty, speaking, I think, for all of us. “And again I say unto you: Ow!”

Ow, indeed. We all do it, and we especially do it in the excesses of what we try to dignify as political discourse.

“Do we think that those who prepared the commercials and wrote the speeches and competed on the talk shows did not tell lies, betray, slander or seek to destroy reputations?” Marty asks, quite rhetorically. “Did many of them come to the defense of the other and ‘interpret everything they do in the best possible light?'”

Asked and answered. Marty doesn’t even have to spell it out. It’s that obvious.

St. Ignatius and Martin Luther never met. And if they had, it’s doubtful they would have lived up to the conciliatory advice they give in the Spiritual Exercises and the Small Catechism. The Jesuit order was commissioned quite specifically to fight what the Vatican considered the emerging Lutheran and Calvinist heresies of the day.

But it’s worth considering the Jesuits were also considered heretics from time to time; in fact Philip Endean, SJ, a tutor in theology at Campion Hall, University of Oxford, argues that “Luther and Ignatius appear, not so much as opponents, but as models of a new kind of piety and a new kind of priesthood.” As reformers, in other words.

Writing in Thinking Faith, the online journal of the Jesuits in Britain, Endean notes that the 16th century was “a period of convulsive cultural change, change profoundly affecting the ways in which religion shaped consciousnesses and functioned in society.”

A period very much like our own, in other words. But all that is a subject for another day.

It’s enough for now to know that Ignatius and Luther, on opposite sides of a very different aisle in the 16th century, both saw spiritual value in giving the other guy — the neighbor — the “plus sign,” the “best construction on everything” or the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think if they were transported from the 1500s to our more ecumenical day, they’d realize they might need each other; in my mind’s eye, I can even see them chatting with each other at the elevators leading from the Legislative Plaza to the state Capitol in Nashville.

Martin has one last bit of advice for us, derived from Ignatius’ discussion of the discernment of spirits in the Spiritual Exercises. He summarizes it like this:

This is the first insight of Ignatian spirituality: Not only does God want us to make good decisions, but God will help us do that. And often that “help” comes by paying attention to our interior life.

How does that help us in the 2020 post-election season? Ignatius said that for those of us on the right path, the spirit that moves us toward God will be experienced one way, while the spirit that moves us away from God will be experienced in another. Simply put, the “good spirit” will be one of calm, uplift and encouragement. The “bad spirit” will cause “gnawing anxiety” and throw up “false obstacles.”

In essence, the good spirit gives hope, the bad spirit despair.

So whenever you feel hopeless or despairing, you can be sure that is not coming from God.

How often have we felt that in the last few weeks and months? But it is a great help to know any time that you feel interiorly (or hear exteriorly) these voices—“It’s hopeless,” “Things will never get better” or “We’re doomed”—that it is not coming from God.

Good advice, and it’s especially useful as we face the convulsive cultural change and political nastiness of our day.

[Published Nov. 27, 2020]

Works Cited

Associated Press, “Bill ‘Rocky’ Rawlins, Veteran AP State Capitol Reporter, Dies at 82,” Tom Humphrey’s Humphrey on the Hill, KnoxBlogs, Aug. 2, 2010 http://knoxblogs.com/humphreyhill/2010/08/02/bill_rocky_rawlins_veteran_ap/.

Philip Endean, SJ, “Ignatius in Lutheran light,” Thinking Faith, July 29, 2011 https://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110729_2.htm.

Chris Kahn, “Half of Republicans say Biden won because of a ‘rigged’ election: Reuters/Ipsos poll,” Reuters, Nov. 18, 2020 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-poll/half-of-republicans-say-biden-won-because-of-a-rigged-election-reuters-ipsos-poll-idUSKBN27Y1AJ.

Adam Liptak, “Midnight Ruling Exposes Rifts at a Supreme Court Transformed by Trump,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/26/us/rifts-supreme-court-trump.html.

Martin Luther, “Luther’s Small Catechism” (1529), Wikisource https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Luther%27s_Small_Catechism.

James Martin, SJ, “Jesuit tools to help you survive the election (and its aftermath),” America, Nov. 2, 2020 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/11/02/jesuit-spirituality-election-2020-james-martin.

Martin Marty, “The best possible light,” Christian Century, Jan. 25, 2011 https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-01/best-possible-light.

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