Sometimes It’s Not Nice To Love

by Margaret Sholaas


By now everyone who isn’t actually living in Bora Bora knows that Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House, thinks that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a, um, disagreeable person. Of course, that’s not exactly what he said. What he said was more like what actor Van Johnson replied in the movie Brigadoon when told why the little Scottish village appeared only once every hundred years. It seems a spell was cast on it to protect it from being overrun by witches. “We have the same problem in my country,” sympathized Johnson, “Only we pronounce it differently.”

This closely-guarded secret was cleverly ferreted out by Connie Chung using the sophisticated technique well known to all professional investigative journalists whereby you invite the Speaker’s mom to whisper the desired information “just between you and me,” and then broadcast it to the known universe, except possibly Bora Bora.

The land resounded with gasps of horror. The Oregonian reported: “Reactions are in over Newt calling Hillary a bitch. The Democratic National Committee called it outrageous. The White House says it’s offensive to women. And Bob Dole says it’s offensive to female dogs.” Mrs. Clinton responded by calling a meeting of gossip, fashion, and advice columnists (modern-day equivalents of the court sage) to find out how to present a “softer” image.

Was it right for Newt to call Hillary a bitch? One thing we can say: it wasn’t very nice. That in itself is enough to damn it in many people’s eyes. If it’s not nice, it’s not loving, and to love one’s neighbor is an obligation second only to loving God. Others find it objectionable on the grounds that it is judging, that is, contrary to Jesus’ teaching, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Practically speaking, the concern about judging usually boils down to the same thing: it’s not nice, the particular kind of not-niceness that happens when we criticize someone.

Of course, the real question is: Was it loving? No one would argue with that. But sometimes it’s hard to know what it means to love. Whenever we are faced with difficult issues, it is tempting to look them over quickly, make some superficial observations, and then create a few rules to live by which will eliminate the necessity of ever thinking about those issues again. It is not wrong to try to simplify complexity, but we must beware of being simplistic. Where complexity can be simplified, the simplicity is usually evident only after the situation has been thoroughly studied. This means that if our motivation is merely to avoid having to think about it, we are probably not going to do a very thorough job, and, like the five blind men with the elephant, we will be in grave danger of misunderstanding what it is we are dealing with. This is what I think many of us have done with the issue of what it means to love: it means being nice.

This perspective arises out of our common experience that, in general, to be loved feels good and to be hated feels bad. We reason backwards that if someone makes us feel good (i.e., he is nice to us) he is being loving, and if someone makes us feel bad, he is being hateful. Combine that with the fact that people tend to respond positively when we make them feel good and negatively when we don’t, and you have a powerful social force encouraging this idea.

But being loving and being nice are not the same thing. Jesus was not a nice guy. He trashed the moneychangers’ businesses and called the Pharisees names and ridiculed them. He once addressed one of his best friends as the Devil. He used a metaphor in response to a Syrophoenician woman’s request for help in which he clearly equated her with a dog (although, any similarity to Newt’s remark undoubtedly ends there!). This is not a man overly concerned with popularity. But Jesus was a good guy, and as such he never failed to love. However, he certainly failed to make everyone feel good, and as a consequence they killed him.

To love someone is to act in his best interest whenever possible. There are two elements to this definition: (1) the desire for the loved one’s well-being, and (2) the knowledge of what that is. The second element is just as important as the first. If I don’t know what you really need, all my good intentions toward you are useless; I could even end up hurting you. When we confuse being loving with being nice, we make the assumption that it is always bad for people to feel bad. But if this is false (and clearly Jesus thought it was), we are doomed to fail in love: we will never make those loving choices which cause the loved one pain.

Never has this confusion been so widespread or so pernicious as it is today. The entire phenomenon of political correctness, with its emphasis on subjectivity rather than truth, can be laid at its feet. Its most grievous consequence has been that justice as a concern has been replaced by equity: no one’s values are to be regarded as superior to anyone else’s, and all perspectives should be given equal time. To do otherwise might make someone feel bad. This has resulted, for example, in the characterization of gay rights as political rather than a moral issue.

We have become a nation of drug addicts, people for whom feeling good (especially about ourselves) is the bottom line. Fuzzy thinking among Christians has contributed mightily to the problem. Sin, once a key concept in the Christian paradigm, has fallen into disfavor. Many Christians have lost sight of the fact that the more popular concepts, mercy and forgiveness, are logically dependent upon it: the Good News (“God is merciful…”) isn’t good news apart from an appreciation of the Bad News (“…and you need mercy.”).

Jesus’ injunction not to judge has come to mean, “Don’t tell anyone they’re wrong.” This interpretation puts those who use it in the embarrassing (or it should be) position of self-contradiction: “Don’t tell anyone they’re wrong, because it’s wrong to tell someone they’re wrong.” It is not uncommon to hear statements such as those recorded by Register Guard columnist Karen McGowan in her October 27, 1994, column about an anti-Measure 13 prayer meeting. Measure 13 proposed to amend the Oregon Constitution so that public money could not be spent promoting the idea that homosexual behavior is acceptable. At that meeting one person opposed Measure 13, saying that faith is about “forgiveness, not judgment,” and another agreed, saying, “As Christians we are not called to judge.” But what would these folks would have said if Measure 13 had been against using public money to endorse White Supremacy? There is nothing in the logic of their argument which would not apply equally well to any other issue, be it White Supremacy, or even murder. Therefore, unless they also want to argue against laws prohibiting murder (and I am sure they do not), they have made no argument at all, only given the appearance of doing so. They have made it evident, however, that they do not understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The fact that in many biblical passages (e.g., Galatians 6:1-5, Matthew 13:15-17) we are told to rebuke each other makes it clear that Jesus could not have been saying, “Don’t tell anyone they’re wrong.” Instead Jesus is concerned about the attitude we take when we do that. Do we, like the Pharisee, thank God we are not like our brother, the tax-gatherer? Are we so concerned with the dust in our brothers’ eyes that we miss the prime real estate in our own? Jesus doesn’t want us to shut up; he wants us to tell the truth. But he wants us to tell the whole truth, not only about our brother, but about ourselves also. There is no problem in one leper recognizing another, only in his thinking he’s got a classier kind of leprosy more deserving of a cure.

But no one is going to seek a cure for a disease he doesn’t think he has. It isn’t nice to point out those ominous white patches on my rosy skin. To do so may take a good deal of courage on your part, because I may not respond very well. I don’t want to think about them, because when I do I feel bad. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing me a favor, even if that wasn’t what you intended to do. The fact of the matter is, if I’ve got leprosy and don’t get help, all the wishful thinking in the world is not going to stop me from slowly disintegrating into the Swamp Thing’s idea of a dream date.

So was Newt just trying to be loving to Hillary? Probably not, especially since this was a private expression of exasperation until Connie Chung in her wisdom decided it should be a headline. But that doesn’t mean Hillary cannot benefit from it. To her credit, she admits there’s a problem. However, she thinks it’s with form and not substance, a bit like Attila the Hun sending his PR man ahead of him into Europe. I suspect she will find her response just as effective.

Copyright March 1995 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Margaret Sholaas