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Vail Daily column: Winning at all costs costs

Jack Van Ens

How do you react when a person treats you badly? When someone offends us, it’s natural to retaliate. If you get slapped on the cheek, then hit back harder, right? When an enemy hates you, respond by hating him back.

Want to win at all costs? Punch and counterpunch. Get insulted and insult more. Receive angry threats and give back angrier threats. This retaliatory equation is simple to understand and easy to implement. When the tough get tougher, they usually win. Who cares if fighting turns ugly? Winners get even.

People who practice this win and lose strategy base it on zero-sum conduct. Zero-sum applies to games played or competitive relationships. A win for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side. One winner plus one loser equals zero balance.

Jesus offers a different math, a new strategy. In the Sermon on the Mount, he used surprising, counterintuitive examples. At first reading, Jesus’ instructions don’t add up. They cut across the grain of what’s usually considered normal thinking.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expresses counterintuitive moral imperatives. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other, also” (Matthew 5:39). Wouldn’t we opt to deck an adversary who punches us?

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Katelyn Beatty, editor at large of Christianity Today magazine, is aghast because most evangelical Christians in the last presidential election rejected Jesus’ anti-zero-sum ethics. Roughly four in five white voting evangelicals cast ballots for President Trump. More than half of Roman Catholics joined them by voting, using zero-sum math Jesus deplored.

They approve of a world where people are squeezed into one of two camps: winners or losers; smart or dumb; powerful or patsies; militant or meek. That’s a zero-sum equation easy to adopt for many conservative Protestant and Catholic Christians who feel their paychecks shrinking, their influence in Washington eroding, their numbers diminishing and their millennial children not accepting parental right-wing politics.

Beatty laments because many Christians shirk Jesus’ counterintuitive ethic. How many believers light paths of compassion rather than knock the lights out of competitors?

“Those who oppose Trump’s campaign,” observes Beatty, “rightly wonder if the greatness Trump has promised will come at the expense of disempowering others, especially racial minorities and vulnerable people seeking security in our land (despite Trump’s protestations to the contrary). In such a polarized moment in our nation’s history, political power presents itself as a zero-sum game. For one group to win, others have to lose. Trump in particular, with his seeming obsession with ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ seems especially inclined to practice zero-sum politics” (The Washington Post, “How Trump’s Inauguration Will Catalyze Christian Witness,” Jan. 19).

President Trump flunks Jesus’ ethical math. He endorses zero-sum political fighting, which mirrors a mutant brand of Christianity.

The president stirs up crowds and makes news in press briefings the way professional wrestlers excite passions. These bullies bad-mouth opponents. They rant about their own greatness. Their verbal hammer-locks pin opponents to the mat.

Biographer and Jefferson scholar Michael Kranish writes about how professional wrestling got Trump in shape for the presidency. “He [Trump] threw himself into the world of professional wrestling, appearing in the ring before 80,000 people in Detroit in 2007, and celebrated the crassness of it all. Just like a pro, he pretended to body-slam an opponent, soaking in the crowd’s roar. In retrospect, the WrestleMania appearances were a warm-up for the rambunctious rallies that Trump would hold during the 2016 campaign; he developed an uncanny sense about how to read the mood of the arena and play to a pumped-up crowd” (The Washington Post, “A Fierce Will To Win Pushed Donald Trump to the Top,” Jan. 19).

Dating my wife-to-be in the mid-1960s, I offended her mother once. I invited her daughter to pro-wrestling bouts at the Civic Auditorium in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My mother-in-law objected to this dating venue. She reared her daughter with Christian manners that clashed with professional wrestlers’ oafish conduct in the ring.

My mother-in-law worked alongside Rosie the Riveter in World War II. She crunched numbers in a GM plant that manufactured an arsenal that helped win the war. She aced both numerical equations at work and Jesus’ ethical imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount.

President Trump has few rivals as a salesman. Years ago, he showed up at an event to promote his clothing line and was quizzed to why he appeared. Trump’s answer defines his anti-Christian ethic that many believers accept. He exclaimed, “Because I want to win, and I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

Lent is a time for Christians to refresh spiritual lives. Choose to turn the other cheek. Disavow winning at all costs. This choice involves more than stating a preference. Cheek-turning is Christian; winning at all costs is blood-sport masquerading as authentic religion.

Zero-sum winning costs big-time. It costs obeying Jesus’ ethic of turning the other cheek.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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