Van Ens: Manichaeism thrives in today’s political scene; don’t get stuck playing blame game (column)
Parents caution children not to blame others by finger pointing. They say, “When you point a finger at someone you’re blaming, three fingers point back at you.”
Reality shows feature “finger-pointing” characters. Reality TV star President Donald Trump perfected this art of assigning blame to critics. Before his presidency began, he “told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals” (The New York Times, “Inside Trump’s hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation,” Dec. 9, 2017).
Finger-pointers practice this trait when they sound smug and unpredictable, shielding them from wrongdoing. They deny any crime or fault by playing the blame-game, flaunting a “who, me?” innocence.
Jesus offended religious leaders who acted faultless. He declared, “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled from what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:15).
This teaching left Jesus’ followers confused. He clarified it, insisting the blame for wrongs comes from dark, interior motivations. “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come … such as deceit, indecency, jealousy, slander, pride and sheer folly,” declares Jesus (Mark 7:21-22).
Finger-pointers practice a false faith that for centuries contaminated Christianity. This corruption of Christian faith goes by the strange-sounding name Manichaeism. Its founder was the third-century prophet Mani, who lived in what now is Iraq.
Mani split the world into two camps: good and bad; innocent and guilty; true and false. Mani pictured history as a wrestling match between two co-equal powers, good and evil. These forces grapple in a death match at center ring.
Christian faith rejected this split universe of competing deities, good and evil; the former chaste, the latter corrupt. Instead, what’s flawed runs through everyone — finger-pointers and their enemies.
Manichaeism, after enjoying popularity from the third through 14th centuries, thrives today.
“Political Manichaeism … can be found whenever disagreements about political issues are seen not as reasonable disputes among fellow citizens but instead as pitting decent people with decent character against horrible people with horrible character,” writes Bloomberg Opinion columnist Cass Sunstein (The Denver Post, “The destructive cycle of hating,” May 23, 2018, p. 23A).
What does a contemporary Manichean sound and act like? Sunstein says, “Here’s a quick way to identify those with a Manichean sensibility: They hate what they hate more than they like what they like.”
Such faith corrupts Christianity and weakens our republic. Instead of debating political policy, citizens finger-point, accusing opponents of witch-hunting.
As a corrective, rely on Alexander Hamilton’s guidance. He posed and answered a key question about finger pointing among governing officials. “Why has government been instituted at all?” asks Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. “Because the passions of men (and women) will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint” (Alexander Hamilton, Writings, ed. Joanne B. Freeman, New York, 2001, p. 223).
Hamilton realized excessive compulsion for playing the blame game corrupts what’s good, decent and true. He supported constitutional checks and balances to control destructive passions.
Our president compliments dictators, extolling Putin as “fine” and Kim Jong Un for his “great personality.” He belittles U.S. war veterans, such as former President George H.W. Bush for his idealistic “thousand points of light” and Sen. John McCain, whose heroism is diminished because he was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
When pointing an accusatory finger in blame-game spats, remember three fingers point back at you.
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.