The Morality of the Endgame

Let’s imagine that the end justifies the means to get there. The assumption of that statement is that the end is a good or that the end is morally good—for someone or some group.

In our acutely polarized era, considering the good of the ends toward which we drive seems essential but I’m not seeing much discussion of ends, and that worries me because I don’t like where the means seem to be headed.

What is the endgame, the trajectory, the direction that a particular political agenda drives us toward, and how does that endgame align with either the nation’s purpose or core values?

I think of my own denomination, The United Methodist Church, this church I’ve been a member of nearly my entire life, and my father and Italian-immigrant grandfather before me. This denomination has experienced only mergers and reunions since

Grandpa Emilio immigrated in the first decade of the 20th century. But soon my church is going to split, in at least two pieces, quite likely more before we’re done. We will follow in the paths of the ELCA Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians which have also split in recent years over interpretations of scripture and understandings of human sexuality.

At some point in The UMC since 1972, our leading voices went from “this marriage is troubled and needs work” to “let’s divorce, stop harming each other, and use our lives more productively.”

The endgame changed.

There is one kind of endgame implied when “the other side” of an issue is “our worthy opponents” rather than “the enemies of all that is good.” And while one might argue that American politics—secular or religious—have always included a mix of the two, the formula is now weighted heavily toward the use of “enemy” language. The endgame has changed.

What is the implied endgame when our opponents are enemies and where a contemporary Abraham Lincoln would be mocked mercilessly (as he undoubtedly was in his own day, but now he’d be “cancelled” by social media after being mocked) by saying things like:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” First Inauguration address, on the eve of Civil War.

Silly, naïve man…

In the present-day White House, and surrounded by a sufficiently large crowd of defense attorneys in the House and the Senate, is a president who has declared that the following categories of persons and institutions are among the enemies deserving insult and other forms of degradation:

  • Judges who disagree with him.
  • The press as represented by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR.
  • Immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from Southern Hemisphere nations.
  • Watch-dog and regulatory agencies that, well, watch and regulate.
  • Cities that refuse to become extensions of ICE.
  • Former staff.
  • Various celebrities.
  • Ordinary citizens, including Gold Star families.
  • Fact-checkers.
  • Decorated veterans and career civil servants.

What is the endgame of this unchecked culture of turning opponents into enemies and assaulting them with repeated insults? Banishment. Prosecution. Silencing. Threats. Exclusion. Demotion. Bullying. Elimination.

It is so difficult for opposing sides not to respond in kind. Former President Obama has been criticized, sometimes bitterly, from the political left for not using the first two years of Democratic majorities to pass legislation unilaterally, as well as for his failure to respond in kind when Republican leaders explicitly declared war on his administration. When a brave (or naïve) soul on the Left calls for building bridges, seeking a broader coalition, and even simply listening to another side, they risk ostracism.

Regardless of one’s political position, it seems we all see a grave risk and potential harm to ourselves posed by the Other Side. I’m not making light of this risk and potential harm—because I should say potential further harm. Real, realized harm is already evident, as statistics on school bullying, hate crimes, and attempts to halt and reverse LGBTQ rights indicate.

But the Right currently has the reins of power at the federal level and in the majority of the states. Taking cues from White House rhetoric and admiration for authoritarian regimes, the appointment of two Supremes and scores of conservative federal judges, and the trumping by religious rights (conservatively-interpreted) of countervailing rights, I wonder about what might be coming.

A church: it is a voluntary organization, and it can split as many times and ways as it wants and the nation is not fundamentally changed. One of the great assets of the American religious landscape is that there is always room for more.

But what about when a nation’s powers and principalities categorize whole groups as enemies, or dangers, or “not real Americans,” or apply any other labels that are meant to de-legitimate either one’s opinion, one’s national status, or one’s humanity?

Really, then can splitting, or re-education camps/schools, or distinctive clothes, or exile, or border checkpoints moving from Red to Blue states, or walled cities, or constant surveillance, or punishment, or loyalty oaths, or new categories of second-class citizenship, or an underground resistance, and/or revolt be far behind? Those seem to be the logical conclusions.

What’s the endgame? What I see makes me shudder.

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