Many who live in the U.S. feel proud to be part of a “developed” country, and it is not unusual to hear “third world” countries used disparagingly as examples of poor governance, hardship, and overall failure.
Never mind the fact that the distinction between “first, second, and third” world countries owes more to post-World War II political thinking rather than a sound understanding of social realities. Also never mind the fact that the U.S. is outranked by many countries on measures of firearm mortality, neonatal mortality, and even press freedom.
Even with these caveats, it is striking to witness President Donald Trump’s continued labeling of political opponents as “angry,” “dangerous.” and “wacko” and his vilification of the news media as “fake news” and as an “enemy of the people.” For a people who are proud to think of ourselves as exceptionally developed and leaders of the “free world,” we have chosen a leader who is combative, mean, and divisive.
While listening to the news on my recent morning drive, I was hardly surprised to hear yet one more story of the president’s divisive name-calling, but then was startled by the stark contrast as the news moved on to coverage of events in Africa. In Ethiopia, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed continues to work for ethnic and gender inclusivity and for increased openness in the media. In South Sudan, opposition politicians are calling for political cooperation and democratic transformation, and in Sudan the armed opposition is similarly calling for a “Comprehensive Political Solution” to the current conflict. Three countries that have long been colloquial bywords in the U.S. for underdevelopment and political backwardness are showing remarkable steps toward promoting reconciliation and dialogue. Collaboration with those previously seen as opposition is being recognized as an important step toward political problem-solving.
It is an understatement to say that the challenges facing the U.S, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, and Sudan are different both in nature and scope. However, it is also hardly an understatement to say that political leadership in the U.S. is not setting a tone of cooperation and civility.
In Ephesians 4:29, Paul urges “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” He is clearly addressing a specific church community, but with an exhortation that is worthy of application to our common civil life more broadly. The U.S. is not and should not be considered a Christian theocracy. Indeed, the past two years have demonstrated the price that is paid when professing Christian leaders ally themselves too much with “the powers that be.”
Nevertheless, for those who profess to follow Jesus, the call to use conversation and discourse to “build up” is clear. Whether in our families, our churches, our workplaces, or our public lives, we are called to use communication for building up and exhortation — not for tearing down, bullying, or division.
Whether the U.S. is or is not a “leader” of the free world may be debated, and whether or not the U.S. measures up as more or less “developed” depends to an extent on the measures employed.
However, it is clear that if we are considering standards of communication and discourse, the leadership of our country falls far short of both the standards set by the gospel and the example set by countries on which many of our leaders might look down.
As James 1:22 exhorts, we must “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”