Do Not Conform

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Dear Friends,

As an ethics professor, I’ve had the privilege of teaching many excellent students in America, Ethiopia, Germany, and West Africa. Through the years, some of these students have become dear friends. And I’ve observed that these exemplary people often share several overlapping qualities.

They read rigorously. They think deeply. They ask hard questions. They discuss thoughtfully. They pray earnestly. They travel widely. They cherish friendship. They serve others sincerely.

At root, these are all practices of self-transcendence, of looking beyond oneself and exposing oneself to new ideas, places, people, and God.

And yet, over the years, I’ve watched these exemplary people come to  different conclusions on faith, morality, and politics. Sometimes they come to radically different conclusions — whether they be more “conservative” or more “liberal,” more similar to how they were raised or more dissimilar. Some of these divergences happen in the same family or between close friends.

Observing my students grow has taught me a priceless lesson in radical humility, radical patience, radical nonviolence, radical love.

There is no magic formula, no answer book in life, no shortcuts to privileged truth and virtue. We can do the same utterly essential work as best we know how — read, think, pray, discuss, travel, serve and love — and yet we can arrive at utterly different positions and places that contradict one another.

Of course, we cannot all be right, and thus some — perhaps much — of what we believe is wrong. And none of us knows with certainty which parts of what we believe are right or wrong. That is precisely the puzzle: our consciences clash.

The practical implication of this recognition is simple but profound. We need each other. We need to listen to each other. We need to listen to each other with humility, not across headlines but across lifetimes, in spirited friendship with people who are different than us. In this friendship, we welcome the gift and ache of disagreement and difference in patient dialogue as a blessed burden of freedom and our shared search for truth, for good, for God in love.

Paul said this so beautifully and powerfully two thousand years ago to a community that prided itself on its special, self-confident knowledge. He said that even if we had “all knowledge,” without love, it would be worthless (1st Corinthians 13:2). But Paul quickly adds that none of us actually has “all knowledge.”

Instead, Paul says, “We know in part” (13:9). He pictures our knowledge like “seeing only a reflection in a mirror” or “seeing through a glass darkly” (13:12). In other words, our knowledge is distorted and limited. None of us sees the full picture or has total clarity or completeness.

What was the practical implication for Paul? Paul insisted that we should prioritize love over knowledge. In an unforgettable statement, he says, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (8:1). We should put caring for others above claiming to be right. And Paul’s vision of love is countercultural.

First, Paul says that real love is marked by patience, kindness, and a refusal to be easily angered (13:4). When you love, you don’t blow up, insult, and walk away. You stay calm, care, and stick around in relationship.

Second, Paul says, “Love does not dishonor others” (13:5). This is love’s limit and litmus test: dishonoring others is not an option. If you win but dishonor the other, you’ve still lost. There’s no winning without love, without honoring the other’s value.

Third, Paul says, “love keeps no record of wrongs” (13:5). Love isn’t keeping score and resists the reflex to retort, “But they…!” or “But what about…!” Love uproots resentment and allows for new beginnings in ourselves and others. It’s future-oriented.

Overall, Paul says love “always hopes” (13:7). Love wants the good for all and refuses to give up on people. It stays open to the possibility of change rather than condemning and closing the book.

Paul’s prioritization of love over knowledge is especially challenging because Paul had a personal vision of the resurrected Jesus. If anyone could claim privileged knowledge, it was Paul. And yet Paul didn’t. He says that love is more important than knowledge and includes himself in love’s humble we: “we know in part,” so put love first.

Abraham Lincoln articulated a very similar attitude to Paul’s in the depths of America’s catastrophic Civil War. In his Second Inaugural Address (1865), Lincoln wrote, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

I find Lincoln’s words astonishing.

First, he chooses a posture of malice toward none. This is Lincoln’s filter: no wish for harm, no desire for the other’s suffering, no irrelevant people, no enemies. Lincoln begins by uprooting the energy-sapping drives of resentment and revenge. The other’s pain matters to me.

Second, Lincoln goes further: with charity for all. Lincoln chooses to live in a posture that sees the best in others, that desires the best for others, that stays open to experiences healing and hope. Lincoln escapes the trap of assuming the best of himself and the worst of others. He chooses to be generous toward all.

And, third, Lincoln speaks of “firmness in the right,” which guides work toward “a just and lasting peace.” But Lincoln immediately qualifies his words: “as God gives us to see the right.” Lincoln embraces Paul’s radical epistemic humility: our vision of the right might be wrong or only partially right. What we think will produce a just and lasting peace might not, so he speaks of “us” working together for the work “we are in.”

Civil War taught Lincoln that certainty and tribalism are dangerous and sometimes catastrophic. Rather than speaking stridently of triumph, Lincoln chose to speak of abandoning malice for anyone, embracing charity for everyone, and admitting that even our best knowledge is fragile. Only the work that “cherishes just and lasting peace” with all neighbors has real value.

Today, this humble, strong, listening spirit is being eroded and attacked by the highest levels of power. We see charismatic leaders fueling polarization and tribalism. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Do not conform” (Romans 12:2).

We are little creatures with limited knowledge and mixed character. The best of our consciences clash. We are all students.

Humility, patience, nonviolence, enduring charity, the capacity and willingness to listen — these have become the most radical and precious practices today.

Do not conform. Love your neighbor as your self. This is the most excellent way.

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