The mayor's advice

He missed the source, but he pointed the right direction

Issue: "High stakes at the Court," Jan. 29, 2000

Some problems in life are easy indeed. But others go on and on, with no good solution in sight. Three current examples:

  • The custody case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy whose mother drowned during their desperate flight to freedom in Florida.
  • The standoff between the State of South Carolina, where some folks still very much want to fly the Confederate flag in official places, and the local NAACP, which says it won't end its boycott until the flag comes down.
  • John Rocker. The demand for the Atlanta Braves' pitcher to undergo psychological evaluation says much about our society (see page 26). Why are some of these problems so desperately hard? How do you reconcile the rights of a father (even when he's divorced) with the rights of a mother who gave her life for the cause of her child's freedom? Why do people seem still to be fighting a war that we thought had ended 135 years ago? Why does society get all bent out of shape defending the rights of some people to say ugly and demeaning things and then jump all over someone else for also saying ugly and demeaning things? Some people, of course, have easy answers for all these and other issues. They know, without a moment's thought, that Elian belongs immediately back in Cuba-or they're absolutely certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that under no circumstances should he ever be returned to Cuba. Other people know all the other answers as well. On problems like these, the very fact that such people think the answers are easy becomes an almost bigger problem. Instead, on some issues-like Elian, the Confederate flag, and John Rocker-it's entirely appropriate to step back, stroke your chin in puzzlement, and admit: "That's a really hard issue!" Indeed, one of the great ironies of life is that so many folks are reluctant to pass judgment on issues where they should have great certainty, and so eager to pass judgment where they should probably be a bit more cautious. That's why it was refreshing a few days ago to hear Atlanta's former mayor, Andrew Young, suggest and then model a conciliatory kind of behavior too little seen in public life these days. I wish that Mr. Young, who is an ordained minister, had publicly credited Christ with his ideas, which have to do quite simply with living out the so-called Golden Rule in tense relationships. Instead, Mr. Young attributed the solutions to his mentor from years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian advocate of nonviolence. All of them, of course, are indebted to the wise teachings of Jesus-whether they acknowledge that source or not. But the fact that some liberals have sometimes reduced the biblical gospel to little more than the Golden Rule doesn't make Jesus' words any less true, or less practical. Hear them again: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). The rule is an extension of what Jesus said a few verses earlier, when he told his listeners never to apply a judgment to others until they had first applied that same standard to themselves. So Andrew Young, who because of his background and position might have been expected to hurl self-righteous invective back at the hatefully injudicious Mr. Rocker, instead suggested that the Atlanta Braves pitcher be offered a "face-saving" way to respond. Who of us, especially after we've done something embarrassingly wrong, likes to be backed into a corner? So Mr. Young suggests, if none of us likes being hung out to dry, why do it to somebody else-even if he's earned it? And Mr. Young confesses his own occasional racial prejudices. By reminding ourselves of the old "There, but for the grace of God, go I" principle, we puncture the balloons of pride that very often separate us from our adversaries. What if, every time we see someone struggling with behavior, we in effect wrap an arm around them to say: "I've struggled with that myself. Let's struggle together." It's in that context, of course, that Christians will always find the most fruitful context for speaking the ultimate truth of the gospel-the truth that points to Christ's righteousness as the only solution for our own sinfulness and failure. That truth will typically be a whole lot more attractive when it's spoken by people who admit their own weakness than when it comes from those who sound arrogant and pretend that they have everything together. Quiet self-effacement is often called for even when we know we're right. But it's especially appropriate when we face the tough issues, the ones where we're not sure anybody has any good answers. If the Golden Rule proves still to be useful in Atlanta, maybe it will work as well in South Carolina, Miami, and Havana.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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