Michael Gerson talks about public discourse, Christian response to suffering
Former aide to President George W. Bush and syndicated columnist Michael Gerson spoke in chapel March 22 on suffering. Gerson addressed students specifically about how Christians respond to suffering that they see and experience. He cited several different types of reactions that believers express.
The first reaction discussed was judgment. When Christians respond to other’s suffering with judgment, they often assign blame for situations irrationally. Gerson discussed how many well-known evangelical publications connected the 9/11 attacks with legalized abortion and lax moral standards in the United States. More recently, some clergy stated that the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010 was caused by an ancient Haitian pact with the devil.
Christians often use judgment as an excuse to avoid the second type of reaction, which is compassion. However, after the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, secular journalists commented on how much Christian churches and organizations across the country and the world helped those in need.
But the most important reaction to suffering that Christians should have is to seek justice. This is a responsibility of both the community and individuals. Oftentimes, justice is avoided by the Christian community because it seems out of place or radical.
Gerson discussed Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The letter was addressed to southern clergymen who urged a more cautious route toward civil rights.
King said, “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
It is imperative that Christians today do not make the same mistake and wait for solutions to the issues of AIDS, world poverty and injustice to merely appear on the scene, Gerson said. They must instead take action. They must also avoid the trap of confusing hating one’s neighbor’s enemy with loving one’s neighbor.
“Ultimately, the Christian’s reaction to suffering is an expression of how they view God,” Gerson said.
For these reasons, Gerson argued, believers must not turn against politics, but “do politics better.” In order to do this, Christians should avoid taking their politics from ideologies expressed around them. Instead, they should look towards the wealth of reflections to be found in the history of Christianity. Throughout the centuries, members of the Christian church have sought the values of human dignity, social justice and fair economic growth. Believers today should take those principles and apply them to their own political beliefs.
On a more lighthearted note, Gerson discussed his interaction with two famous figures, former President George W. Bush and Bono, the main vocalist for the band U2. He joined the Bush presidential campaign in 1999 as a speechwriter and senior policy advisor. After the 2000 election, Gerson served as Assistant to the President for Policy and Strategic Planning. This job gave him the opportunity to meet with Bush every day for the seven years that he worked in the White House.
He described Bush as a “man without a mask,” whose public persona was the same as his private character. He inspired loyalty in those he worked with by showing loyalty. Gerson shared a story of a time when he wrote a phrase into a speech that caused negative press for the president. He went to bed that night upset that he had hurt the man he worked to support. The next morning, Gerson woke up to a phone call from Bush and a message on his answering machine from the night before, both encouraging him not to worry.
When discussing Bono, Gerson said that the singer took him to his first rock concert. However, what impressed Gerson the most was not Bono’s fame but his knowledge of international policy. Bono started a non-profit organization known as the ONE campaign, where Gerson is now a senior advisor. The organization defines itself as “The Campaign to Make Poverty History.”
The night of his visit, Gerson spoke for Cedarville’s Critical Concern Series. His lecture, “Graceful Citizenship: Christian Civility and the Common Good,” addressed the issue of civility in politics and public discourse. Using civility does not mean that one must always be cheerful, Gerson said. It relates to the methods used to get one’s point across to an audience.
Specifically talking about the media in this current presidential election, Gerson said that the ideological stances portrayed by journalists and news anchors actually hinder the political search for solutions because they do not present the issues objectively. Additionally, presidential candidates undermine human dignity when they endorse negative campaign advertisements that demean each other.
According to Cedarville University’s website, Gerson, the recipient of the 2012 Character Forum Award, is also a syndicated columnist who appears in the Washington Post, the author of “Heroic Conservatism” and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era.” Gerson serves on numerous boards and committees and is committed to addressing world poverty and injustice. Additionally, he was chosen as a part of TIME Magazine’s 2005 list of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”