Thoughts on the Difficulty of Friendship at the Present Time

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

[A slightly altered version of a presentation on civility I gave at Friends University on October 26.]

I have seen a lot of anger among my family and friends during this election season; I presume I am not alone in that. After I was asked to give this presentation I thought about that anger, and talked with my wife about it at length. To her, Jesus’s cleansing of the temple is the emblematic scripture story of our moment, and I think she may be right. But what kind of guidance does it provide, if any, when we’re thinking about a Savior who called all who aspire to be servants of Him to love one another, without reservation?  A Savior whose most loving words, to those who served Him best, was to call them friends?

My old friend Michael Austin once wrote a whole book about friendship in the midst of political disagreement. He began his argument in that book by considering Aristotle’s philia politike, or “civic friendship.” Drawing on the work of some other scholars, he defined it as the fellow-feeling that any self-governing community depends upon as a very particular kind of friendship, one characterized by a sense of both the mutual self-interest which exists within a shared community, as well as a degree of goodwill. He quoted the philosopher Sybil Schwarzenbach, who once wrote: “Aristotle is not saying that in the just polis all members know each other, are emotionally close, or personally like each other….Political friendship is evidenced, rather…in the legal and social norms regarding the treatment of persons in that society, as well as in the willingness of fellow citizens to uphold them.”

Schwarzenbach’s point about norms in Aristotle’s account of how citizens are to be friends strikes me as important. Norms are social and historical constructs, assumptions about and expectations for the community systems within which we live; they are essential components of any social organization which exists over time. It is reasonable, therefore, to see the violation of a norm as a form of betrayal, or an act of injustice: that is, of sometone taking advantage of the civic friendship–or, rather, of the historical assumptions we all have regarding what we may expect from others and that which they may expect from us–upon which all of ordinary life in a community requires.

We can all think of examples of politicians violating what many would rightly consider to be crucial constitutional norms. But those social assumptions and expectations function in our lives beyond the level of party politics. For some, there are norms involving the trustworthiness of the police; for others, there are norms which assume the stability of gender. The fact that there are always subgroups within our community for whom these and other norms were not only not recognized but would have been considered the height of naiveté to take seriously is, I have come to think, part of the point: a feeling of betrayal doesn’t only come from violations of norms, but from the discomfort which a shifting understanding of norms entails as well.

This is my armchair hypothesis: that one source of the anger is that we have had, all year long, constantly forced before us–thanks to a callous president regularly inventing and condemning enemies, thanks to lock-downs that exacerbated economic difficulties and shut down spaces of social escape, thanks to an omnipresent social media ecosystem which rips context from every story–the fact that norms held to by one, or some, or all of the different subcommunities of this country (norms about respectful political compromise, about the equal treatment of the races, about the integrity of law enforcement, about the predictability of gender identity, about the functioning of the economy, or even about the place of God in our lives during a time of pandemic) are being challenged, upended, revealed to be otherwise than what we believe, or maybe just simply betrayed. And so the anger at–and, sometimes, the hysterical insistence upon defending–the systemic assumptions we thought we knew flows ever stronger.

Obviously, a social media civil war isn’t remotely the same as a real one. Michael, in his book, made use of Abraham Lincoln as well as Aristotle. Focusing on the great call of his First Inaugural Address–“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies”–Michael looked closely at how Lincoln’s choices as a political figure reflected his understand of civic friendship, something which he called for even in the midst of a level of anger that far exceeds anything we’ve seen yet this election season. Interestingly, he pointed out what Lincoln, to use the terms I sketched out above, pretty explicitly did not think embracing a sense of mutual self-interest and goodwill towards those whom you may fundamentally feel betrayed by requires. He did not think it requires us to deny or hide our deeply held beliefs, even extreme ones. Also, he did not think it requires us to believe that all sides are equally at fault (if there even is a “fault”) in the violation or upending or simply the changing of norms, and that the best compromise therefore will always be found in the mushy middle, as we are so often condescendingly told.

What did Lincoln think civic friendship in the face of the systemic collapse–or at least the feeling of norms collapsing all around you–requires? On Michael’s reading, it requires one to operate on the assumption that everyone can change their mind; that no one’s position in the midst of the fraught debates all around us is absolute. It also requires us to prioritize fairness–not the abandonment of one’s beliefs, but a fairness in the expressing of them, always allowing others to express the same. Most of all, it requires us to be willing to play the long game, to patiently accept the legitimacy of small steps. Patience, incidentally, is one of the key themes of Compassion & Conviction, a book some colleagues and I have been reading together with a group of students this semester. At one point the authors–all of whom are long-time activists and pastors in African-American communities–observe that:

Patience is often in shorter supply for the zealous convert to a cause than the long-suffering laborer for justice. It is not usually the most vulnerable who are the most vitriolic, nor is it usually they who have persevered for what they believed who are most bitter. Instead, often the people for whom these issues are primarily emotional are trying to prove their commitment rather than just being committed. Those who have advocated for an issue for a long time, on the other hand, are able to track progress, are respectfully aware of the various points of disagreement, and understand the terrain (pp. 120-121).

That impassioned call to patience, and Michael’s reading of Lincoln, are both powerful, I think. But I can also think of reasons to dissent from them. What if the very idea of “fairness” is part of the norm that appears to have been systematically broken or never consistently applied in the first place? What if cognitive research and social science and long hours of arguing with people on Facebook have proven to you that, actually, people never really do change their minds? Most of all, what if the patient long game which Michael embraces has already been intolerably too long? (Keep in mind here that Martin Luther King, Jr., himself wrote a whole book, titled Why We Can’t Wait, about those annoying calls for civil rights protesters and demonstrators to be “patient.”)

I can come up with no easy solution for how one is to deal in a friendly with one’s fellow community members when dismay or confusion or consternation or anger over the breakdown of systems and assumptions dominates. So instead I come back to Jesus cleansing the temple–not just overturning tables, but taking a whip and driving those who were collecting and changing money at those tables out into the streets. I have no idea what kind of mental state we are supposed to understand our Savior to have had in this story. Was He sorrowful? Or was He, actually, angry? Angry, perhaps, at the realization that the system of sacrifice under the temple priests and Levites had become so exploitative, that the norms by which poor Jews were given access to temple rites had become so warped, that there was nothing left to do but take direct confrontational action, and literally upend them all? I don’t know, and I doubt any believer can know. But believers can and should, at least, recognize that, even while the call to love and friendship–to say nothing of the minimal civic application of such–remains, it remains, at least if we include this scriptural story into our understanding of Jesus, in conjunction with both a recognition of the legitimacy of feeling betrayed, and a recognition that our responses to perceived violations of or confusions over norms and expectations will not always be eternally passive.

At one point in his wise book (wise in terms of political ethics, certainly; whether it is wise in terms of addressing failed political systems and norms is something that remains to be seen), Michael frames civic friendship as a hope. That, I think, is the only true point I can conclude with. The civic friendship which can exist in a community is fundamentally always going to be an act of faith, a holding onto a “conviction of things not seen.”  We don’t know–we can’t know, until it actually happens–if the norms and assumptions and expectations whose seeming collapse angers us are final; we don’t even know if some of them might not be opening up a window for systemic change that might appropriately be described as providential. In the meantime, so long as this community that we know is still here when we wake up in the morning, the call of Jesus can, I think, be at the very least expressed as a continued hope to be able to treat our fellow community members as friends. “We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day–occasionally in a formal election but more often through the purchases we make, the people and institutions we choose to associate with, and the things that we give our attention to. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. But when animated by a genuine concern for the well-being of others, we can find ways”–and I would add here, “to restore failing norms” or “to rebuild or replace flawed or discriminatory systems” or perhaps merely, as Michael wrote–“to make our society more just” (pp. 38-39).


  1. Cleansing the temple is such a rare occurrence, in such a specific place, that we should be pretty confident, that mentality should be reserved for one thing — cleansing the temple. I don’t think we should extrapolate that to other important issues. After all, the Savior had many instances to get angry and some real injustice and only turned over the tables once.

    How not to get angry?
    It’s not very difficult if you’re not locked into being a partisan. So first, stop drinking up the partisan cool air and recognize that if you are a partisan, the people you support are almost certainly also corrupt. Don’t assume you virtue on yourside.

    The issue is the person getting angry is likely the one that’s wrong. I see it in Trumpers. But as his party has controlled the Senate and the Presidency, more often I see it in Democrats these days.

    The way to not be angry is to be content to bear the burdens that inevitably get foisted on you or others when poor decisions are made. After all, that’s certainly a component of the atonement. He bore those burdens, and then forgave and love the people who put them on him.

    Patiently tell them your view, consider their view. Consider their feelings and why they feel that way. Hopefully, you can explain why your view counters or is superior to theirs — if not you don’t really have much of a claim to get angry (not that you do anyway).

    I have no problem thinking someone else is wrong. And I have no problem with them thinking I am wrong. Life is too amazing and wonderful to get dragged down into hurt feelings from arguing over policy, politicians, or even deeply held principles.

    I admit, to have this view, I think it helps to have faith that there’s more to this life than the here and now. It helps me at least with my perspective to know that as bad as I think it is or will get, it’s certainly been worse and it’s certainly a fact that on almost every level I have lived a life of more physical comfort, health, and freedom than the vast majority of the people who have ever lived.

    And the very real alternative to whatever you might say about life on this planet is the absence of both life and death, which is observed on every other planet we can see in the universe.

  2. I really think not having an agreed set of facts, makes any discussion almost impossible. Unless there is a landslide one way or the other next week, and the votes are still being counted in a couple of weeks, with the different versions of reality being presented by the media, I think you could have civil war.
    I think the divided media, in some cases presenting lies as reality, means it will be very difficult for both sides to accept the result. Trump says unless he wins the election was rigged, so not just the media.
    Vote, hope for a landslide, and good luck.

  3. Another example of when is it right to take up arms and rebel against the government. I want to say that I can tell when that is, but then again I suspect that everyone believes that they are objective.
    I think that Trump recognized that many people disliked how politicians understood the importance of the aforementioned civic friendship, and decided to run against that. It is sad how many people see that as “fighting for them” when in reality it breaks apart the foundation upon which all else is built.

  4. Jackson Shaver says:

    No side of the political spectrum has all the answers. I like being independent and voting for individuals, not party affiliations.

  5. I have been pondering friendship during this time and I appreciate the thoughts that were shared. It is a messy topic that I think I will be unpacking for awhile. There seems to be so many layers affecting friendships during this time but I think social media and the need to be on a political side or team are the biggest factors. In my social/community circle in the past politics rarely came up. It was limited to political nerds most of the time with the exception of election season or a big news story. Now it seems to be how people define their identity. As one example in my community where you would see small political yard signs before there are giant flags, which have also replaced small bumper stickers. People are trying to make a statement but what is it? It goes beyond this is the candidate I support for President.

  6. For whatever it’s worth, here are a few updated thoughts on the topic, this election day morning:

  7. Thanks Russell. The episode is hilarious! Perfect for today

  8. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Russell, Your post seems to be written from the perspective of one who knows that he is right.


  9. If so, Glenn, then I wrote poorly. I don’t, in fact, know that I’m write about civic friendship. But as my post concludes, I hope I am:

    The civic friendship which can exist in a community is fundamentally always going to be an act of faith, a holding onto a “conviction of things not seen.” We don’t know–we can’t know, until it actually happens–if the norms and assumptions and expectations whose seeming collapse angers us are final; we don’t even know if some of them might not be opening up a window for systemic change that might appropriately be described as providential. In the meantime, so long as this community that we know is still here when we wake up in the morning, the call of Jesus can, I think, be at the very least expressed as a continued hope to be able to treat our fellow community members as friends.

  10. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Russell, there are three comment areas that stood out to me in that context. Your comments about a callous president. There are a lot of people that have quite different perspectives that president. I am not debating whether your perspective is correct or not, just that such remarks would seem to add to the problem that you are attempting to describe.

    Another area was where you were talking about arguments with people on facebook with the despairing idea that some people will never change their minds. I hope maybe you can see the problem with that from the perspective of the person on the other end of that facebook debate.

    Especially when such an one gets to the part about Jesus clearing the temple. One could wonder if the author is comparing himself to Jesus in righteous indignation that others would dare take opposing positions.

    I do not believe that is your real perspective especially in light of your friendly, civil response to my post. And I do believe you are correct in your final thought that following the precepts that Jesus taught is the only way we can hope to engage in civil, friendly discourse with those in our communities.


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