“We Have to Move Beyond Zero-sum Games”: An Interview with Jennifer Herdt

Jennifer A. Herdt is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at YDS, where she is also Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. Her interests include the history of ethical formation in human conductand the tension between modern assertions of human autonomy and the Christian claims that God and neighbor make on us. Her work has examined the classical virtues, Augustine’s ethics, and 19th century German humanists in order to shed light on Christian ideas of the image of God, the common good, political theology, hubris, and joy. She contributed an essay in The Joy of Humility (Baylor, 2020), produced by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at YDS. In that book she wrote: “Defending humility seems … to be an uphill battle. Nevertheless, it is one worth undertaking. For rightly understood, humility is indeed a virtue and thus necessary to living well. It is, moreover, a source of lasting joy.” Her works include Forming Humanity (Chicago, 2019) and Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago, 2008). The following excerpts are from an interview with Reflections earlier this year.

On modern idolatry …

This fraught moment calls for us to grasp the ways we ourselves contribute to the poison of divisiveness. Only then can we start to contribute anything to the work of healing over the long haul. One problem is idolatrya lack of awareness of how our religious identities can lead us to various forms of idolatry, making us feel immune to scrutiny and criticism. It’s a dangerous dynamic. Religion easily becomes a marker of identity, according to which we define who counts as “us” versus “them,” who is worthy of full and equal recognition and who is not. Our impressions about others become absolutized and unassailable when we regard them as receiving divine endorsement.

However, religion can also sharpen our capacity to question settled boundaries and identities, since God transcends these. That is, my allegiance to God should make me alert to idolatrymake me ask what I am holding onto that is ultimately warped and false. I’m compelled to admit the limitations of my responses and ask what I am getting wrong.

We are to pray for our enemies. The power of this command is that it opens us up to see our enemies as God sees them, to love them as God’s beloved children, rebellious and imperfect as we ourselves are.

Let’s remember: the church offers an anthropology, a framework for regarding the mysteries of human conductinsights for naming original sin and rejecting utopianism and other political delusions without losing our commitment to social transformation.[1] Everyone who grasps that we are made in the image of God has a language for articulating the ethical demands that the sufferings of others make on us.

Unfortunately something gets in the way: the practice of our Christian faith is full of political branding. Attending a worship service or hearing a sermon, you need just a few seconds these days to know whether these are “my people” or “not my people.” An obvious fact gets lost and obliterated: our shared traditions, our shared scripture.

On the power of humility …

Christian tradition regards humility as a virtue, yet it’s too easy in our culture to think of it as a tendency to belittle oneself. However, humility involves something quite different from thisit means being freed from the insecurity that leads to preoccupation with oneself and one’s fears. To be humble is to be focused on one’s larger, public mission, grateful for the God-given gifts that empower one to pursue that task, rather than focused on oneself. Acknowledging the dependent character of our being and our accomplishments is enormously freeing. We are released from the need constantly to prove ourselves, to demonstrate our worth.

Many American Christians have been drawn into a narrative that perceives Christianity as under threat. This has gotten bound up with various other grievances:  the sense that educated elites sneer at the white working class; the worry that ancestors are tainted and deprived of all honor; anxiety over lost jobs and lost ways of life. How might these hurts and fears be recognized in ways that free people from insecurity and free them for commitment to the mission of the living God? 

Regarding “people who aren’t us” …

There is, to be sure, a danger of premature reconciliation, which papers over differences and sets aside the work of reckoning and judgment. That we are called to love our enemies presumes that we have enemies. It is necessary to name injustices and hold one another accountable for these injustices. But we are also to pray for our enemies. The power of this command is that it opens us up to see our enemies as God sees them, to love them as God’s beloved children, rebellious and imperfect as we ourselves are. It opens us to comprehending what our enemies most love and take pride in and what they most fear.[2]

One worry I have about public discourse right now is that we rarely actually engage with those with whom we disagree except to denounce them. In the social media age, stridency seems to be the only form of engaging with people who are different from us. But it shouldn’t be the only way. We have to create spaces of encounter, that nurture deep empathy and curiosity.

Take the vaccine debate as an example. If I rant against “anti-vaxxers,” there’s no way the conversation will move forward in a meaningful way. Calling people anti-vaxxers just signals to those who are on my side that our side is on the “side of the angels.” A term like “vaccine hesitancy” is better. You’re no longer putting a label on people but describing an attitude that someone holds at this moment in time, for which there might be a host of reasons.

Avoiding labels puts you in a better position to listen with curiosity and empathy. Only then is it possible to establish a relationship of trust, within which both parties can truly hear the other. We have to move beyond zero-sum games, where one side wins only if the other side loses. We need to grasp what it is that we all are losing by clinging to ideological identities, identifying with our political brand, and failing to locate our common interests.

Building spaces for empathetic encounter is not for the faint of heart. We all have the tendency to become more invested in defending our identities and shoring up power than in building trust and coalitions. Such initiatives therefore elicit attacks from friends and enemies alike. Rightly construed, this is an indication of the power of the politics of humility, not of its futility.

[1] See Jennifer Herdt, “Women Missionaries, Global Entrepreneurs,” Reflections, Spring 2011.

[2] See Herdt, “Risky Dialogue,” Reflections, Spring 2018. There she writes: “There are times, to be sure, when dialogue is not an option, and we must fight, or run, or loudly lament,” she writes. “Even then, we must pray for our enemies and act with a view to opening lines of dialogue, however remote this may seem in that moment. Our target is injustice and enmity, not our enemy.”