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Seeking Common Purpose in Our “Gotcha” World

As much as we might desire it, perfection is hard to come by in the world of human experience.
The smaller and simpler the task, the closer we can come to it. The “perfect square” and the “perfectly boiled egg” seem within the realm of possibility.

But the moment we move into the complex world of life, from the closest personal relationships to the largest arenas of our collective life, any expectation of perfection is doomed to early frustration and disillusionment.

An ethics of perfection is not much help if it presumes the possibility of an unblemished life, circumstance or performance.

We learn soon that the ethical life has more to do with how we manage, respond to and learn from our imperfections and those of others than it does with success or failure to achieve perfection.

Where this gets interesting, in our personal and collective lives, is the way we can use the real or perceived imperfections of others to gain advantage for ourselves and whatever cause we are pursuing. We might call this the “gotcha factor.”

If a debater can find and expose a hole in an opponent’s argument, points are scored. If a trial lawyer can point out inconsistencies, the testimony of a witness can be discredited. If a teacher sees gaps in a student’s knowledge of crucial information, a grade is affected.

In the collective venues of close personal relationships, family life, church life and even national governance, imperfections, misjudgments and partial understandings can be seized upon as a basis for gaining advantage, much as a baseball catcher’s error can lead to a stolen base.

Community management at any level is a complex journey through the ambiguity of varied values, needs and circumstances, which often compete with each other for attention and response.

Wise leadership attempts to find ways to navigate the journey with a vision of a common good that will guide choices in its direction. Less wise leadership will seek to find and exploit flaws in opposing positions in an effort to derail the advancement of any agenda but one’s own.

Two things come to mind from the recorded teachings of Jesus that pertain to how we regard and deal with imperfections – our own and others. Both are part of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

One is the familiar image of calling attention to the speck in someone’s eye while ignoring the larger flaw in one’s own (Matthew 7:3-5).

Generally interpreted as a teaching against hypocrisy, it also illustrates the tendency we all have to use any flaw in others to distract attention from our own and to obstruct any cause we might not favor.

When a quest for a common good degenerates into the kind of “gotcha governance” we see displayed on the public stage (or in closer relationships, for that matter), little is served except points scored by opposing sides and a general dysfunction of purpose.

The ancient story of Achilles provides a helpful parable for other times. Protected by his mother’s mythical dip in the river of immortality, he was invulnerable everywhere except the heel by which she held him.

That one spot of vulnerability – the “Achilles heel” – is what an opponent searches for in a contest, whether it be an open hole in a defensive line, a tennis player’s weaker backhand or a flaw in a debater’s argument.

Teamwork suffers badly when a common purpose degenerates into a “gotcha” game. Rather than embracing the imperfections of our common life, learning from them and moving forward with the refined understanding such experience brings, a combative context of winning and losing replaces what once was a common goal.

A second helpful point is in the somewhat troubling admonition, “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Impossible, right? But wait, sometimes a closer look is helpful.

The word we read as “perfect” is teleios in Greek, closely related to telos, which usually is translated in terms of goal or purpose. This would suggest that the admonition is not to be flawless, but to be “consistently purposeful” – to keep one’s eye on the goal amid the flaws of our partial understandings and imperfect efforts.

An ethic of purposefulness that seeks to learn from imperfection would seem to serve our complex needs better than an ethics of perfection that pounces on and seeks to exploit any imperfection, real or conjured up, and “strains out the gnat and swallows the camel” (Matthew 23:24).

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.