in search of civility
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: James 3:1-10; Matthew 5:21-24, 12:35-37
American political discourse has become increasingly coarse and damaging to “the dialogue that ought to be at the essence of democracy.” Scorn and derision have become “the common coin of political argument.” This past year, much of that has come from the highest level of government.
It was one thing for a Presidential candidate to engage in ridicule and name calling. But it didn’t cease after January 20. Critics were dubbed “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” “Jeff the Flake,” “Liddle Bob Corker” and, of course, “Pocahontas.” Then there are also “Leakin’ James Comey,” “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd,” more recently “Sloppy Steve Bannon.” But most dangerous of all, there is “Little Rocket Man.” Contempt breeds contempt. And so, we now hear as retribution words such as “fool,” “idiot,” “unhinged,” and “crazy.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote that “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by example.” What are we being taught in this acrimonious time?
Now, the acrimony didn’t begin with the current Administration. Think of the divisions and hostility during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. We wonder, where is all this heading for us as a people? This Martin Luther King Memorial weekend is a propitious time to think about this – and, here in worship, to do so Biblically and theologically.
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Clearly, in a democratic society, we need to learn how to deal with differences. They are here to stay. As our society becomes more pluralistic – racially, ethnically, religiously – the need for understanding and tolerance increases. In politics, in education, in economic spheres, even in the church, issues will continue to be before us to which we bring different experiences and perspectives. But the encounters can be constructive; they need not be destructive, barbarous. Our ability to deal civilly with one another is crucial to the preservation of community.
What’s at issue is not so much the substance of the debate, but the manner in which we conduct it; not the solutions to be reached, but the way in which we come to them. I think the Christian understanding of the human condition can make a contribution.
All of us, we believe, are made in the divine image; all of us share a common humanity, and have enormous potential – which argues for respect. Yet all of us are flawed – we see things from our own limited frame of reference; we act from mixed motives – and that argues for humility. An attitude of respect toward others, and of humility about the correctness of our own position, would go a long way toward restoring civility. It’s an attitude Christians ought to be able to bring to discussion and debate, whatever our view on the issues at stake.
As citizens and as Christians, we should take seriously what both of today’s lessons emphasize, that the absence of civility is anything but a trivial matter. Jesus essentially equates incivility with murder in his “You heard it was said…. but I say to you” teachings. We have seen all too often incivility leading to murder. Jesus virtually equates attitude and act. Words can kill, he says. Abusive language can inflict mortal wounds on the mind and soul and heart of another person. Apparently, we don’t get away with telling God, “It was just talk; it didn’t mean anything.” The way we talk – even the way we think – is an indication of the way we live. Jesus says, “You will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.”
And the Book of James issues a warning about the harmful effects of uncivil language which one contemporary translation renders this way: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. The careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.”
As Christian citizens, we can refuse to use disrespectful, hurtful speech, which is where violence begins. We can refuse to participate in the language of divisiveness, of the demeaning of character and demonizing of foes. We can insist on civility from those in the media, in politics, in sports, in schools – and in the churches.
We can examine our own behavior, review our own habits of speech. Every one of us contributes daily to either the barbarism or the civility of our common life. We speak respectfully or we ridicule. We tell and listen to bigoted jokes, or we don’t. We gossip or we don’t. We spread rumors or we won’t. We express our opinions with humility or with arrogance. We speak disparagingly of people of another race or religion or life-style or political party, or we refuse to do that.
I want say something about the means available to us when we have differences. And, specifically, I want to caution about the reactive use of social media. Have you had this experience? Someone does something that makes you angry, and so you fire off a retaliatory email, or text message, or Tweet. And what happens is that instead of reducing the tensions, what you did is: you escalated them. Oh, the damage we can do. So, please, be careful with the temptation to knee-jerk texting and emailing. Remember the old-fashioned counsel to “count to ten.” Calm down. Think about your feelings. May pray about them. Sleep on it. Then consider responding – best in a face-to-face conversation. Know what I’m talking about?
Those of us who are parents and grandparents, teachers in school or in church, leaders of Scout troops or coaches of teams – we can engage in what Theodore Parker Ferris called “basic training.” Training in things such as: consideration, courtesy, kindness, listening, telling the truth, caring about other people, including those whom you don’t really like.
Aristotle expected that it was too much to ask people to be good. About the most that could be hoped of ordinary people, he said, is that we learn and teach good habits – the habits of decency, respect and kindness, the habits that fashion a civilized, civil person.
Or consider Jesus’ belief that what comes out of us is what is inside of us. “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.”
Stephen Covey emphasizes this inside-out approach in his Seven Habits: Start with the self, he urges. Even more fundamentally, start with the innermost part of the self, which is your character. The inside-out approach says that if you pay attention to what goes in, you don't have to worry so much about what comes out. Which is no small part of what the church is here to help us with.
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This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the legacy Dr. King left us which warrants celebration is his example of civility. Issues mattered to him, and he fought hard and long for racial justice, for integration, for the poor, for the end of the Vietnam War, among other things. In doing so, he was often the target of incivility, of verbal abuse on the streets of Skokie, of physical violence – he was punched, he was stabbed – of unjust imprisonment. He endured relentless death threats. But, remarkably, he did not descend to the level of his adversaries. In the face of violence, he practiced non-violence. Confronted with attacks against himself and his people, he responded by persistently calling on this society to live up to its ideals. He serves as an example of how to engage the issues, fight hard for what you believe, and yet do so without degrading, dehumanizing, or demonizing those who disagree.
To Dr. King, it was at the heart of the Gospel to recognize that love could really change a situation of conflict. That was the purpose of aggressive non-violent action in Selma, Birmingham, and elsewhere: love reaching out toward the oppressor, love forcing negotiation. He was not naïve about the persistence and power of evil. But his evangelical Christian faith insisted that even the most hardened sinner runs the risk of being converted. He really believed that ruthless Southern sheriffs and politicians were sheep who had strayed from the fold. And that however powerful evil is, love is more powerful still. Said Coretta Scott King, “He refused to lose faith in the ultimate redemption of humanity.”
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There was an unusually public, unusually positive and bipartisan meeting at the White House last Tuesday. A made-for-TV event, certainly. But hopeful, in that the topics were DACA and immigration reform. But two days later there came that unbelievably racist vulgarism about wanting Norwegians to immigrate, and not people from “s---hole” countries. So here’s my take-away. We, as Christian citizens, can’t merely wait for public figures to do what is right on our behalf. We mustn’t sit around in hopes that Washington – or Springfield – will do justice and love kindness for us. That kind of apathy is no way to honor the legacy of Dr. King.
Because, friends, we each and together have important roles and responsibilities. So join me, please, in our striving, consciously and intentionally, to reflect and express – in the living of our days – the civility of Jesus Christ.
– With thanks to Eugene Bay, David Broder, Martin Marty and James McClendon
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