Within the last couple of weeks, deeply offensive terms (such as “nigger” and “faggot”) have been loudly shouted at such people as Rep. Jim Lewis, a prominent civil rights worker, and Rep. Barney Frank as they appeared on the capitol steps on their way to do their jobs. The United States has recently passed significant legislation on healthcare reform, and we are now in the midst of a tizzy, where it seems like some people have gone crazy with their yelling, cussing, fighting, and threatening. We have political pundits appearing on television and deliberately trying to whip up angry mobs, or score political points, with much success. Others are even telling us what churches we should or should not attend, based on how it might reflect a particular political view.
To my current sense of personal shame, I’m not much better.
I see people posting one lie or another that their masters on television have pushed into the atmosphere, and I get all riled up and act as if it’s my personal responsibility to refute each and every one of them, even when that turns me into a parrot for my own favorite pundits. The other day, I spent hours on Facebook in debate with a guy who just drove me crazy. He’d say outrageous things like “our government never does anything right,” or “conservatives are charitable and kind and liberals spend all their money just looking to attack people,” and I would try to respond to him by asking him to examine what he said and understand the inherent flaws in making categorical statements that “all” of anything is anything. I’d push for him to think for himself and not just repeat things he’s heard someone say, and he’d counter back with more and more platitudes about how his is the only “true” position and that anyone who cannot accept that is part of some conspiracy to oppress him in some way.
I’d keep saying that, regardless of our fundamental disagreement on a number of issues, he needs to understand that he has chosen to believe the things that he says, while other people choose otherwise, which is how I learned that I’m a “communist” and a “socialist.” I would emphasize over and over again that I didn’t seek to refute his points, so much as call upon him to not make sweeping statements and stereotypes, and think about what he. personally, feels, as opposed to repeating things that anyone can hear from the pundits he listens to. This was despite the fact that he views those personalities as having been sent by God to help correct the imbalance created by people who dominate the media since “virtually all of them admit” to being in opposition to his views. At the end of all this, I had to stop the conversation because I realized that it was not a dialog, and no amount of calling for reason and restraint was going to be effective, since terms like “reason and restraint” sounds too much like “socialism” in his ears.
And I’m deeply offended by this, too. My failure to find a point where we could connect and talk really bothered me. At times, I found myself thinking some of the same hateful thoughts that he was apparently thinking, and trying very hard to not let them out and to edit them out when I did.
I came away from the exchange with such a feeling of inner turmoil that it bothered me for days, right up until the next person like this posted on my brother’s Facebook page and I found myself heading down the same path again. I really dislike the idea that we have somehow become a society where people are spending too much time shouting at each other and calling names, rather than rationally talking and listening to each other. I fear for a country where civil rights workers are again loudly called “nigger” in public places, and public figures who should know better take to the podium to condone such behavior. It bothers me that someone appears on television and shares fantasies about killing another person; hosts guests who advocate for terrorist attacks on our soil; tells us to leave our churches; and becomes ever more strident in agitating for armed revolt; and that such a person gets decent ratings and waves poll numbers which show that more and more people are buying into his message. But beyond all that, I’m bothered because such things can take me to the point where I am sorely pressed not to retaliate in kind when faced with the hurtful words, gestures, and talking points offered up by the supporters of such people. My country is divided in ways that it has not been for some time, and things just look to be getting worse, but I can’t see how my giving into the spirit of the age is going to help. I need to calm down!
Beyond all that, when I really stop to think about what I fear, and what I’m fearing, I cannot help but be reminded of being in a church where things are not going so well. When there is conflict in a church body, people start choosing sides; wars of words heat up; hurtful things are said; hurtful actions are taken; and it’s all that much worse because of the context in which it is happening. We are people who ought to know better! Church folk ought to be setting an example of tolerance, piety, kindness and fair-dealing. However, on those times when we disagree, we can carry on in ways that would make some of the most hard-core media pundits blush with shame. I remember once having a discussion with an attorney about a difficult case. He asked me if I had ever seen such a disagreeable, bloodthirsty, no-holds-barred bunch of people in all my life, so I told him about some of the things I have seen in denominational politics. Nothing this side of being in the marines seems very tough after such experiences.
So there you have it. We are in a tough place in our society, and I believe that one of the best things that people can do in such times is to not fall into the trap of all the hate, spite, and attacks that we see around us, but instead to offer a joyous, non-anxious presence that offers everyone a chance of hope and healing.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget that we, as Christians, have that particular call, and instead fall into the trap of acting like everyone else, returning hurt for hurt. It’s very hard to set the example, and like me, a lot of us have failed to do so. What we need right now, is to calm down, take it easy, and talk to each other, and it’s hard to ask everyone to do that if we will not ourselves do so.
So calm down everybody! And after you’ve calmed down, let’s help everyone else.