As part of my preparation for writing this letter for the November – December issue, I was reviewing some past letters that I have written at this time of year. A couple of times I’ve written about thankfulness, a couple of times about the history of our Christmas celebration. But the most common theme of my letters at this time of year is the nastiness of whatever election season we have been in. It seems like with each cycle, the level of vitriol, finger-pointing, accusations and counter-accusations reaches a new low.
I have long believed that one of the primary responsibilities of those who aspire to political office is that they should call out the best in us. I am very clear that this is part of my responsibility as a priest and rector. Our elected leaders should serve as an example to all of us in how to carry on vigorous debate on important subjects, and even to disagree strongly with one another, and yet not resort to name called and demonizing. While President Trump has often been criticized on these lines, I do not write this to single him out. Just look at the national discourse surrounding the nomination and confirmation of our newest Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh. President Trump is just the most visible and heavily reported example of this, but he is neither the beginning nor the end. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10)
The depressing reality is that the behavior of our elected leaders is a reflection of us. We elected them. We keep voting for people who seek to win by speaking ill of others, making promises they won’t keep and deliberately misrepresenting their opponents. Our elected leaders are both a reflection of and a bellweather for the incivility of our common life. It is difficult to point to any one factor as responsible for this trend, though certainly “social” media has accelerated our descent. I’m not enough of a cultural historian to speak definitively, but I would bet that if you studied the decline of the major civilizations through history, a key feature would be the loss of civil discourse.
I will assume that as we are all Christians, I do not need to convince you of the value of civil discourse and of treating others consistently with respect and dignity. Note that I did not say “with the respect and dignity they deserve.” We should treat others with respect and dignity because it is a reflection of OUR character, not our assessment of theirs. We are all children of God, even those to do not act like it! I take as a given that we share these goals, so the question is what do we do about it?
First, pray that God would change our hearts. It begins there and we must be ready to change ourselves before looking to others. How do your Facebook posts measure up to this standard?
Second, bridle our own tongues. No matter how severely tempted (and I know the temptation well!) we must be careful to speak that which builds up. Yes, there is a time to challenge and exhort, but it must be done in the appropriate context (probably not on national TV, or social media), and only when we have come to the place ourselves where we can do so in genuine love. That means coming to a place where we genuinely want the best for the other (not to simply prove them wrong), and were we are open to being challenged ourselves.
Third, where appropriate, hold others to this standard. When someone starts up some nasty gossip, you do not need to listen. You can politely say something like “I’d rather not go down that road.” When people go down this road, you can, at the very least, not participate, not laugh, not encourage.
Fourth, and this is as close as I will come to suggesting how to vote, cast your ballots for those who you believe will do the most to restore civil discourse and mutual respect. Right now, that is a very difficult standard and I see no one to hold up as a solid example. But we can at least make this a major consideration in deciding whom to vote for. I am well aware that there are other important issues: economy, national security, education, law enforcement, immigration policy, etc. But I believe that if we continue to lose the ability to treat one another in a civil manner, all the best policies in the other areas won’t amount to a fig. Our society and our nation will come apart at the seams without the ability to be civil with one another.
This letter first appeared in the November – December of St. John’s monthly newsletter, the “Good News.” Click here for the full issue.