So Why Do You Want to Be in Mine?
Do you know why many people prefer to avoid discussing politics or religion? A good many prefer not to argue. Arguing represents painful or even traumatic history for some. My parents just had angry words—no drunken irrationality, no lost control, and no physical abuse—yet I still hate dealing with anger. I became a peacemaker to help people find better ways to handle conflict, but even that is an uncomfortable place to work because parties are usually angry, disrespect each other, and typically talk without listening. Getting them to listen to each other, truly hear what is being said, is one of my primary responsibilities.
Through 30 years of trying to promote interpersonal peace and the disciplines of making and keeping peace, it seems to me that both the Church and Western Culture have moved in the opposite direction. I observed, some time ago, that Christians seem to prefer the ideas of “inner peace” and sometimes “world peace” but ignore the plain Scriptural teaching on interpersonal peace and reconciliation, its necessary goal. I have no doubt that the culture has become more antagonistic and uncivil over recent decades. Aggressive political rhetoric is abysmal, with many who decry it themselves the worst offenders. Crude, trash-talking, character-assassinating celebrities in entertainment, sports, and media foster a climate of “in-your-face” incivility.
I occasionally read comments that follow on-line blogs and articles, but I usually quit when the nastiness turns foul and unproductive. I’ll never forget a post by Ann Coulter when she was writing of her recently deceased mother; it was followed by tasteless and purely malicious comments (I notice they’re gone now, and good riddance! They didn’t belong there). What is the point of such venom? One of the things I noted in R. Emmett Tyrell’s After the Hangover is that the earlier conservative movement, from Goldwater through Reagan, was marked by a certain collegiality, despite the diversity in the conservative landscape; he also noted that it’s not that way today! Just before I began writing this, I had been reading comments to a one-line post on Facebook and observed the antagonism that seemed to develop between a couple of the writers. I commented, there, that our uncivil disagreements are how the “other side” wins so easily, despite what I believe to be the majority position we hold in the populace. Of course, the attacks from that side are even worse, yet I don’t believe we accomplish much by responding in kind.
Venom is poison, if I may be obvious, and poison kills. Venom in our discourse is destructive; we may feel we’re waging war, but that attitude cannot be the prevailing approach. To achieve a majority coalition, we need to win people over to our views with kindness and reason. While we must express ourselves unwaveringly, once we cross over into poisonous attacks, whether against complete adversaries or merely dissenting voices among our own, we assure more division and fragmentation. I may not trust our President or like his policies, but I do not hate him or wish to express myself in that spirit. I try to be careful, in that respect, partly because I firmly believe that “the politics of personal destruction” is counter-productive, in the long run, destroying the civility and unity of our American culture. I also believe, as a Christian, that God calls me to love my neighbor, even a President whom I oppose, even politicians who seem more interested in money and power than in me or my fellow citizens, and especially people who are indeed my brothers and sisters.
Sadly, this venomous spirit is prevalent among Christians, too. We seem to be following the hostile culture instead of leading it to the love of Jesus Christ. We have encouraged those outside our ranks to fear our political goals because they see more of our moralizing than our loving, too much of our religiosity and not enough of grace, and an excess of judgmentalism and a near absence of forgiveness. We aren’t much better among ourselves. Paul wasn’t blowing smoke when he wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” If by “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy” Jesus meant to guide his people in their external relations, then certainly, John’s words place an even higher standard on our internal dealing with other believers, “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” I accept that we may not “like” a brother or sister and still love them, although it is a tricky distinction, but we certainly may not love them and treat them verbally like scum!
When I began teaching people how to be peacemakers in the interpersonal sense, I realized that many of the “Christian words” had been twisted far from their Biblical meanings. I also learned that those in conflict were not ready to “love” in the unconditional, sacrificial sense exemplified by Jesus at Calvary. I began to use the word “respect,” at least as a starting point. Everyone knows what it is to be disrespected, and it seems to be effective to suggest that we ought to respect each other. I believe to do otherwise is to deny a person’s basic humanity, and I cannot find any reasonable justification for that, especially not as a follower of Christ. Yet I hear and see disrespect rampant in our culture; I believe it is a vile and insidious thing. From the lips of Jesus’ followers, it is reprehensible!
I know myself, and I am aware of the scars, weaknesses, ignorance, and even sin that keeps me from living as consistently as I wish I could. The person on the other side of whatever issue divides us is no different. Our disagreements are not just about issues but about interests that have grown from the murky depths of our individual shortcomings. Respect and wisdom, in that light, should temper our communication rather than those weaknesses and limitations controlling it.
One final question is apropos. Why do people get “in your face?” Why do you? What is your purpose in confronting another person or speaking about them harshly? Even before the Internet, talk radio, and Facebook, people used to gather to talk, and I’ve noticed that even in those roundtable discussions people were often blunt and cutting. I’ve noticed among teens, even in Christian schools, a common attitude of tearing down instead of building up. Why is that? I believe it is largely human pride of the negative variety, expressing itself to tear down others, in order to feel superior. Of course, being ripped on is the first salvo; if fired upon, egos fire back. Young people may be forgiven, for those teen years are rife with insecurity. I’d like to think adults might do better.
When I engage someone on an issue, respond to a comment, or initiate a discussion myself, I have what I believe to be a greater purpose. I seek not to be superior, though I may occasionally slip. My goal is not to win a war of words but to win people to my point of view. I fear that Western civilization and the Western Church are both at risk. I have fairly well-educated ideas about what needs to happen, but I’m open to improving them. I’m less concerned about being right than about working together to the right ends. I want my country to allow us to live freely and continue to be a nation that attracts lovers of freedom. I want the Church to be a place of love that draws people to the One who first loved us. Such goals will not be easily achieved; they certainly won’t if we sink to the lowest methods of interaction.
For winning over others, face-to-face aggression and hostility are not effective but counter-productive. To succeed for the greater good of Church and nation, we cannot afford to disrespect those we engage; we must show them kindness and win them with the best of our ideas, as we listen for the best of theirs.