A Rebirth Of Civility
Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.1 Peter 3:8-9
I cannot think of a forum in which the nastiest aspects of human nature are put on display more than in the responses to a political post on social media. There is no middle ground, no diplomacy or reasoned argument. There is no nuance, counterpoints, or healthy engagement: just vitriol. Civility seems to be dead in the land of the free, where “freedom” is defined as your right to agree with me. The most recent example of this that got my attentions (and raised my ire) was today. It started with someone speaking positively about a political figure whom they respected. The comments were brutal and ugly. There was no pretense of courtesy or even civil disagreement. It was simply hateful. The retorts and comments continued until, one assumes, the last vestiges of vitriol were spent, like a den of rattlesnakes that have to rest and feed so that their expended venom might be replenished. It made me mad, but even more so, it made me deeply, deeply sad. I have to admit that while I have great faith in what God can accomplish, I also know He honors our free will, and it would seem that the West in general and America in particular has made its choice in regard to the values that once held our society together. “We’ll do without your objective moral values, thank you very much,” seems to be the consensus when one witnesses interactions like the one I saw on Facebook today. It’s not just this one instance. Our entire political process, as well as much of our social interactions, are filled with rancor. Of course, that is nothing new. The Presidential election between Adams and Jefferson still stands as one of the nastiest in our nation’s nearly two-hundred-and-fifty-year history. Still, our long-standing history of bitter Presidential campaigns aside, it seems as though a completely different level of bitterness, hatred, and nastiness pervades much of our society today.
This is not an article about the evils of the information age or the irresponsibility people demonstrate while on social media. I’ve written plenty about that before anyway. I don’t believe social media and the internet amplifies so much as simply reveals the collective character of our society. It has simply provided the safety of distance and, in some cases, the cloak of anonymity necessary for people to act as they’ve wanted all along. A few have paid a heavy price for their incivility on social media, losing jobs or experiencing savage social disapproval when online behaviors crossed the line of company policy or social propriety. The problem with the latter, however, is that it does not reflect objective moral values in any way. Rather, much of the nation’s idea of “social propriety” is whatever the politically correct cultural consensus of the moment happens to be. Defy that and one can be cancelled immediately. It can be curtains for anyone who is not savvy enough to have all the socially sanctioned, culturally appropriate boxes are not checked on a Twitter post. Not a day goes by that some celebrity or another hasn’t tripped over some unforeseen, recently invented taboo regarding what he or she said or did. I saw someone complaining the other day that Justin Bieber’s haircut was thought to be an intolerable case of cultural misappropriation. Such first-world problems have had to be invented in the twenty-first century to keep our attention off the fact that we’ve completely lost touch with reality about all the things that really matter. Killing children in the womb and denying biological reality regarding gender identity is completely permissible, but let your barber be creative with your hairstyle and the culturally sensitive, safe-space seekers will be triggered to DEFCON 4.
While all of this is disconcerting, I observe much of it from a relatively safe distance. If one is not a part of the cultural milieu, not playing by the rules has little effect. In the world I inhabit, conforming to the culture would be seen as the problem, rather than the other way around. In short, I’m not worried about being cancelled, but it is hard to watch what’s going on in our world and not feel for those good people whose lives have been irreparably damaged simply because they happened to either have a wedding at a venue that had a dubious connection with slavery or failed to identify a sexually confused teenager by the pronoun of their choice. The fires that are consuming our civility in the larger have dropped their embers and begun to ignite fires even in the Church. Christians aren’t sure how much of this cultural redefinition is to be taken seriously; whether we shouldn’t be paying a little more attention so as to avoid unnecessary offense. First there were attempts to cancel actors like Chris Pratt for going to an evangelical church that has a traditional stance on marriage, but now pastors and church leaders themselves are under fire due to the confusion our culture has about who gets to define right and wrong. In a day when disagreement with a lifestyle choice is deemed a hate crime, anyone espousing any form of biblical morality is a target.
The Church has its own version of Cancel Culture too. YouTubers who have what are called “discernment ministries” strike out at other ministers from the relative safety of their virtual pulpits with charges of “heresy” against those with whom they disagree. It’s big business, evidently, as such sites rack up big numbers in viewership due to the controversial content. It seems that even in the Church we like a good fight, and everyone is scrambling to be on the “right side” of the debate. No one wants to be the target of these self-proclaimed doctrinal police, even when little evidence is offered to back their accusations against their brothers and sisters. It’s like the Salem Witch Trials, except that it’s online and seen (and unfortunately liked, commented on, and subscribed to) by millions. Unlike the issues going on in popular culture, none of us are watching this from the outside. This mess in in our own house. Having personal knowledge of the actual beliefs of some of those being accused, I know that many of the claims against them are both poorly researched and patently false. Besides this, it seems as though the intent of these heresy hunters is not to seek unity, repentance, or the restoration of an erring brother, but merely to accuse. After all, if there was doctrinal agreement, who would these doctrinal watchdogs have to accuse and prosecute in the court of public opinion? It reminds one of the verse in which Jesus warned that some would persecute His followers thinking they were doing God service (see John 16:2). Maybe the Lord in His mercy will stop some of these modern-day persecutors as He did Saul of Tarsus with a blinding light and a divine encounter that will redirect their efforts to build up rather than tear down the Church.
As dispiriting as it is, seeing it playing out before us in real time, this does not mean things are hopeless. After all, Saul did become Paul the apostle after his conversion, and presidents Adams and Jefferson reconciled in later life, forming a close and intimate friendship and leaving us a legacy of correspondence which reveals the mutual admiration and regard they had for one another. We can and should pray for this kind of reconciliation as well. However, I feel there are also some very practical steps we can take as well. My impulse in seeing the nastiness being exchanged between opposing parties on that post today made me want to enter the fray. I even typed out a response definitely designed to insult and belittle. Fortunately, the “better angels of my nature” spoke and stilled my heart. By the grace of God, I added no fuel to the fire. If each one who had been slandered in that post had chosen to do the same, the string of insults would have been short and the abusers would have stood out as the losers, having nothing but hate to offer. If we can choose our battles wisely, not be so willing to die on every petty field of conflict and save our energies for the issues that really matter, we can elevate the conversation and help direct it toward the things that truly need attention. If we can answer with wisdom and discretion, attacking issues rather than people, offering answers rather than personal attacks, I think we can make progress.
Jesus said that we were to be salt and light in the world and not just in the Church. However, if we can’t manage relationships with and among those who are supposed to be brothers and beloved, how will we ever love the ones still lost in sin? Clearly, there is work to do. I cannot be responsible for the actions of others, but I can certainly take responsibility for how I respond. I can choose to be a part of the answer rather than the problem. I can choose to be light and not contribute to the darkness. I can seek a place of common ground with my brother who sees things differently and choose to pray rather than malign. I can do that. We all can. When we do, we can then set our sights to change the world.