A forty-something woman was talking on her cell phone in the coffee shop where I was pretending to read. The shop was moderately full, with a handful of children and teenagers present. It became apparent that the woman was fighting with — perhaps being dumped by — a man on the other end of the call, as her volume and use of foul language escalated. She ended up screaming vile insults at the top of her voice, so I stepped over to her to try to get her to quiet down and not prematurely “speed up” the vocabulary development of the six, seven, and eight year olds. As I got her attention, she hissed at me, “Mind your own f****** business.”
Now, she has a point. I was not actually invited into her conversation. But I think I have a point, too. When people choose to air their personal soap operas in public settings, they are kind of making it “our” business. It reminds me of another experience I had almost 30 years ago. I was in a Roy Roger’s burger joint in Paramus, New Jersey, when a woman hauled off and started beating her four- or five-year old son with the handle-end of an umbrella. She didn’t swat him once or twice, but on the ninth or tenth full force swing, I jumped up, ran over to her, and grabbed the umbrella away from her. She shoved me, grabbed her son, grabbed her umbrella, and stormed out to her car. An older woman nearby looked at me, shook her head, “tsked” and said, “You know. You really shouldn’t interfere with a parent disciplining her child…”
At what point does “doing the right thing” become “sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong?” One person’s spanking is another person’s child abuse. One person’s indignation at foul language is another person’s amusing story about the crazy lady going off on her boyfriend. The Rodney King’s of the world are only a problem if someone “butts in” with a video camera. Why intervene on behalf of homeless people — they probably like things just as they are. When is it the right thing to do to get involved?
The whole definition of “community” has been redefined in modern day America. It seems that community is only what we allow it to be — no one has a right to enter our community unless we invite them. In our age of unequivocal entitlement, many people believe they should be allowed to do anything they want to, whether in public or private. (Think cell phones. I am amazed how many people feel free to talk wherever they want to, whenever they want to, as loudly as they want to. Text messaging and Twittering fit here, too. The question of allowing Twittering in church? Only one-in-forty (2.5%) do so about what is actually going on in church — and those are the honest ones.) Asking people in movie theaters to not talk risks taking ones life into ones own hands. They’re not rude for talking — you’re rude for challenging them.
An FBI negotiator I know shared with me the fact that in the great majority of high school and college shootings, a number of people are aware of the planned event before it happens, but they don’t come forward because they don’t want to be thought of as “snitches” or “rats.”
I was talking to a pastor recently who shared the story of visiting a long time member on her death bed in the hospital, surrounded by her family. As she passed, the pastor asked the family if he could say a prayer. The woman’s son looked at him, told him this was a family matter, and that they would like to be alone with their mom. The pastor began to offer a brief protest, and the woman’s oldest daughter rolled her eyes and said, “Jeez, just butt out!” For some, death, illness, suffering, and compassion are no longer “our business.”
There are no hard and fast rules for getting involved, but I believe we must be guided by basic instincts about right behavior, civil respect, and what it means to witness to the love of God in the world. For myself, protecting the innocent or the weak, confronting abuse and injustice, promoting fairness and mercy, reaching out in the face of suffering, loss, or even the threat of violence are no-brainers. Beyond that, I am sailing through gray areas. Do people in airports have the right to talk out loud into their cell phones? 75% of U.S. adults say “yes.” (Of course, twenty-five years ago, the same percentage of U.S. citizens thought people should be able to smoke in restaurants…). Should people be allowed to discipline their children publicly, and who decides ‘appropriate’ punishment? Should pastors have the right to ask people to turn off cell phones during worship? At some point, widespread clarity gives way to personal preference.
The public sphere is a little out of alignment — more of a public ovoid. Community results in little common unity. Personal, privatistic, ego-centric attitudes grounded in an entitlement mentality offer little hope. This is one place where the truly counter-cultural nature of the church could make an impact — but only if we learn to put the “WE” above the “ME” in our local congregations. Building true community, learning to care as much for others as we do ourselves, and getting involved in making the world a better place — this, in fact, is the business we should be minding.