“Why were we forced to speak nicely to one another? Why couldn’t we just be honest?” an agitated woman accosted me. “You have no right to censor us. You make rules that we can’t accuse or blame or address people directly. That’s not fair.” This woman was furious that I proposed ground rules for civil conversation before a listening session in a conflicted setting. One man referred to the rules to be respectful, kind, courteous, non-aggressive and non-abusive as “fascist.” When did civility become evil? If the setting had been a political arena or a reality TV show, I guess I could understand it better, but this was in a church. People were actually angry that they could not hurl insults and invectives at one another (in Christian love). Some folks wanted to say truly hateful, hurtful, malicious, and damaging things to each other, and they felt that there should be no boundaries whatsoever. In fact, some people refused to abide by the ground rules — even after they agreed to them. Such is the society in which we find ourselves — one that colors and conditions our Christian behavior rather than the other way around.
I wrote about standing by Christian principles this week and I got hammered in a flurry of emails saying that “Christian values” are the abdication of thinking for oneself, that evangelical Christians are @$$#*/&$, hate mongers, idiots, and brainwashed, and that the church makes people think they don’t have to be responsible for their words and actions. Interesting perspectives all, but none suggested we discuss these things as opinions — they were merely stated as facts. Fans of Rick Reilly felt fully justified in questioning my parentage, my intelligence, and offered interesting suggestions as to some physical activities in which I might engage. What happened to people having the right to differing opinions? How have we come to a place where disagreement leads to name calling, insults, and unconscionable personal attacks. How are we going to find our way back to a place where we can hold diametrically opposed opinions, yet remain together in respectful discourse?
Our witness to the world is that we are no different, no better in our conduct than non-Christians. This is a witness of hypocrisy. We want to hold “the world” to high standards, telling people they have to clean up their acts, and implying that the Christian faith is an excellent way to do it. But when “the world” watches the church, what does it see? I’m not implying that they shouldn’t see conflict and occasional strife. What I am saying is that we should be offering an alternative vision of how to disagree well and wisely. Mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, reconciliation — these are essential tenets of the Christian faith. They are qualities we should not just revere or aspire to — they should be the practices we are working diligently to perfect. Living in Wisconsin and watching the current political meltdown over collective bargaining rights, I have been impressed at how civil and respectful much of the protest has been. Certainly, some folks have acted outrageously and inappropriately, but many keep calling for open, respectful, tolerant and dignified conversation. Sadly, the nastiest and most insulting comments I have heard through this whole, drawn out melodrama have come from Christians who are angry that the spiritual leaders of The United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Lutherans and others have voiced support for collective bargaining. I wanted to excerpt one email as an illustration, but the epithets, slurs, foul language, and vile insinuation is so prevalent that I couldn’t reprint even one sentence. This from a lifelong United Methodist. Someone will say, “yes, but we’re not all like that!”, and that is true, but it misses the point. Why does anyone in our church feel this is acceptable and appropriate behavior? I wrote back, simply saying that I didn’t appreciate the hostility and the obscenity… which only made things worse. We need to find a better way to express ourselves without being cruel, offensive, mean, hostile or violent.
Speaking the truth in love is an art, not a science. But it should also be the norm, not an option. No one has the right to attack another, simply because they hold a different opinion or express a disagreeable position. The fact that some people in our churches find it offensive that they be required to be kind, civil, respectful, and tolerant says a lot about the impact our cultural values are having on our Christian faith. When we see no good reason to treat each other within the church with respect, what hope do we have to love our enemies, to care for the stranger, or to reach out to the lost? I wish it were the priority of every local congregation to build healthy relationships and heal broken ones. I wish we were teaching one another how to live the fruits of the spirit — to actually love one another, to give people a reason to feel joy, to work to make peace, to be patient, to outdo one another in kindness, to be generous as well as faithful, and to be gentle as we exercise honest self-control. This is what we are called to be. This is what it means to BE church — the incarnation of the risen Christ. There simply is no place in life together for hate, hostility, violence, and cruelty.