In Defense of a Civil Tongue

I recently signed on to the Wisconsin Council of Churches’ call for civility in public discourse.

In some ways it seems a waste of time, for two opposite reasons:

It’s so obvious.

Have we really degenerated so far as a society that we have to organize a campaign to get people to do what we teach in basic preschool? What’s next, a campaign urging people not to be insufferable jerks? A petition calling for people to refrain from picking their nose in public?

It’s so futile.

What good is this going to do? It’s like Mark Twain’s famous comment that everyone talks about the weather but no one ever does anything about it. It’s well-established that the vast majority of Americans decry the vicious and polarizing rhetoric on display every day, yet that does not stop people from doing it. 

I’ve been pondering the reasons for this weird disconnect. The problem is that there ARE corrupt people and corrupt leaders in our world. There is evil that should be exposed. There is sin that must be called out lest it go unchallenged.

The Old Testament prophets certainly didn’t pull any punches in their critiques of society and public figures in society. Even Jesus wasn’t shy about calling hypocrites hypocrites.
The difficulty seems to be finding the line between the naming of evil in the world and degeneration into uncivil partisan discourse.

If I believe you to be a disgusting, degenerate, godless, anti-American, lazy, free-loading, criminal-coddling communist or a disgusting, soulless, money-grubbing, selfish, hypocritical, ignorant, judgmental bloodsucker, then how I am I supposed to address you and the abhorrent philosophy you represent?

This is a growing problem because we increasingly live in a world in which everyone is a free-lance expert on what is wrong with everyone else. Facts exist only insofar as they support what we claim. All other “facts” are illusion or propaganda.

From the vantage point of our self-centered natures:

I am a courageous truth-teller.                                                                                                 
You are an opinionated partisan.                                                                                                 
He is a deluded hatemonger.

So the problem, as usual, is sin. Judging by headlines of righteous venom spewed from pulpits, preachers are not immune to this sin of pride. In fact, we may be more susceptible than most.

I can see two responses for the Christian, and especially for the working preacher, to the growing, vicious cycle of uncivil discourse in our world. (I hesitate to call them solutions, because there are no solutions to dilemmas — there are only ways of dealing with them.)
Get to know the “enemy.” It is human nature that as long as someone is a “you” and not a “they,” the potential for the demonization is greatly reduced.

When criticizing or calling out evil, whether from the pulpit or otherwise, refrain as much as possible from freelancing.  Resist the urge to criticize what the religious authorities in Jesus’ time criticized. Criticize only what Jesus and the prophets criticized, and leave it at that.

As I read the Scriptures, that leaves us with injustice and self-centeredness as the objects of our calling out.  Go anywhere else with our wrath, our exposes, and our muckraking, and we run the risk of becoming agents of incivility and of the very powers we claim to oppose.