JUST FINISHED WATCHING ON THE INTERNET ONE OF THOSE SPIRITED TOWN hall meetings convened by members of the U.S. Congress to “discuss” the health-care legislation being debated in the legislative halls of Washington, D.C., as well as in every city, town, and hamlet across America. With regards to all current issues including health care, I tend to track multiple news sources in order to get as balanced a view as possible. Most media outlets tend to have their own slant on the news, based on their political and philosophical viewpoint. I’ve found it valuable to sample them all. And to no one’s surprise, their particular media viewpoints are, more often than not, very far apart.
Differing views about issues isn’t unusual for the United States; it’s part of the national DNA. From birth the U.S has always had heated, national debate over issues important to its citizens; it’s the American way. Yet historically there’s been a collective understanding, albeit unspoken, that civility toward one another is a fundamental underpinning of our society, even in the heated rhetoric of debate.
But something is happening in the United States that suggests the emergence of a disturbing trend. I don’t know if societal issues are more intense, or if it’s becoming harder to steer a middle course on much of anything, but there is clearly a ratcheting up of incivility in speech toward each other.
I suspect the daytime talk radio crowd and the nightly cable news guys are partly to blame for what is happening. The stridency of their voices and the “take no prisoners” approach in articulating their views is seeping into the national discussions at a rapid pace.
In watching the health-care town hall meetings of this past August I was struck with the fact that it often seemed more important to drown out discussion than to have discussion.
Let’s put the issue of health care, or any current national issue, on the sideline for a moment and look at how discussions are taking place. What I’m seeing is a growing reluctance in this country to listen to each other, and a greater focus on defeating each other. Add to this the growing proclivity to distort each other’s views and to demonize one’s opponents, and the result is verbal anarchy taking root in the public square.
Unfortunately, I’m seeing this same approach within the walls of our church. Take, for example, the recent discussions about what is being taught in our denominational colleges and universities relative to creation and evolution. One only has to go on certain Web sites, blogs, and discussion boards to see Adventist Christians verbally slugging it out on all sides. Some of the language and rhetoric is reflective of what we see in the wider public square.
I have a theory: I believe we’re all influenced, whether we realize it or not, by the style and decibels of the rhetoric taking place around the country. Inserted into that mix are our own political viewpoints (Democrats vs. Republicans vs. Independents). And if we’re not careful as a church, we will begin to debate church issues using our own political viewpoints as the bases for our agreement or disagreement—resulting in our categorizing and castigating our opponents and no longer seeing them as our brothers and sisters.
What’s lacking in this are the ancient virtues of love and kindness.
John Hugo once wrote: “One’s love for God is no greater than the love one has for the man he loves the least.” In other words, the true measure of our love is demonstrated by the regard we have for those we love the least.
The danger of the growing incivility in our society is a very slippery slope, which in time can move our culture from verbal anarchy into a societal meltdown that will impact us all. There’s a reason why the Scriptures admonish us to “be kind and compassionate to one another” (Eph. 4:32). And may I add: being kind does not force us to compromise what we believe or stand for.
Civility in discourse is the bedrock of any sane society; it’s nonnegotiable in the body of Christ.
Fredrick A. Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. This article was published October 15, 2009.