Redeeming our Uncivil Discourse

Redeeming our Uncivil Discourse March 8, 2016
photo credit: Republican Party debate stage via photopin (license)
photo credit: Republican Party debate stage via photopin (license)

Last week’s Republican debate was a terrible embarrassment and I’m glad I didn’t let my children watch it. The childish rhetoric and base insults took our political discourse to a new low. We should not be surprised though, because if you are paying attention you will see that on social media, in public meetings, and online forums dialogue disintegrates into name calling in the blink of an eye. What we see from our politicians is merely a reflection of the way we interact with each other in everyday life. As I’ve been pondering our how far our civil discourse has fallen, a few stories have come to mind which get to the root of the reason for much of our incivility.

Recently someone drafted me to help count votes for our neighborhood Homeowner Association’s elections. Apparently there has been much controversy about our HOA board in the last year and there are some strong feelings on each side. We counted votes one Saturday morning and the next day I attended our HOA’s annual meeting where the results were announced. Someone immediately yelled, “recount” and the next few days saw consistent accusations of wrongdoing hurled at those of us who counted votes in a private Facebook group. The next week a small group recounted the votes and someone notified us that we made a mistake on one ballot which changed the results of the election. The next day I heard members of this private group accused those of us who counted votes of dishonesty and alleged that we had an agenda behind our mistake. As I listened to the content of these accusations in disbelief the thought kept running through my mind, “anyone who knows me would know I would not take part in rigging an HOA election.” The people making the accusations didn’t know any of us, so they could accuse away with no thought for the damage they might inflict on those on the receiving end of these insults.

Throughout my lifetime I have seen evangelical Christians increasingly portrayed in a negative light on television and in news reports. This has been especially true in the last few years with the debates over abortion and gay marriage becoming more heated. The things I have read about evangelicals in major publications in the United States bear no resemblance to what I or the many evangelical Christians I know believe or are motivated by. This has always puzzled me, but then last year a White House correspondent for a major news outlet tweeted that he does not know any evangelical Christians under 35. This man who writes about politics for a living, does not know anyone his age who represents a significant portion of this nation’s citizens. I doubt he is alone in this predicament, and it should not surprise us that the news media often misrepresents evangelicals when writers for major papers do not know any.

When you know someone, you feel more responsible for the way you talk about and treat them. When you know someone’s family, story, and values you must think more seriously about the ramifications before you mistreat them or speak falsely about them. There are real and actual consequences for your lies and/or harsh words. When you don’t know someone you don’t have to think about these things because they are not real people, but an idea or pixels on a screen.

Also, when you have friends who disagree with you, you cannot misrepresent their position and get away with it. When you have hardworking friends who support Bernie Sanders you cannot paint all of his supporters as bums who want a handout. When you have friends who think Black Lives Matter is raising many important questions you cannot in honestly say the movement is being driven by “thugs” and “hoodlums.” When you know kind and loving people who in good conscience oppose same-sex marriage, you must twist the truth to say all same-sex marriage opponents are hateful bigots.

Christians especially need to think about our increasing isolation from our neighbors and how this effects our interactions with other people. When Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself” he meant it. He intends for us to know our neighbors and to treat them with kindness, love, and respect. Contrary to a pastor I recently read who said his neighbors were those who “share my values and way of life,” our neighbor is the person most unlike us. This was the point Jesus made in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told in response to the question, “who is my neighbor.” What grows love for other people is frequent encounters with them and growing in understanding and empathy for them. When we continually isolate ourselves from anyone who does not create the bubble which echoes with my own opinions we are not going to grow in love for others.

As we increasingly don’t know our neighbors and don’t know people who hold different opinions from us, our discourse and interactions are only going to become more toxic. This will especially show itself in communities where a high percentage of the residents moved in from other places. If new residents only use an area because of the amenities it offers and don’t take an ownership stake in the community, they have no incentive to treat other people with respect. When we take ownership in our community, get to know our neighbors, and seek to better the community where we live we will treat our neighbors with a greater degree of love and respect.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch explains to Scout why he took the Tom Robinson case. He said if he didn’t do it and do it to the best of his ability he couldn’t look her in the face or expect her to mind again. She had experienced taunts from her friends at school because of his involvement in the case and would face more. As Atticus is coaching her on how to handle what she faces he says, “We’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” He knew what people were going to throw at him and his family, and he responded by telling his daughter that these were still their friends and this place was still their home. Imagine how radically our interactions with each other would change if we kept this perspective in mind. No matter how deeply we disagree about politics, theology, economics, or a host of other issues, we’re still friends and we’re still neighbors.

Maybe our anger and vitriol would die down a bit if we would turn off the TV, put our phones up on the shelf, shut our computers, and walked outside to talk to our neighbors. Maybe we would stop stereotyping, demeaning, and venting if we sat down across the table from people who live close to us but their ways of looking at life are a thousand miles away from ours. Maybe this all sounds naive, but isn’t it better than the road we are currently walking?

For Further Reading:
The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Frank Smith

    Wow! I can’t begin to tell you how wrong you are biblically on many, many issues here in this article. Yes, Christians are and do love their neighbors. But, we stand against tyranny. We stand against the organizations like black lives matters because it is a manufactured entity of hate by the left to destroy and divide the s country. We stand against communism, socialism, fascism, and the hitlers of the world. Gov’t does not own us. We are God’s children and not this worlds. Furthermore, this movement that’s blanketing America makes us choose sides. I stand with Jesus. I stand up against all that hate embraces. Bernie Saunders embraces socialism. I cannot and will not celebrate his agenda or his supporters agenda. Misery is coming soon. And it’s biblical. I hope you choose the right side. You have a choice. Love what God loves and hate what God hates. I’m standing with God on EVERY single issue. Not man. God bless.

  • Scott Slayton

    Frank, you say I am wrong on so many biblical issues, yet you never name one. At the same time I think you prove many things I’m trying to say. I’m not telling you that we don’t choose sides, but have you sat down and talked with someone who thinks Black Lives Matter addresses important issues? Have you talked with a flesh and blood Bernie Sanders supporter and heard them tell you why he resonates with them? That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you walk away with greater understanding and empathy for other people made in God’s image. If we stand on the right side of an issue and have not love, all of our advocating, arguing, and standing against is but a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal.

  • Frank Smith

    Let me reply to your question on whether or not I’ve spoken to a Bernie Saunders supporter or other folks I mentioned in my comments to you. I read prolifically. A socialist is a socialist for a reason and I understand their agenda. Communism is communism. Once their agenda’s are employed, all churches will be “state run” by a Godless government. Truth is like a bird; it cannot fly on one wing. Yet we are forever trying to take off with one wing flapping furiously and the other tucked neatly out of sight. Many of the doctrinal divisions among the churches are the result of a blind and stubborn insistence that truth has but one wing. Each side holds tenaciously to one text, refusing grimly to acknowledge the validity of the other. This error is an evil among churches, but it is a real tragedy when it gets into the hearts of individual Christians and begins to affect their devotional lives. One thing hidden in such teachings as have been mentioned above is unconscious spiritual pride. The Christian who refuses to confess sin on the ground that it is already forgiven is setting himself above prophet and psalmist and all the saints who have left anything on record about themselves from Paul to the present time. I think what you’re referring to is scripture in Matthew 7 which is probably the most misused text in our day. More often than not, any ethical evaluation the church makes is countered with “judge not,” as if Jesus tells His people not to make any judgments whatsoever. Personally I judge the Catholic religion as an “idolatry” religion. Does that mean all Catholics are idoltars? Yes. Same thing can be said if you put religion ahead of Jesus Christ. This misinterpretation of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 7:1–6 is employed by unbelievers and professing Christians alike, and it contributes to the moral and doctrinal anarchy evident in our culture. However, Christ is most certainly not forbidding His people from issuing judgments altogether. In fact, Jesus in this same gospel orders us to discriminate between good and evil. We must differentiate those receptive to us from the dogs and the swine in order to obey Jesus and hold back what is sacred from those who are proud to hate our Lord (v. 6). We cannot approach those who have honest questions about the Gospel like we do those who seek instruction in order to use it against Christ and His church. Our Lord’s directions for church discipline (18:15–20) call us to evaluate others. Exercising discernment and making sound judgments is part of Christian discipleship. Jesus is actually warning us to be fair and humble when we make our evaluations. Human beings are naturally prone to focus on the failings of others and ignore their own heinous sins. Please consider David’s reaction to Nathan after he slept with Bathsheba and had Uriah murdered (2 Sam. 11:1–12:15a). The king did more evil than the man in Nathan’s parable, but David wanted to chase after the speck in that man’s eye, so blinded was he by the plank of his own sin. Today, church leaders who have gossiped might come down mercilessly on someone who has occasionally used lewd language. This latter sin is real and inexcusable, but we have done wrong when we who judge do not hold ourselves to the same standard by which we judge others (Matt. 7:2). “Jesus does not forbid judging but commands that one first remove the plank from one’s own eye” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 23.2). We must be harsher on ourselves than we are on others. Let us make sure our consciences are clear before you judge our brothers and sisters in Christ. The one who judges according to the word and law of the Lord, and forms his judgment by the rule of charity, always begins with subjecting himself to examination, and preserves a proper medium and order in his judgments. No earthly judge is perfect, but we can make judgments without hypocrisy if we live a life of repentance and endeavor to mortify our own sin. Are you more critical of others than you are of yourself? Thanks for your feedback and for your willingness to share your beliefs.