Last week William Rice stopped to see what was going on at a health care reform protest organized by MoveOn.org, a group in favor of health care reform and the “public option” of government health insurance.
Although he was not involved with either side of the protest, Rice got into an altercation with a MoveOn protestor, who ended up biting off the top joint of Rice’s pinky finger. Rice reported that he did not have a conversation about health care reform with his attacker unless “you want to call him screaming in my face that I’m an idiot a conversation.”
The week previous we saw headlines about the Tempe pastor who is publicly preaching and praying for the death of President Obama. This Independent Baptist (aka We Are the Only True Church) pastor has published his “Why I Hate Barack Obama” sermon on the Web, where you can see him express his wish for the president’s “children to be fatherless.”
At the same time we have politicians like Sarah Palin, who recklessly throws out inflammatory labels like “death panels” and Nancy Pelosi, who self-righteously accuses anyone that disagrees with her of being “un-American.” The health care Town Halls have been shockingly hostile. The vitriolic invective hurled by all sides is just plain nasty and the ugliness of our current public conversation brings shame to us all.
Anger is sputtering and spitting on all sides of the present public debate. This anger is fueled by insufferable sanctimony (I am Right and you are Stupid) and bitter acrimony (because you are Stupid I hate you). The sanctimonious and acrimonious are also remarkably parsimonious (because you are so Stupid and Wrong I will give you no grace).
I know I am not the only one disgusted and discouraged by this kind of conduct. What do we do about this? How do we balance the strength of our convictions with civil civic discourse?
Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld have written a book attempting to answer this question, called In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic. These authors advocate for a less dogmatic certainty in debate, for conviction balanced with a willingness to understand another point of view, for openness to the possibility that you may not have all the answers – a timely challenge.
Really, to be civil in the face of conflicting convictions is not that complicated. We just need to remember the basics we learned as children and try to teach to our own children:
• Mind your manners.
• Don’t interrupt.
• If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
• Listen before speaking.
• Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
• Love your neighbor as yourself.
In the book of James we read “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). What would happen if we actually did that? Perhaps we could actually work together and get something done for our common good.
What distresses me most is the poor public behavior of those who profess to be followers of God. There is no excuse for Christians espousing hateful invective like our Tempe pastor neighbor. If we look at Jesus’ example we see that he preached submission to authorities, even the occupying authorities of Rome, and that he reserved his righteous anger for the Pharisees, the religious zealots. Interesting.
Perhaps we can frame our public debate like this instead: we may disagree, but I value you as an intelligent person and perhaps we can learn from each other. Let’s work together instead of biting each other’s heads (or fingers) off.
Jennifer Zach lives in Ahwatukee Foothills with her husband and three children. They are members of Bridgeway Community Church. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.