Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seeking Moral High Ground

For the last week we have been subjected to a rather distressing game of moral one-upmanship. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson people, understandably, sought explanations and then, unfortunately, rushed to assign blame.

“It’s your side’s fault,” some said.

“Well, your side does the same thing,” was the response.

“Your side is worse.”

“Is not!”

“Is so!”

Ad nauseam.

Both sides sought to wrap themselves in righteousness and victimhood while the real victims lay bleeding in front of the Safeway.

I understand the anger. I was angry myself. Here were Americans engaged in an activity most fundamental to our democracy—speaking to representatives and listening to constituents--and they were killed or wounded by a spray of bullets from a semi-automatic handgun. I had not heard of Gabrielle Giffords. For the first hour or so I did not know whether she was a Democrat or a Republican. In fact, given the area she represented I assumed she was a Republican. And for most of us, Republican or Democrat, it didn’t matter. I was moved by the evident emotion of Speaker of the House John Boehner in the immediate wake of the tragedy and even more moved by the speech of President Obama at the memorial service. When Americans suffer such a tragedy there is no room for partisanship. But we can’t seem to help it.

Incivility, I suppose, like pornography, is in the eye of the beholder. We know it when we see it—or hear it. But we might begin by acknowledging a few fundamental facts if we wish to improve our fractious civil discourse.

1. No one has cornered the market of civility, or for that matter, incivility. The right gets bashed a good deal for incivility. But if you don’t believe the left can be just a vicious and uncivil read a conservative blogger and look at the responses. Read the scornful, profanity-laced tirades in the responses from the left. Could you find the same thing on a liberal blog from the right? Of course. And that is the point. There are angry, hateful, and dangerous people on both the far left and far right. Seeking moral high ground by saying the other side is worse is an act of self-deception.

2. It is not uncivil to disagree and disagree sharply. Our democracy is advanced by such disagreements. But to be productive the disagreements must entail listening to the other, respecting the other, not caricaturing or abusing the other. We need to listen to understand the nature of our disagreements. We also need to listen to learn from the other. Because whether we are on the right or on the left we are bound to be wrong about something! After all, we are fragile, sinful human beings.

3. We must recognize the humanity of the other. It is all too easy to dismiss the other as “a right wing nut” or “a liberal loony.” But behind the opinions we find uninformed or even offensive is a human being made in the image of God. Everyone has a story. Our opinions are part of our personal narrative and some of that narrative may be quite painful. We will never find common ground if we do not first acknowledge a common humanity.

I have not always been civil myself. Certainly in the privacy of my thoughts I have been uncharitable and worse. But in my writings and on Facebook I have recorded thoughts I later regretted—thoughts that were intended to wound, not to enhance our discourse or engage our common humanity. But I need the love of my critics to grow in grace—even if I still in the end think they are wrong. And whether or not they know it or want it, they need my love as well—even when they remain unconvinced by my arguments. For a follower of Jesus the call to love is still preeminent. St. Paul, no stranger to conflict himself, makes this clear in I Corinthians 13. Seeking moral high ground in order to rain down fire on the enemy is, in these days, a particularly inapt metaphor and I trust we will reject both the image and the action.

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