Today our nation honors the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian activist who led the civil rights movement using nonviolent means. He was assassinated for it. And though the civil rights movement continued, and though I believe that history is teleological, lately it doesn't seem to be moving toward a happy place. It's been a dark chapter in our history, as these last few weeks have highlighted.
The economy is in the toilet. Our culture has become increasingly hostile toward religion (and sometimes with good reason. Take Fred Phelps, whose church protests high-profile funerals with "God hates F-gs" posters. Sick.). Masses of dead birds fall from the sky, leagues of fish wash up on our shores, and some noted prophetess blames it on the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Her line of reasoning reads like a Monthy Python sketch. Well, she's partly right. All that dead wildlife is a sign from the Almighty: it's God's retribution for PajamaJeans.
Some psychopath guns down six people at a political gathering, including a girl who was born on September 11, 2001. She was only 9 and was already interested in civic life. I imagine her parents told her every year on her birthday, “You are a miracle born out of despair. Someday you can make a difference.” And now she's gone like MLK. FoxNews tried to paint the insane shooter as a leftist; the Left tried to blame it on Sarah Palin. Of course neither side is directly responsible. But to deny that all this public venom has NO effect on us, is like saying that internet porn has no effect on intimacy, or violent video games on youth. Or that sex doesn't lead to dancing.
A few measured commentators agreed, we need to take it down a notch. Well one man tried to do something about it. Back in 2009 Mark DeMoss, a Republican and prominent evangelical Christian, was alarmed at the increasingly vicious tone in American politics. He founded The Civility Project. He wrote a pledge, sent 585 letters to every governor and sitting member of congress, and asked them to sign it. The Pledge was simple:
• I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
• I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
• I will stand against incivility when I see it.
He received only three signatures. Three out of our 585 elected officials agreed to abide by the pledge. Last week DeMoss pulled the plug on the project.
So much for the politicians. What about the pundits? Just once I'd love one of them to listen to his opponent and reply, “I don't agree but I respect your opinion.” Or go really crazy with, “That's a good point. I'm going to think about that for a while, and maybe it will change how I look at the issue.”
Which political personality is going to be the first to dial it down: Keith Olberman? Glenn Beck? Not as long as they keep getting great ratings. Why do they have great ratings? Because we watch them. Why do we watch them? Well, maybe they scratch that sinful itch to point the finger at someone else. “It was Eve; she gave me the apple.”
When I say “we,” I'm referring to our society as a whole. But we Christians are part of our society, so some of us must be contributing to those ratings. We are not putting the hateful words in their mouths, but we are encouraging them to say those things by patronizing their shows.
Do words not matter as much as actions? Jesus said in Matthew 5? "You have heard that our ancestors were told, 'You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.' But I say if you are even angry with someone you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”
Are we taking Jesus seriously? I don't propose we disengage from public life. In What's So Amazing About Grace Philip Yancey wrote:
“Politics draws lines between people; in contrast, Jesus' love cuts across those lines and dispenses grace. That does not mean, of course, that Christians should not involve themselves in politics. It simply means that as we do so, we must not let the rules of power displace the command to love.”
On Martin Luther King Day you may not be going to a rally or a prayer vigil or a love-in, but you can do something. Practice nonviolence by choosing what you say and read and watch and hear. Turn off the TV haters and read the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to worship music rather than a radio pundit. Pray for your opponents and ask God to give you a picture of how he sees them.
And please, for the love of all that is good and precious in this world, do not buy PajamaJeans.
Buy one of Cathleen Falsani's T-Shirts instead.