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A time or two in the past here on The Twelve I have mused a bit about the lack of civility in society today. I even heard David Brooks say recently that the entire U.S. Congress is now such a decidedly uncivil place that this fact alone accounts for the paralysis of the House and Senate in terms of getting even the simplest of things accomplished.
Last week in the wake of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, President Obama issued a statement calling for calm but also for reflection. It was a carefully worded statement, very thoughtful in its own way, even if avoiding the taking of any stand that would inflame anyone from any particular point of view. I saw the statement posted on Facebook from the White House FB page but in order to read the full post, I had to click the “Continue Reading” button, which toggled me over to a new window in which not only could I see the rest of the President’s statement but also the first in a long string of “Comments” people had left (with FB groups like this, you cannot see any Comments on the usual news feed). So I scrolled down to read a few.
What I found written there by people I do not know but who are fellow citizens was troubling to say the least. The second one said simply “F%#* you, Obama” even as a few others I spied hurled other foul language the President’s way. One person snarkily wrote about how nice it was to hear from “The Racist in Chief” on these matters. You get the idea. I stopped scrolling down pretty quickly. But I am very certain that what I saw on this post happens every time Obama or the White House issues a statement that gets onto FB, and I have no doubt the same kinds of foul screed can be found posted under the FB posts of Republican leaders, too. All you have to do is peruse the Comments left under any Op-Ed piece on the websites of the New York Times or CNN and you see the same thing: angry posts riddled with profanity as well as posts–if they go on long enough–that reveal distressing levels of racism, sexism, and some world-class ignorance, too.
But I don’t get it. Who are all these people who think it’s acceptable–or cute or in any way appropriate–to lob invectives at the President, at other leaders, at fellow citizens? I suppose they are your neighbors and my neighbors, people we rub shoulders with at the mall or wait in line with at Burger King. Who knows whether the number of people willing to use Facebook and the like to mock or excoriate in brutal langauge people like the President are a slender minority or a more substantial slice of the populace. We can hope for the best but I’m not so sure it’s only a few folks who act this way online (and probably in other venues too).
And I don’t get it. I am as capable of saying stupid things or thinking angry thoughts as the next person. The people who worked under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write what went on to become the New Testament fretted fairly often about our human proclivity for intemperate speech. That’s why Paul and Peter and James and John kept warning the earliest Christians against it. Apparently you could not warn people often enough to guard their tongues and avoid slanderous and silly talk.
In an episode of the old “Andy Griffith Show” there is a scene in which young Opie says something rather cutting to Aunt Bea at the breakfast table, causing the dear woman to flee the kitchen with tears welling up in her eyes. Sherriff Taylor just looks at his son and then says, “And to think I was proud the day you learned to talk.” I sometimes wonder if God doesn’t look at all of us imagebearers only to think the same thing.
Someone once famously said–and it was repeated often near the start of Hitler’s Third Reich–that you can count on it: wherever they burn books, they will sooner or later burn people. By extension I worry that there is something else you can count on: when people freely and without apology or regret engage in hateful and vile talk at the drop of a hat, sooner or later the core attitude that leads to such ugly speech–even in a Facebook Comment posting–will boil over into hateful actions.
None of us can go around and try to confront or upbraid the many people around us on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else in life who post the kinds of things I saw last week directed to the President. What we can do, I guess, is make very sure that we are doing all we can as Christians to speak in those “accents loud and clear” that reflect the best of how God made us. And we can teach our children to do the same, of course.
Sometimes when my daughter is home, I will hear her phone dinging with text messages and it’s usually amazing how fast and furious they come in and how fast and furious she is able to reply. It all happens so quickly as to make the air crackle. Maybe we all need to slow down sometimes to consider our words. Most people can type and text amazingly quickly these days–gone are the days when someone fast on a typewriter was a novelty possessed of a skill most others who never worked with typewriters lacked. We can all let our fingers fly now.
But words fly with them and sometimes we’d all be better off to slow those words down and make sure we are contributing to shalom in what we say and write and text and not to shalom’s vandalism.