The lack of civility in our society has reached an alarming level. National political leaders refuse to condemn the over-the-top language and the call for violence. Words are powerful and they have consequences often far greater than the speaker may have intended. Much of the intemperate language is from frustration, some is economic angst, some is strictly political and an alarming amount is racial.
It is a deeply religious issue. All of the world’s great religions call for their adherents to love each other, respect their neighbors and offer hospitality to the stranger. Many of the offenders will be in worship services this week, and they will see no relationship between their religious doctrine and their abrasive language on the street. In our Judeo-Christian traditions, the connection is undeniable.
The psalmist said, “Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding, whose mouth must be held with bit and bridle.” Proverbs adds, “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” There is the great admonition from Colossians, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”
As we approach Say Something Nice Day on the first day of June and Say Something Nice Sunday on the first Sunday in June, we have an urgent calling to set an example of civil discourse and do whatever we can to urge others to join us. It is important to refrain from saying anything disrespectful of others. It is equally important to boost people, to say something nice. Most of all it is important to restore a sense of fairness and to refuse to become a part of the hostility.
Our words reflect the condition of our hearts. There are times when we are all angry or frustrated. These emotions do not give us a free pass to let our words run wild. These are the times to demonstrate who we really are and what we believe. There is never a time for rudeness. Disrespect for an individual is never acceptable. Every human being is a creation of the most high God. I am not required to like you, agree with your ideas, approve of your behavior or condone what you do.
What I am responsible for is how I respond to you. I am in charge of my emotions, my thoughts, my actions. It is often convenient to blame someone else for what I say or do, but that is simply not true. I am responsible for me. If I want the atmosphere of hate and disrespect to change, I must accept my responsibility to be a change agent.
It does no good to assign blame for where we are today in our relationships with those with whom we disagree. Assigning blame does nothing to solve the problem and often leads to more conflict. What we did or did not do yesterday no longer matters. We can continue to behave in the same destructive manner or we can choose to change and make the situation better.
We should recognize that we will not always agree with one another. It would be unrealistic and counterproductive if we did. There is nothing wrong with debate that is conducted in a respectful manner. In fact, good debate helps us clarify issues. However, all is lost when I attack you personally rather than your arguments. All is lost when I allow my emotions to overwhelm my reasoning. The wisdom from the nutritionists is that we are what we eat. The wisdom from Holy Scripture is we are what we speak.
Mitch Carnell is a consultant on improving communication in organizations of all types including churches. He is an active lay member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C., and the editor of “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.”
A member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, he is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com.