I learned about President Obama’s so-called latte salute via social media.
Someone posted a photo of the incident on Facebook followed by a diatribe, which included a number of reasons why the person disliked the president.
Turning to the national news coverage, I found that some conservatives used this as an opportunity to suggest that Obama doesn’t respect military servicemen and women.
Meanwhile, some liberals used this as an opportunity to defend the president by critiquing indirectly George W. Bush, showing a picture of him saluting Marines while holding his dog.
Jesus’ comment about “straining out gnats while swallowing camels” (Matthew 23:24) often comes to mind when I hear such stories and commentary.
These incidents provided further confirmation of my sense that we live now in a society too often lacking in common decency, much less grace, toward the shortcomings of others.
In this culture of condemnation, every word, gesture, decision or action, however minor, is dissected and, more often than not, critiqued.
While public figures have always been subject to closer scrutiny, these days it seems that a single misspoken word, misinterpreted gesture or miniscule action leads to a negative response often disproportional to the error or faux pas.
Lest this seem like I’m writing primarily to defend Obama, I can recall numerous disdainful, politically motivated remarks directed toward President George W. Bush during his presidency over petty matters.
In fact, some left-leaning folks still reference Bush flying over New Orleans in a helicopter to survey the area post-Katrina in defense of present-day politicians whose actions are being criticized.
The reasons for the pervasive negativity are likely many and certainly complex, including:
âˆ’ The 24/7 media coverage in which voids in substantive news are filled with inconsequential commentary on events.
âˆ’ Widespread partisan bickering between national political leaders in which they search actively for their opponents’ flaws so as to exploit them for both personal and political gain.
âˆ’ The ability for anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to disseminate their often negative, unconstructive and largely uninformed perspectives to the masses via social media.
âˆ’ The conflation of religious teachings with specific political ideologies, parties or legislation in local churches leading to division.
âˆ’ Cable news programs that rarely report the day’s events but rather offer partisan commentary seemingly designed to encourage limited, skewed views of “the other.”
âˆ’ A cultural attraction to the sensational and the negative, which is exploited by some news media; consider, for instance, how many positive stories you hear daily compared to negative ones.
The list could go on.
It is fair to critique someone when they speak or act in ways that are inappropriate.
Yet, there must be a goal beyond putting them in their place, pointing out their flaws, scoring political points or increasing views of a news report.
Sadly, much of the negativity seems to have no larger purpose. The goal is too often to tear someone else down while making oneself (or one’s political party) look better.
There is very little focus on helping the person or group improve by urging them to reconsider their words or actions.
None of us can claim perfection in our speech or actions. Therefore, we would be wise to use care in the standards to which we hold others, especially public figures whose every move is closely monitored, often with cameras rolling.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t hold people accountable for poor behavior or hurtful words, and certainly we must condemn criminal deeds or acts harmful to others.
This is essential to becoming better people and a better society.
But it does mean that we temper our responses with grace, recognizing that we all make mistakes daily, and that casting stones is not acceptable (see John 8).
There is a better way than to be hypercritical. There is a more helpful approach than the negative rhetoric that too often pervades social media, fills up online comment sections and dominates talk radio, cable news programs and political campaigns.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the Hebrew prophets offer a helpful witness to people of faith because they combine critique with a call to repentance and the offer of a better way forward.
We find additional guidance in Colossians 4:6, which instructs, “Let your conversation be always full of grace.”
And James 3 speaks about the power of speech for good or evil, reminding us that “we all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”
While society won’t change overnight, if Christians set a better example by tempering their speech with grace, especially when offering critique, society can begin to move beyond a culture of condemnation and toward a more redemptive way of life.