Resolve to be respectful
On a school visit early in December, the children gave me a preview of their Christmas concert singing for me the carol, “Joy to the World.” Indeed, the words of the carol are true. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” That is what we are celebrating now in this Christmas season. Jesus, the Lord, has come among us. God is with us. That is our reason for celebrating. As the words of the carol continue, they remind us that His coming was intended to make a difference in our lives: “let every heart prepare Him room.” Now, as we begin a new year, let the message of Christmas be a guide for our lives. Jesus shows us how to love as God loves us and to live as God calls us to live. We pray that the message of Christmas, the message of God’s love, might indeed be in our hearts in this new year.
The new year of 2018 will, once again, be a political year. Here in Maine, for example, we will be electing a new governor. In addition, we will be having elections for a senator, representatives in Congress, and a new legislature in Augusta. It seems an opportune moment to remind us that these institutions that govern us exist for our good. We have been created by God in community. That is a basic truth of our human identity. We are born and nurtured in the community of the family. We continue to live out our lives in the midst of different communities: Church, educational, social, cultural and political, which influence us, and we, in turn, influence them by our own participation. It is our nature to be social. We live in relationship with others. That is how we learn, how we grow, and how we become more fully human. What happens in those communities is our responsibility.
We are created, then, to live in relationship, including the political relationships which constitute our civil society. It is fair to say, however, that the spirit of the political society has changed. We live in a time when there is a great deal of discourse lacking in civility. We have forgotten how to disagree without making it personal. There is a tendency to disparage the name and reputation and the character of a person because that individual holds a different position. The person who favors immigration reform, for example, is called “unpatriotic.” Support for the traditional, time-honored definition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman is called “hate speech” or “homophobic.”
In order to escape the toxic nature of such discourse, we can end up listening only to opinions which mirror our own. Today, this even applies to our choices of the places in which we get our news. As a result, our divisions become more entrenched. And we, as voters, become less informed in making our choices. We end up being manipulated by advertisements and opinionmakers, rather than determining who will do the most, consistent with our values, to improve the social structure of the society we all share. Recently, I came across some suggestions regarding civil discourse which I think might be helpful to us as we enter this new political year. They are included in the valuable resources found on the U.S. Bishops’ website offering Catholic citizens guidance in voting (www.faithfulcitizenship.org).
During election season, when dialogue is often anything but civil, here are some ideas for how we can be vehicles of Jesus Christ’s love and mercy when we talk with others, including those with whom we disagree:
- We should begin with respect.
- We should decide neither to degrade the persons, characters, and reputations of others who hold different positions from our own, nor spread rumors, falsehoods, or half truths about them.
- We should be careful about the language we use, avoiding inflammatory words and rhetoric.
- We should not assign motives to others. Instead, we should assume that our family members, friends, and colleagues are speaking in good faith, even if we disagree with them.
- We should listen carefully and respectfully to other people.
- We should remember that we are members of a community, and we should try to strengthen our sense of community through the love and care we show one another.
- We should be people who express our thoughts, opinions, and positions – but always do so in love and truth.
- When discussing an issue with others with whom we disagree, we should imagine that Jesus is in the room with us. How would Jesus’ presence change the way we speak or act?
The new year brings new resolve. For us as Christians and Catholics, the principal resolution we make should always challenge us to bring the love of God we know in Jesus into our world. If we model that love in our civil dialogue, perhaps we can begin to change the negative climate of discourse in our nation.
A happy and blessed New Year!