What will guide our civil discourse in an age of outrage?

When I was a boy my mother would say, “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”  She didn’t always follow her own advice. Nor have I. Of this I am sure, the tongue has the power of life and death, and the Proverbs are right: “Those who love to talk will reap the consequences.” (Proverbs 18:21 NLT).

Anyone who can hear or see knows that in this election year we are in an age of outrage. Take your pick: CNN, FOX, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, talking to your kids, talking to your relatives, talking to your neighbor, talking to your co-workers. Take your pick. Civil discourse in this country is in the tank. Twitter has even warned about carefully discerning some of President Trump’s tweets.

How can anyone even begin to sort through it? Where do we even begin?

A few years back, one of my dear uncles told me, “I just don’t watch the news any more. I don’t read newspapers. It’s all drivel, and I just avoid it entirely.”

Well, you can bury your head in the sand if you want to. It is tempting.

But that’s not how one of my spiritual heroes felt about the news of the day. The great Anglican theologian John Stott, whose many theological books gave shape to my ministry when I was a young pastor, started every day at 5am reading the Bible and praying for an hour. Then at 6am he grabbed the London Times and read it cover to cover.

Stott was a realist. He said every engaged believer should take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. There’s a taut rope between the two. Stott said that each day we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the tension we feel.

Some days the tension feels almost unbearable to me. One unforgettable example for me was a few years back when so many Syrian refugees were fleeing to Europe. One morning, front and center, was the picture on the front of every newspaper, of a little 2-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned and been washed to shore. The morning I saw that picture, I had just read the Bible, prayed and written in my journal. I was relaxed and feeling the Lord’s presence, having just sang a song of praise, before turning to the news.

I closed my Bible, shut my journal and turned to my online newspaper. There, front and center, was the picture of the 2-year-old Syrian boy, face down on the shore. The rubber raft he was on with his family had capsized near the shore. His family made it to shore.

The juxtaposition of my pleasant time with the Lord and seeing the picture of that little boy face down, having washed up on the shore, was jarring, especially since I had just finished singing a song of praise and was ready to welcome the day.

But when I saw the little drowned 2-year-old boy (the same age as one of my granddaughters) face down on the edge of the shore, instantly I slammed my palm down on my desk, raised my voice and yelled, “What in the Sam Hill is going on down her anyway.”

I have no doubt that we can count on feeling lots and lots of tension — I hope none exactly like that — as this poor country moves toward the national election in November. I think it’s going to get brutal.

Another of one of my mentors is John Piippo. John is a pastor in Monroe, Michigan, just south of Detroit. Yesterday on his blog John gave several principles for civil discourse for civil discourse in what he calls “an age of outrage.”

I needed to hear them, and I hope I remember all 5 of them in the months ahead. They include:

  1.  Love people. Love is the strongest force in the universe. The foundation for civil discourse is love. Jesus said to love our enemies, and to love those who persecute us. Of course, we should try to be as judicious as possible during these days, trying to understand what is right, and what is wrong. We should listen carefully to others as well as to our own heart. That is so vital. But love must undergird all of that love. We are people of the resurrection. We speak the truth, yes, but we speak the truth in love. Otherwise, we sound like clanging symbols and no one wants to be around us. We won’t even want to be around ourselves! (Still, we do speak truth and we must speak up, if we feel so compelled and prompted by the Spirit. And when we do speak up, some people, even in our own camp, will disagree with us. Don’t be surprised. That’s why none of us dare be a lone ranger in our Kingdom work. When we feel prompted to step in the ring and speak up, we need others who love us, who will get in the ring with us, if need be. None of us is an island. We believers are a community of faith and every member of the body is crucial in this Kingdom enterprise. So be looking for those with whom who may need to step in the ring.)
  2. Never mock or ridicule people. Over and over the Proverbs warn about the danger of mocking others. “Mockers hate to be corrected, so they stay away from the wise.” (Proverbs 15:12). Mocking and ridicule are enemies of love. Those two live in the camp of conditional love. “If you don’t think or say or do exactly what I want, well, you’re crazy.” That’s conditional love. Jesus preached unconditional love. Unconditional love covers a multitude of sins. Conditional love brings up the past, never lets things go and has a long memory.
  3. The other person is not the real enemy. The Apostle Paul is clear about this in Ephesians 6. The real enemy facing us is rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. “Our battle is not against flesh and blood,” he says. It’s not against other people, even though it often like it is. Friends, the Holy Spirit is not the only player on the field. Be wise. Put on your armor (Ephesians 6:10-18).
  4. Never insult a brother or sister. In his main body of teaching (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus had harsh words to say about this. If you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment. “If you call someone an idiot (Raca), you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:22ff)
  5. Be very afraid of speaking badly of others made in God’s image. We must never forget the “Imago Dei.” All humankind – from whatever ethnic group, whatever language, whatever culture, whatever color, whatever creed, whatever, whatever, whatever – is made in the image of God and are of inestimable worth! That knowledge is foundational to everything we are believers in Jesus stand for.

In the days ahead, as far as it depends on us, may the Lord give us the desire to live at peace with all people, treating other people, in every encounter, the way we want to be treated by them. We need wisdom and understanding and discernment. Again, the Proverbs are clear. If wisdom, understanding and discernment cost everything we have, “Get them!” And while we are getting them, let us closely guard our hearts. For everything we think, say and do comes from the heart. Nothing, I mean nothing, is as important as a pliable, teachable, transformed heart.

With God’s help, even in this age of outrage, where civil discourse has plummeted – and heaven help us, who knows what the fall will bring – we must let our conversations be “full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that we will know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)