Civility beyond sanity
Amidst the weekly injustices and atrocities caused by this American regime, there was a call last week for “civility.” American regime members were confronted and asked to leave restaurants, unable to eat in blissful anonymity while their accomplices committed calculated harm against children and youth. It was an odd request given the vulgar makeup of the regime President.
But still, I saw pastors and Christians heed the call and lament the uncivil war of words and actions in the political climate, calling for “both sides” to be more civil in their engagement.
While I think the burden of civility is on both sides, I believe those in power want such incivility. Every action from this regime is geared to make us irritated and whip up progressive and moderate feeding frenzies. It’s a subtle but effective weapon: irritated people don’t think as clearly, you see, and we react rather than respond. We ride the emotional roller coaster and then are a bit shaky when we interact with others or read the comments on a website.
So how do we navigate an uncivil world with the grace expected of Christians and the fiery righteous anger expected of Christians outraged by children in cages eating on the floor?
The Moana Trap
Calls for civility often cause us to stop what we are doing. We are often tempted to retreat, to pull back from engagement, or become very polite and practice non-engagement with a world gone mad.
In Scripture, Paul, writing to the church in Philippi, seems to advocate this. “Do not worry about anything” (Philippians 4:4-8). At first read, it seems like Paul didn’t know what he was talking about. Paul lived in a world were pain was often localized and communities didn’t know about atrocities or injustices happening in the next village—or sometimes didn’t care until it reached their shores.
I call this the Moana trap. Disney’s animated film Moana examines this insular tendency as the leaders of her island of Motunui decided to not go adventuring anymore and holed up in their island, hiding the boats in a cave. We often wish we could do the same: to check out and draw our cares inward to those closest to us.
But just like the movie where the dark rot crossed the ocean and infected Moana’s island, threatening their way of life, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as MLK Jr. said. Therefore, we must worry, we must advocate, agitate, and, like Moana, strike at the source of pain and oppression, lest it displaces the entire sea.
The Subversiveness of Gentleness
But maybe there is wisdom still in Paul’s letters. He traveled. He knew of the injustices. He listened to the plight of the persecuted. He used to be Saul, a member of the prosecution. Paul has been in the darkness. In the very city to which he is writing in Philippi, he was beaten with reeds by a mob. He knows what this city is capable of, and what our regimes today are capable of.
So his words include awareness of how to be in a world of pain and persecution, where the ways of life of so many people were in danger of being toppled, or they lived in their realities of pain and suffering. And in that same passage from Philippians, Paul shares one important insight into our world of news-triggered anxiety and ever more difficult pursuit of peace: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
Fr. David Hensen is an Episcopal Priest in North Carolina. Reflecting on this passage, he writes:
In a world that continues to operate on principle might makes right, it’s clear to me that the letter to the church in Philippi might as well be addressed to us today. And, what if we were to follow Paul’s advice, could we too do something subversive with gentleness in a land frequently intoxicated with violence and power, with weapons and war?
Outrage ricochets through our public discourse on news networks and on social media, a cycle of rhetorical violence and condemnation. Right now, there is a scar running through our nation’s psyche. Many of us are walking around with the broken pieces of our hearts, clenched in our fists like daggers and weapons, desperate to strike so we can feel something besides trauma and tragedy, eager to injure if only to cauterize our own wounds with rage and retaliation. We lash out at anyone who might disagree with us or be different than us.
But let your gentleness be known to everyone, Paul says.
Because gentleness breaks the cycle. Small acts of gentleness and friendship disrupt a culture calling for war, retaliation, and exclusion because it shows us another way really is possible, the way of Love, the way of Jesus
So gentleness can break the trigger/incivility/calls for civility maintaining the power structure/trigger cycle? But how?
The Empire-Toppling Power of “Two”
For the “how” we turn to Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, written after the letter to the Philippians, Jesus reinforces the Empire-undermining power of gentleness and gives a coded message for how to respond to regimes that traffic in injustice, outrage, and agitation. Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-42:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
This passage from Matthew talks about overwhelming injustice with gentleness. While we can read it as about interpersonal conflict, about civility amidst disagreement, it was originally received as how oppressed people can engage with the ruling regime.
The original reference was that Roman Legions’ military members could legally ask a passerby to carry their pack for a mile, or demand their coat if it is cold. And if they refuse or misbehave, then they can be slapped on the cheek. That’s the reference the original audiences would have understood.
In contrast to the violent Zealots and to the accommodating Pharisees, Jesus says to overwhelm them with gentleness, but gentleness with an edge to it. I learned in John Dominic Crossan’s book God And Empire, that a Legionnaire could order a subject to carry his pack for one mile, but if the person carried it further, then the Legionnaire was in trouble for taking advantage of citizens and would have to beg for their pack back in public. They could ask for a person’s coat, but if the person also gave her cloak, she would be naked in the street, and the soldier would likely give back both to avoid the shame. You see how these are gentle actions that are not violent but are disarming to the powers? And if that person misbehaved and got slapped, then the person would turn the other cheek so that the next hit with the same hand would have to be a punch instead of a slap. Not much better, but at least a bit more humane.
Gentleness disarms the Empire. It is not civility and it is not passivity, but an active engagement and using the Empire against itself, exposing its inhumanity while retaining one’s own humanity.
Today’s call for gentle action
Today I think we can reach a better sense of peace with our triggers and civil engagement of the political news by taking some ideas from Paul and Jesus.
What if we carry the pack for two miles, or give two articles of clothing?
- What if we overwhelmed news of violence and exclusion and disempowerment of the electorate with twice as many acts or words of love, peace, and justice?
- For every opinion on immigrants as terrible people, tell two stories of ones who you know are good people.
- What if for every act of violence we offer two prayers, morning and night, for peace?
- What if for every uncivil act by “your side” you commit to two “civil” actions to overwhelm people with goodness instead of bad behavior?
- What if for every dollar raised for those who support this regime, you gave two dollars to the side against the forced traumatization of toddlers?
We can overwhelm the airwaves and the streets with love and presence. And we do it by active engagement, not State-sanctioned silence.
Calls for civility from the minority are about limiting abuse and the Powers’ overreach. Calls for civility from the Powers are about maintaining power. We cannot let calculated calls for civility from this American regime discourage us from using our voice, gentle presence, love, prayers, and action to support the oppressed and to advocate to stop children from urinating on the floor in American-made cages.
We must. We must.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.