I know I’ve written about this before, but it just seems like American and Christian culture embrace an essential meanness I can’t recall experiencing previously in my lifetime.
This could be old fogey syndrome. I remember laughing at my father and grandfather when they complained how things were better when they were younger. But it seems that for all the members of the radical left who advocated violent action when I was young, there were as many, if not more of us who preferred peaceful resistance and fighting gun barrels with flowers.1
I also doubt that times are as contentious as the decades preceding the civil war when Congressman Preston Brooks beat Congressman Charles Sumner to the floor with his cane. Admittedly, Sumner compared one of Brook’s relatives to a pimp during a speech in the House, which was mean spirited in itself, but the caning may have been over the top.
Still, it seems to have been a week filled with incivility. The Florida courts decided that Casey Anthony should pony up court costs even though she was found not guilty of murder and served her sentence for obstruction of justice. These added penalties may make people feel good and that she got what she deserved, but it also seems like double jeopardy.
This is an interesting precedent in meanness. We don’t like the original verdict so we’ll make you pay for the cost of the trial. It kind of reminds me of schoolyard fights where the small kid nobody liked won, so everyone ganged up on him afterward.
An even meaner gesture may have been Lakewood, New Jersey’s lawsuit against members of a homeless camp because they “irreparably” ruined public property. The city claims they would never remove them until they have somewhere to go, but the homeless haven’t vacated the property until now precisely because they have nowhere to go.
In addition, homeless advocacy groups have already been working to find alternative shelter. But that isn’t good enough for Lakewood. In addition, they want to sue for court costs and attorney’s fees (as if they could collect).
Property damage is never irreparable. Trees grow back and lawns can be resurfaced. And if the homeless aren’t allowed on private property, where else can they go but public property? For Lakewood to say that they want the homeless to find shelter but that they’ll be suing them in the meantime reminds me of the passage in James: “If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (2:16 NIV)
But lately the pretense of civility seems to mask hostility. Lakewood is no longer saying to the homeless, “we’re sorry but we wish you luck,” they’re saying, “you’re destructive and we don’t want you.”
It’s tempting to say these two anecdotes are hardly indicative of an overall mean-spiritedness, except that I’m not the only one commenting. Incivility seems to be a constant theme on the news, with good reason. Nor am I speaking of ordinary Americans who risked their own lives to save a motorcyclist from a burning car, but of our leaders—many of whom profess to be Christians.
After promising to be more conciliatory and bi-partisan in the wake of the debt ceiling fiasco, Republican leaders have drawn the same lines in the sand, “No new taxes, keep the military, cut the programs your voters like.” Only now the President for the first time has removed his own olive branch and decided he won’t compromise on Medicare and Social Security.
Things could get a whole lot worse before they fall completely apart.
Although I wouldn’t be the first to predict such gloom. Both Yeats and Sontag feared that “the center wouldn’t hold” and predicted that the great beast was slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Even though both are writers I love, the center still holds (shaky, yes, but it holds). So I’m not ready for the apocalypse yet.
But when Christians embrace this meanness of spirit, I find it deeply disconcerting. The most recent example of meanness of spirit is Pat Robertson, who claimed that Alzheimers patients are spiritually dead and therefore it would be not only Christian, but Biblical to divorce them. (Jesus only allowed marriages to end due to death or adultery.)
What disturbs me the most is not that he feels this way. His comrade in arms Newt Gingrich famously abandoned one wife as she was dying of cancer (which would be acceptably Christian since she was on her way out anyway). What disturbs me is that once again Christians who claim they accept only a literal reading of the Bible are perfectly content to create metaphors that contradict the literal meaning of scripture.
Jesus did not use “death” in the case of marriage as a metaphor for “mentally dead.” He used a good many metaphors and parables, but in this case dead meant dead. If anything, he would consider abandoning a sick spouse to be the worst kind of betrayal. As would the early church, who felt it their duty to take care of the needs of widows who couldn’t support themselves.
We do not abandon the living when they need us the most. To do so by claiming that you speak for Jesus is the worst kind of hypocrisy. It is also mean-spirited in the first order, the exact opposite of what Jesus would do by any reading of the Gospels.
The good news is that many of my friends who lived at the radical fringe in the sixties (including me) became swept up in the outpouring of love called the Jesus movement in the seventies.
The bad news is that the Jesus movement gave way to the Moral Majority who (in the gilded and nostalgic light of memory at least) look kind in comparison to today’s religious right.
I can only pray and have faith that we will experience another revival like the Jesus movement to correct the scales again, if only for a decade or two, to inspire a generation of hope and not another generation of spite.
1In fact, this statement is little more than a literary device. In the spirit of honesty, the more I think about it the more I can recall how mean spirited people—including Christians—have been all my life. They made fun of people they didn’t like or understand, and condemned them to hell from the pulpit. Christians loved calling boys with beards and a long hair “girls,” and even refused service to “dirty hippies” (not to mention Blacks and Hispanics). I even remember a particularly vitriolic sermon condemning rock and roll and the youth who listened (i.e., me) as communists and corrupt to the core.
The only redeeming comment in the sermon was the remark that we need more Christian and patriotic songs like Oklahoma Hills, which was written by socialist and labor organizer Woodie Guthrie. The song, by the way, has since become a personal favorite.
Literary devices aside, however, even though I feel the world is less hostile to me now, it certainly feels as though this country is experiencing an overt and sanctioned mean-spiritedness. Hate radio is no longer hate radio, it seems to be mainstream programming. The hate speech once relegated to fringe publications is now available to anyone on the internet. Nor does it matter, really, whether or not incivility is more common now than earlier so much as the fact that Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek and welcome their enemies with love regardless of the culture around us.back