Harold Babcock's Sermons

September 26, 2010

Why Can’t We Get Along

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 10:34 pm

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Civility is “the sum of the many sacrifices
we are called to make for the sake of living together.”
– Stephen Carter

Why can’t we get along?  Recently I was asked by members of our Sunday morning Current Events Forum if I would preach on this question.  “How can we (better) talk/listen to one another in U. S. Society today?” they asked.

Some of you may remember that several years ago I delivered a sermon on the subject of civility.  Here, in part, is what I said:

Civility . . . is most fundamentally about citizenship.  It is about the broadest possible citizen participation in the political process.  It is about politeness only insofar as courteous behavior helps make that process and that participation possible.  In other words, civility includes politeness not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end.  Civility requires politeness, but it is not synonymous with it.

In the United States, we might be able to agree that the ends sought by civility are freedom, justice, and equality.  Or, as the Pledge of Allegiance has it, “liberty and justice for all.”  In order to maximize these ideals, it is desirable, but not inevitable, that any debate about them should be carried on in what we might call “a civil manner.”  While, as we know, or should know, that polite behavior is a must in the smooth running of a group where everyone knows everyone else, and even within our own families, how much more important it becomes when we are dealing with strangers: those whom we don’t know as well, those who are different from us, those who disagree with us.

Civility, then, is about politeness only insofar as it enables conversation and debate about issues which are, or should be, of concern to us all.   It is not about agreement, though I suspect it is usually, or often, about reaching compromise.  At its deepest level, civility is about our duty to practice good citizenship through constructive participation in the political process and in the local community.

“I am not a philosopher or a logician,” I said, “but I think that I have learned a few things over the years about the benefits of decency and courtesy.  I have observed first-hand how a well-timed apology can defuse a volatile situation, and how a willingness to listen to others can calm a difficult situation and make reconciliation, if not agreement, possible.”

So, why can’t we get along?  How have we arrived at the current, highly polarized state of things in our country and our world?  Let me offer a few possibilities that come to mind:

  • the advent of 24 hour news programming (not only Fox News, but also MSNBC)
  • the decay of objective journalism and its replacement by journalism as entertainment, or journalism as propaganda
  • the inability to envision a third (or fourth or fifth) way between black and white alternatives: is it really only either or?  (Is the “clash of civilizations” really inevitable?)
  • the promotion of an “us versus them” mentality
  • clinging to our own truth
  • belief in our own self-sufficiency
  • laziness
  • failure to listen, especially to those with whom we disagree
  • defensiveness
  • arrogance
  • the unwillingness to compromise
  • the unwillingness to give those who differ with us the benefit of the doubt
  • the unwillingness to apologize
  • fear, especially of the Other
  • economic uncertainty
  • the triumph of ideology over practicality and common sense
  • plain old mean-spiritedness

I could go on, indeed I could preach a whole sermon about each of these, but I think you get the picture.  (If you didn’t see yourself or your own situation in at least a few of these possibilities, that may also be part of the problem.)

From a religious point of view, we are talking here about something as fundamental as the value of kindness and love: not some sappy, romanticized version of love, but the kind of which St Paul wrote,

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As the satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.”  Ouch.

Episcopal priest and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor relates a wonderful story from lore of the so-called Desert Fathers in her book An Altar in the World:

Once, two elders who were living together decided that they should have a quarrel like ordinary men.  Since they had never had one before, they were not quite sure how to begin.  So one of the elders looked around, found a brick, and placed it squarely between him and his brother in Christ.  “I will say, ‘It is mine,’” he instructed his brother.  “Then you say, ‘No, it is mine.’  This is the sort of thing that leads to a quarrel.”

“Are you ready?” he asked his brother.

“I am ready,” he brother said.

“Okay,” he said, regarding the brick. “It is mine.”

“I beg your pardon,” his brother said, “but I do believe that it is mine.”

“No, it’s not; it’s mine,” the first monk said.

“Well, if it’s yours, then take it,” his brother said.  Thus the two elders failed to get into a quarrel after all.

What if we were to act in a similarly simple but profound manner?  Would it be a sign of weakness, or might it in fact be a strength, possibly even leading us to something unexpected and new?  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.  All you have to do is recognize another you “out there”—your other self in the world—for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself.  To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self.  This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

What we are talking about is empathy: the ability or quality of “feeling with” another person.  As Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, writes, “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”  What we are talking about here is the old-fashioned idea of self-sacrifice for a larger good.  As Silver Moore-Leamon, a member of the South Paris, Maine Universalist Church, recently wrote with truth, “People wrapped up in themselves make mighty small packages.”

What I am suggesting here is not that we never again enter into a lively debate about issues we feel passionately about, but that we know when to let go.  Sometimes when we do that we paradoxically open the door to compromise. I believe that this is the only way to move past the gridlock in which we presently find ourselves.  As one of our hymns says with truth, “Kindness can heal us, as we give we gain.”

It’s deceptively simple, like Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.”  What the little story of the two monks suggests to me is that sometimes we can agree to disagree.  Most of us, I hope, have friends or family members with whom we disagree on politics or religion, but whom we choose to love anyway.  Sometimes the safest and best course of action in life is simply to avoid an argument.

In his book entitled Civility, ethicist Stephen Carter defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”  We can agree to make sacrifices for the good of our relationships. We can also agree to make sacrifices for the good of the whole, though this will inevitably mean giving up some of our own self-interest in favor of the common good.

Getting along with each other, I think, will mean returning to the golden rule and to the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  As the morning’s reading by Rabbi Shapiro reminded us, “Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices,/ Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles.”  As someone has wisely said, we must be the change we hope to see.

May we strive to work toward a church, a country, and a world where differences are respected, where opinions are heard, where ideas are shared, where good ends do not justify unjust or unkind means, where each of us takes responsibility for creating the beloved community we dream of, where all are welcomed and where all are cherished for who they really are.

-The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
September 26, 2010

Readings: Matthew 5: 38-42; “We Are Loved By An Unending Love,” by Rabbi Rami Shapiro


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