Yesterday the volume of the debate over blame for the violent deaths and injuries in a public space in Tucson, Arizona seemed to reach a fever pitch. The angry rhetoric and incendiary language reached new levels. Anguished cries were heard from both sides of the aisle. Sarah Palin lead the day with an internet video that threw gasoline on the fire. In an unrepentant tone, Mama Grizzly insisted that her political graphics featuring gun sights and her campaign speeches calling for her constituents to “take aim” and “reload” had nothing to do with the shooting spree that killed six, including federal Chief Judge John Roll of a Federal District Court and nine year old Christina-Taylor Green. In her lengthy diatribe, Palin described the accusations leveled against her as “blood libel”, a term which has serious anti-Semitic connotations. It is not clear whether Gov. Palin had a clue as to the depth of the gaffe that she committed by using that phrase. (Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, evidently targeted in the shooting for assassination, is Jewish. She remains in critical condition with a gunshot wound through her head.)
The day barreled back and forth with point and counter point. The airwaves were alive as pundits, politicians, and media figures from all quarters railed on about who was to be held responsible for the shooting, who had given offense to whom, and what the terms of retaliation should be.
And then I read this. Republican Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical Christian, threw in the towel on the “Civility Project”. DeMoss runs a PR firm in Atlanta, and in an earlier life was an aide to Jerry Falwell; more recently he was an unpaid campaign advisor to Mitt Romney. After spending about $30,000 and well over a year of his time in trying to promote the basic concept of civility in our national discourse, he simply gave up.
He initiated CivilityProject.org in January 2009 because of alarm over what he saw as the increasingly vicious tone in American politics. He asked his friend, Lanny J. Davis, a Jewish Democrat and a lobbyist who worked for President Bill Clinton, to join the effort. They sent out 585 letters asking every sitting governor and member of Congress to sign a pledge that said:
I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
I will stand against incivility when I see it.
Guess how many signed letters he received back? How many governors and members of Congress responded?
Yup, three: Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, (I) Connecticut; Representative Frank Wolfe, (R) Virginia; and Representative Sue Myrick, (R) North Carolina.
After all, it was a tough pledge. Some pretty high standards to adhere to: Civility, mutual respect, and speaking against incivility. Three of our nation’s leaders. Three. All the talk about a Christian nation: three. “Love your neighbor”, three.
Mr. Demoss was disheartened by the lack of signatures on his pledge. But what did him in was the hatred leveled at his making this effort at all:
“The worst e-mails I received about the civility project were from conservatives with just unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call,” he said. “This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat. That would probably be true about some liberals going the other direction, but I didn’t hear from them.” Mr. DeMoss said he was not convinced that there is a link between vicious political attacks and violent acts, but he added, “Whether or not there’s violence, whether or not incivility today is worse than it’s been in history, it’s all immaterial. It’s worse than it ought to be.”
In stark contrast to Ms. Palin and others who seem to revel in the current level of vitriol, President Obama last night gave what some are calling the most powerful speech of his presidency. He repeatedly drew upon the memory of young Christina-Taylor.
“Imagine — imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate — as it should… let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it…. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
Right before Christmas I posted on how easy it is for a church to become embroiled in vitriol. It’s extremely difficult to develop an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance. It is simple to divide, simple to drive wedges between us. Any relationships between humans requires work, and then more work. Some suggest that it’s just our nature to focus on what divides us rather than unites us.
DeMoss found out that lately there is little traction to be had in the idea of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. The whole loving one another, loving your neighbor as yourself, and even the preposterous notion of loving your enemies just isn’t a good sell these days. It was so wonderful to hear that four Methodist Bishops and countless pastors spoke out against the senseless violence in Tucson, all condemned the angry rhetoric and violent threats that infect our nation.
Mr. DeMoss gave up on the idea of civility. But it’s the church’s mission to continue to preach His message of peace. Even if only three people show up.
Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. …. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future. But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. President Barack Obama, 1-12-2011