I had occasion in one of the comboxes below to allude to Benjamin Franklin speaking on civil discourse, something that seems to be increasingly lacking in our own society.
Characteristically, he called for calm. "Instead of raving (with your correspondent of yesterday) against the Americans as 'diggers of pits for this country,' 'lunatics,' 'sworn enemies,' 'false,' 'ungrateful,' 'cut-throats,' &c. which is a treatment of customers that I doubt is not like to bring them back to our shop," he wrote to the editor of the London Gazetter, "I would recommend to all writers on American affairs (however hard their arguments may be) soft words, civility, and good manners." (The First American)
Intemperance was not the answer, Franklin concluded. "Railing and reviling can answer no good end; it may make the breach wider; it can never heal it."
Now, I've never been one of those decrying honest debate as "mean-spirited." I enjoy a good argument as much as anyone. But in the end one has to ask what people are trying to accomplish with their words. Are they merely in love with the sound of their own voice? Are they tourists walking past the tiger cage at the zoo, prodding the big cats with sticks to get a reaction while they stand safely outside the bars? Do their words proceed from spite, from malice, from a desire to inflict harm? Or are they honestly looking for the chance to pursuade, to engage in an honest conversation, to try to come to a meeting of the minds? In short, do their words flow from enlightenment, or frustration?
Mudslinging is nothing new; it predated Franklin and has probably always been with us. But with the advent of the Internet and the birth of literally hundreds of television and radio stations available via satellite, it introduces new and more advanced resources for slinging that mud. And we're not only talking about harsh words; it's more than that. Nowadays we're subjected increasingly to language that is vile, obscene, crude. It shows not only a lack of education but a lack of imagination, an inability to express thoughts in any but the most primitive forms of language. Profanity can be an art form, and is occasionally necessary to express a particular level of feeling (I'm no stranger to it myself, as anyone reading Graveyard of the Elephants can attest), but there is a time and a place for everything. So much of our so-called dialogue today would have been unacceptable a few years ago in what used to be called polite company.
I suppose that much of this comes from a feeling of helplessness that seems to pervade our society, a sense that things have spiraled out of control, that we are powerless to do anything about it except to lash out against the fates that have conspired to let us down so. And in an era when government seems to dominate our lives, when social conventions have been used increasingly as political weapons, when such unthinkables as homosexual marriage and polygamy seem to be just around the corner, and when even the simple wish of "Merry Christmas!" could get us in trouble; it would seem that there's good reason for that frustration to exist, and to boil over into a language filled with exasperated snarkiness.
There's also the increasing self-centeredness that surrounds us, the idea that nothing can be more important that what we think, want, and feel. The whole idea of expressing feelings, of holding nothing back, all in the name of "self-expression" and "self-fulfillment," leads rapidly to a state where any limits on behavior are seen as puritanical censorship and an impingement on "personal freedom" (whatever that is). We often see this attitude expressed by those who condemn the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in areas of sexuality and morality. They decry such limits to our personal actions, smirking conceitedly out of one corner of the mouth while they launch into vile denounciations with the other. We are too enlightened, it seems, to allow anything to interfere with our right to express ourselves (to share our "feelings," we popularly say), other than our own sense of satiation with our very fine words.
I look at what people are saying and doing today, and they seem so angry. It must be very tiring to be mad like that all the time. I look at one correspondent who wrote to NRO's Kathryn Lopez this week. "I sincerely hope you rot in hell," the writer said. I suppose those words gave him satisfaction of some kind. But did he really mean it? Is that what he really wants?
Cardinal Dulles once said (and I paraphrase) that hell truly exists, but it is not beyond us to hope that nobody is there. The salvation of all should be our hope in life and our goal in our actions. As Christians, we share in the teaching mission that Jesus gave His disciples, the obligation to spread His words and to bring Him to the masses. We may think that someone deserves to be in hell (I think that about a great number of people), but should we be sad to find that they reconciled to Christ at the last moment and now are with him in Heaven, or at least the purification of Purgatory?
When the laborers complained about those working a single hour receiving the same wages as those who worked an entire day, Christ quotes the master of the vineyard as asking whether or not his gifts were not his to bestow as he saw fit. When Jonah complained to God that He did not destroy Ninevah, he got much the same answer.
In Luke's Gospel on Monday, we here the story of the blind man who begs Christ to heal him. The crowds jeer him, telling him to be quiet, but he persists. And his persistence is rewarded, for Christ does in fact restore his sight. And what is the reaction of the crowd then? "All the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God." What does this mean? Fr. Pavlik, in his homily on Monday, said the lesson was simple: the people of God rejoice at the good news that comes to one of their members.
Yes, rejoice, for we're all in this together. Christ hammers the message home time and time again. When a sinner repents there is great celebrating among the Saints in Heaven. Love one another as I have loved you. Love your neighbor as yourself. When you fed Me you gave comfort to the hungry. Feed my sheep.
In our self-centeredness, we forget that we're just one part of a whole, something much larger than any one of us; and we lose sight of the fact that the success of any one of us depends on the success of us all. "We're only as strong as our weakest link," the essayest wrote. "No man is an island," Donne penned. "If we don't hang together we shall surely hang separately," Franklin himself said.
There is an answer, of course. Christ gave His life for all, even though He knew that not all would accept His sacrifice. He makes sense of the senseless, empowers the powerless, and enlightens those living in the darkness, if we let Him. That's not always easy to see, nor understand. Many times that enlightenment takes the form of what we might think a harsh lesson. Sometimes it takes years for us to appreciate why things happen the way they do. On occasion we can be deceived by those who twist Christ's words to fit a personal agenda, and it only serves to separate us from His real words.
To incorporate Christ into our everyday lives requires us to give something in return. Ourselves, for example. And with that comes a sense of self-denial, a personal restraint that in reality is liberating rather than confining. For to turn away from His teachings is to deny the inner peace that He offers, a peace that may be years in fulfillment, but continues to grow within us as long as we nurture it through our actions.
And that must be our goal. We should rejoice when a sinner turns to God, when the lost sheep is found. Let us pray for the humility that it might begin with ourselves, and the part we play in the restoration of a civil society. Let us not debase ourselves by refusing to live up to the remarkable beings we were created to be, in the image and likeness of God - let us not cheapen God's gifts to us, or use them in ways other than in which they were intended. Life is not a zero-sum game - we can all be victorious when we turn to Christ as our salvation and Heaven as our goal. That this might come to all, we can be allowed to hope.