The dust-up last fall concerning a Smithsonian art exhibit raises concerns about the state of civil dialog.
That's the view of Judith H. Dobrzynski, at any rate. Writing in the May, 2011, issue of The New Criterion, Ms. Dobrzynski laments the heated language and blatant lack of respect with which opponents and supporters of the exhibit, "Hide/Seek," disagreed in public. The exhibit, which was friendly to homosexuality, drew threats from Congressional conservatives to curtail Smithsonian funding. Whereupon the Smithsonian yanked a particular exhibit in the program, and thus raised the hackles of program supporters. From that point on it was guns blazing all around.
The public debate raged in various media outlets, and the language was anything but civil. Writes Ms. Dobrzynski, "What is surprising, and disheartening, is the pumped-up hysteria and the vitriolic language used by both sides." She concludes, "It is no longer safe to raise a measured voice - or to disagree; attacks immediately follow."
If that is true, it's not good news for the Christian mission.
The cable news shows bear some responsibility here. The "debates" hosted on some of these programs, where opponents shout over one another as they insist on their own views and heap scorn on their opponents, are watched by millions of Americans. For all anyone knows, this is what "conversation" is supposed to look like.
Christians have contributed to this as well, by stooping to stereotyping and ad hominem arguments as they attack the views of whoever the evolutionary/postmodernist/progressive/pragmatic villain of the moment may be.
If we can't talk with one another, we're going to end up hating one another. Here is a place in our increasingly angry and polarized society where some grace is needed. Here is an opportunity for Christians to bring a measure of decency back to our society, beginning in our daily conversations with friends and colleagues.
The Scriptures instruct us to be gracious, gentle, respectful, soft, and edifying in our speech. Certainly there's precious little of that in the public debates raging throughout our society. Think of Madison, WI. Or the Kansas Baptists who desecrate the funerals of America's war dead.
The Kingdom of God makes progress on many fronts, typically, in small increments. Might not an effort to restore civil conversation be a worthwhile Kingdom-seeking challenge for the members of Christ's Body?
Especially since talking about the Gospel, and carrying on dialog and conversation with those who disagree or are not yet ready to believe, are crucial aspects of our mission in the world.
Anything we can do to help redefine the playing field for civil discourse can only help us in our calling of making God's Good News known. The place to begin is right where we are, with the people we speak with every day.
Additional related texts: Proverbs 15.1; Ephesians 4.29; Colossians 4.6; 2 Timothy 2.24-26; 1 Peter 3.15
A conversation starter: "Why do you think people who disagree have such a hard time talking with one another in a civil manner?"
T. M. Moore