This past June, James Hoggan spoke here in Nelson. He was part of the Convergence Writers’ Weekend hosted by Wide Spot in Silverton. Donna Macdonald also spoke at the weekend event; the theme was “Keeping a Civil Tongue,” very apropos in this day and age when public discourse can be so rancorous.
James Hoggan wrote a book provocatively called I’m Right and You’re an Idiot. You might be rather reluctant to read it if you didn’t also read the subtitle, the toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up. He’s worked for the David Suzuki Foundation and chaired Al Gore’s Climate Project Canada. His book shows how demonizing our opponents—which happens by people of all political stripes—left and right—creates all kinds of problems for communities to find common directions. It’s on my list of books to read.
14 or 15 years, when I was writing the presbytery newsletter, I wrote some strong article about climate change. After my first article appeared, I received an email from someone who was a climate change denier. He started out quite civilly but when I would respond to his claims with hard evidence, he became increasingly personal in his attacks. I didn’t know him personally, but he felt it was fair game to discredit me and the evidence that I was presenting. I and climate change scientists, in general, were demonized and personally attacked in hurtful ways. I had to block his email eventually because it was upsetting to come into work to see what hurtful email was waiting for me. (Reference internet trolls .)
I don’t need to create a litany of incidences where the interaction via email, blogs and responses, Facebook, Twitter or public speaking and debates is less than polite. In fact, we only need listen to the news at any point in the day and we’ll hear examples. I don’t need to identify any particular individuals, either, as there are many examples and we know them all too well. Suffice to say that because of personal attacks becoming more mainstream, the general tone of conversation has become harsher and less polite. A new normalcy detrimental to community and good relations has crept into our public interaction.
It seems it was ever thus. That’s partly what we can understand from the early church letter to the church in Ephesus, a Greek city and major port in antiquity. It flourished under Roman rule. It was a lively meeting place of many cultures and religions and I imagine there were lots of disagreements. The letter-writer tried to encourage the local Christian community to conduct itself with decorum, politeness, honesty, integrity, and love.
Douglas John Hall, a United Church theologian and teacher—now retired—offered a lecture in Vancouver through VST a few years ago. Contrary to popular belief, he said, Christianity is not a religion of morality. He outlined his reasons for saying this, some of which had to do with the tendency of some to convert moral beliefs into moralism, a moral code of behaviour that becomes a club with which to hit people who don’t fall within the moral code. Jesus wasn’t a moralist; he believed in love and compassion and unity, not in judging others for being perceived to be morally inferior.
The letter to the church in Ephesus staked out the claim that we are not a church of morality for morality’s sake. We are called to interact with one another in ways that are all about our unity as a community, the love we experience and share, the justice we are called to create, and the compassion by which we are guided to live. All of this is laid out at the beginning of chapter 4 where it says,
“I plead with you, then, in the name of our Redeemer, to lead a life worthy of your calling. Treat one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the peace that binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called into one hope when you were called. There is one Savior, one faith, one baptism, One God and Creator of all, who is over all, who works through all and is within all.” (The Inclusive Bible)
We often use the passage I just quoted at baptisms to emphasize our oneness in community. This underlying message of unity is part of many hymns we sing. It is part and parcel of who we are followers of the One we call Jesus and is the reason why we engage in behaviour that builds community.
How we are with one another stems from this sense of unity. We are part of the whole—not more important and not less—and we are called to live with that focus. How does my anger affect the whole? How does my behaviour affect others? Do I contribute to disunity or a sense of harmony? Am I acting in a loving way? Am I being just and peace-filled?
Those questions aren’t about moralism. We ask those questions because we are committed to other people’s welfare and to the understanding that God’s life and love are found in others. And with one another we interact with the full range of emotions that we feel, but we do so in a way that is life-giving both to ourselves and to others. We don’t repress what we feel, but we don’t hurt others with what we feel. We share in a common life as human beings.
Scott Shauf, author of this week’s reflection on workingpreacher.org sums it up this way: “If the church is to be the dwelling place for God, and both Christ and the Spirit are said to be in us, and we are ‘created in Christ Jesus’ and ‘created according to the likeness of God…,’ then the moral exhortations to imitate God and to live in love as Christ did both follow naturally. Imitating God and loving as Christ did, are high standards! These commands may be ambitious challenges for us, but they also remind us of the amazing possibilities for those who have been re-created in Christ and brought into the church, the very dwelling place of God.”
Here is where the church can be leaven and an example for the wider society. We can model the kind of loving interaction that is needed in our wider communities and public discourse. We are called to base our interactions with each other and with the world as if God dwelt in “the other,” whether “the other” is the climate, animals or plants—not just other human beings. What a wonderful world this would be! (…to borrow Sam Cooke’s line.)
 In Internet slang, a troll (/troʊl, trɒl/) is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community.