Hateful and bitter rhetoric has become such a part of our day that we often don’t see it for what it really is. I always chastise myself for looking at comments in articles, because I am continually disappointed by what I see. Name calling, profanity, threats – all part of our daily existence. I recently watched a very strange (and not very good) movie called “Horns”. The main character takes on the appearance of a traditional Satan character, and one of the things that happens to people who are around him is that they give into their basic desires and emotions. All of their feelings, previously repressed, are given freedom of expression, no matter what the outcome.
The internet has worked this way for many people. An example of this is not terrible – when the Pew Foundation put their massive survey about church out in 2015, we were all shocked by the numbers. It seems that the number of people we thought attended worship regularly – 45% or so – was actually somewhere in the 20-20% realm. It isn’t that people lost faith in religious institutions overnight, but rather that those questioned felt more free to tell the truth on the internet, rather than by telephone or mail. This increased anonymity produced greater honesty.
But if we were to go beyond this honesty and look at how people respond to those they disagree with, we would find a deep distrust of that which is different from us. There is a certain lack of empathy that is centered in selfishness, and this lack of understanding keeps us apart. If we were to truly put ourselves in the shoes of others, we would be able to understand, if only just a little, what it means to be afraid. Muslims, LGBTQ people, Latinos, African Americans, Women – all groups who believe they are in danger of moving backwards. We see it happening – attempts to limit travel based on religion, the pulling back rights, the ability to provide equal education – all of these things are being attempted, and if you were a member of a group feeling attacked, you would be concerned – maybe even terrified.
It isn’t easy to keep your cool when you believe the person you are talking to is trying to do you harm or keep you from succeeding. We automatically assume that those who disagree with us are out to get us, and we lose sight of that which we hold in common. My hunch is that most people in America believe similar things about most issues. We have people we love – we want to succeed – we might have biases but we aren’t racists or homophobic. We care deeply about the law and about our country. We want peace. It is much like religion -when you learn about other religions, you find out that we are very similar in most ways, and that are also very different in a few very important ways – and they matter.
It would be easy to point to an individual or ideology and say that this is where the problem really lies, but we would not be being honest. These are symptoms of a dis-ease in the world that has been growing for decades. Terrorism, colonialism, religious sectarianism, over -population, diminishing resources, changes in the climate -these are all contributing to our struggle. I don’t have answers, but I do have a hunch that if we could take a few breaths, we might be able to calm ourselves down and find answers together. If we could release our bitterness and calm our fears, we might find a way out of our current situation. If we can’t, then things will only get worse. Peace …
Pastor Steve Ohnsman has served Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), a M. Div. from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a D. Min. from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a Ph.D. from Alvernia University (PA).