‘Civil’ lacking in election year discourse


By the Rev. Lamar Massingill
Advocate Columnist

The murder of Arkansas Democratic Party chairman Bill Gwatney only a few weeks ago escalates my opinion that this particular presidential election and its primaries, despite the fact that it is one of the most pivotal elections in American history, has been morally repugnant.

I’ve seen it hundreds of times: A simple discussion turns ugly, and suddenly the verbal assassinations of vacant minds lacking value, substance, intelligence and civility take over. Try to talk to people of any party, and you will find yourself tempted to respond in kind to inherently vicious verbal fights (and surely some physical ones to boot) regarding this election. These needless, skeletal, bottomless pits of verbiage by frightened pseudo-political “experts” who have their own interests and not the country’s in mind, have no place in a society built on the freedom not only to think for oneself, but to give respect to others who think differently.

We’ve let our childish fear of “not getting our own way” control our actions and reactions and have mean and ill-tempered bullies to those who, in a country that affords every citizen the right to choose, have a different opinion than we do. Ideally, we are to be respectful and mature patriots of a free but flawed country. But we aren’t. This sad reality travels into the heart of morality; an issue of right and wrong, and an area as grey as the sight of storm clouds gathering.

I will never forget while we were on leave from parish ministry my wife and I were invited to the home of one of my best friends for dinner. There was a small plaque on his desk that was cross-stitched in a frame. It simply said, “Do what’s right.” Why is that so hard for us to do, especially in light of the division existing in our country already?

This particular moral issue is not that grey or difficult to figure out. Being mean to another because of their political, ideological or religious beliefs (which often get mixed with politics) is wrong. A child could make the same judgment. Such a child walked up to me on one occasion as his father and another were arguing presidential politics and asked, “Why is Daddy so mad?” When we do this, we are simply adding more division to an already great divide. And what kind of example is that for our children? I hope we don’t choose to begin the mathematics of hate (subtract and divide) that started the first civil war and end up in warring madness with our fellow citizens.

I think we are in what Herman Melville called the “Dark Ages of Democracy,” a time when, as he predicted so many years ago, we would feel what he called “the arrest of hope’s advance.” Free people are also the ones who have the passion and compassion to change things for a creative “better” and create that hope again. Certainly a good part of those free ones would include followers of Jesus. But we don’t seem interested anymore.

We seem to be stuck, as John Gardner said of the 1960s, in the same crossfire between “uncritical lovers” and “unloving critics.” The uncritical lovers are those whose philosophy is summed up in the words “America: Love it or leave it,” and the unloving critics whose philosophy is to tear down existing political structures and begin again using the worn out ’60s phrase, “burn, baby, burn.” I think we could see how these two poles would begin a good fight, which is why neither one of these poles will work in the end, without beginning another civil war.

The only thing that will work would be the stance of the loving critic, a citizen who is a true patriot, treating her fellow citizens with civility regardless of their opinions and honestly questioning the flaws of our country without beginning a heated debate that nobody wins. It is the only way I see that will enable respect and not the seething hatred I see so often today. We say we are a “christian” country. I question that, because I am waiting for us to start acting like it. Funny, my computer’s spell check won’t allow a little “c” in the word “Christian.” Oh say can you “C?”

A published author, Massingill is minister at Richton United Methodist and religion editor at “The Magnolia Gazette.” His latest book is titled “Soul Places.”