We are continuing our look at trends affecting people in the United States this week. Last week we saw that stress was reaching new heights for Americans, leading to more severe illnesses and higher mortality rates. This week we look at another issue that could likely be seen as a result of stress, but is problematic enough to warrant being treated as a topic of its own: incivility.
With people already stressed, it is easy to see why they can quickly begin to turn on each other. Frayed nerves without a healthy way to find rest and revitalization can cause the best of us to snap at those around us. They can also make us hypersensitive to how other people are treating us. Witness the growing concern over microaggressions today. Even the name we give these experiences acknowledges that they are miniscule, the sorts of things that we could probably let roll off our backs if we were feeling more grounded and less stressed. However, our high level of stress has made identifying and stopping these experiences a priority for many Americans.
69% of Americans believe that incivility is a major problem in the United States and that 75% believe it has risen to crisis levels.
Not surprisingly, Americans perceive the United States as a much less civil place to live today. In KRC Research’s annual report Civility in America: The State of Civility, published in February 2017, it was found that 69% of Americans believe that incivility is a major problem in the United States and that 75% believe it has risen to crisis levels.
“Crisis levels” means that these Americans are concerned that incivility is reaching the tipping point from basic rudeness to violence. This makes sense. Once we have become comfortable treating someone else rudely, which means that we have refused to see them as a person with equal human dignity as ourselves, it does not take a large step to become violent toward them.
The result of this can be seen re-enacted across the United States. The violence in Charlottesville is only the most recent and obvious example. That same kind of violence is repeated on a daily basis. And the violence is not just physical assaults or shootings, it also takes the place in the form of white collar crimes that deny people access to decent housing or other necessities of life. All of this stems from our disregard for the human dignity of other people.
Once we have become comfortable treating someone else rudely, which means that we have refused to see them as a person with equal human dignity as ourselves, it does not take a large step to become violent toward them.
In addition to violence, KRC also states that more people are isolating themselves to avoid the added stress and likely incivility they will face if they spend more time engaged with the world around them. This not only means they may become more reclusive, but they disconnect from media, social media, and other avenues of interaction with people–whether in person or virtual–that might lead them to experience rudeness.
This sort of isolation is understandable, but it lessens the American Republic. Democracy is built on the rule of the people. If the people conclude that participating in ruling the nation is not worth the psychic risk to themselves, democracy dies. We already can see the ways this is happening in the United States based on voting records and participation in politics. Partisans for certain candidates or issues dominate the conversation, while the average citizen exits the process, just hoping it will all get resolved.
And, sadly, the church is not immune to these pains of incivility. According to KRC, 8% of Americans claim to have been treated uncivilly within a house of worship. The same stress and rudeness people are building up in the larger world is finding its way out in the interactions we have at church. Fortunately, this is not a common thing yet, but it is a large enough number of instances that we should be concerned.
According to KRC, 8% of Americans claim to have been treated uncivilly within a house of worship.
As evangelists, how do we respond to this?
First, we need to be certain that we are not adding to the incivility around us. Evangelism is a process of inviting people to live a new way. That can easily be perceived as an aggressive activity by other people. We need to be careful to make certain our ways of sharing the good news are just as good as the content of our message is. Otherwise, we just become one more perpetrator of judging others or treating others as less than human in the name of our agenda.
How do we avoid being uncivil? We need to get to the root of the problem. Incivility and violence are bred out of fear. When we are afraid that we will be harmed in some way, we begin to rationalize why we can dehumanize others and treat them as less than us. To avoid incivility, Christians need to overcome their own fear.
Incivility and violence are bred out of fear. When we are afraid…we begin to rationalize why we can dehumanize others and treat them as less than us. To avoid incivility, Christians need to overcome their own fear.
God gives us a way to do this. 1 John 4:8 tells us: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
The promise of Jesus Christ is that we do not stand under judgment, but under grace. We are the beloved of God. As Christians, before we ever step out to evangelize someone else, we should start by centering ourselves in this assurance of love. Once we have done that, then we are ready to relate to others. Being grounded in the love of God protects us from being afraid others will harm us, and that immunizes us to the temptation to become uncivil.
This is why Jesus taught us to love others as we love ourselves. As we recognized that we are loved and accept that love, we become far more capable of loving others. Love is so simple but oh so powerful. It dispels all vices and darkness without fighting. Rather, it embraces those who are lost in hate and transforms them to recognize themselves as beloved people who can, in turn, love others.