Harsh winds and frozen grounds have set in for what is expected to be the Dark Winter of 2020. All that was lush, and flourishing is now fallow-limp on the ground and rotting. As we go into this uncertain Winter, the worst part it all for me is not the pandemic, the political theater and ranker, or the awful tyranny of distance from loved ones but rather the lost hope that civility and acceptance will someday re-emerge from the frozen ground of America. We live in dichotomous times of harsh winds, times where nuance and contextualization lay rotting on the ground like annuals after the first real frost of Fall.
My hydrangeas and lilacs will return as sure as anything-as the ground thaws and warmth returns, so will the beauty of nature. I have lost hope, however, that such will be the case for civility. Civility requires a listening ear, the ability to empathize with the ‘other,’ and a basic value for those we couldn’t disagree with more. These are not merely values in short supply, they are values to be mocked and slain in places of public discourse. What use to be safe places of debate and dialogue are now execution stations where the other is slain with sharp tongues, quick Tweets, and a cancel culture that is bent on eradicating the ‘other’ wherever she may be found.
I find myself in the hard place of the middle, I am a perpetual other in an increasingly polarized America. I am an African American Republican. I am socially progressive in many regards, yet a literalist Christian. I have spent two decades fighting modern-day slavery, engaging in civil rights for African Americans, and learning to be the best environmental steward I can possibly be. So why does it feel like I am not also allowed to care deeply for the unborn or champion the cause of religious freedom? I am for DACA, women’s rights, science, and the inherent worth of Black Lives-does this make me a liberal? I am for free market capitalism, reading my Bible daily, prayer in schools, and the moral good of spreading the message of Christianity-does that make me a conservative, a bigot, close-minded, out of touch? One thing is for sure, the middle space I find myself in makes me unwelcome on the left and on the right.
Civility is much more than politeness, it is the ability to live into the tension of dialogue and thought with the other, to welcome the other, and be hospitable to the other while engaging in the things that make for our core differences. Civility is all-but disappearing, limp on the frozen ground, blown aside by the harsh winds of xenophobia, cancel culture, and worse, a tech oligarchy that champions free speech publicly, but through sophisticated algorithms and unaccountable tech police, silences the other at pivotal moments.
While my belief that civility will die a swift death in this Winter of despair, I have a hope in something greater-basic human desire. There are basic human desires that I believe will allow us to re-plant the seeds of civility once it is dead and gone. Among these are the basic human desire to belong to a world of justice, not mere power. The desire to be deeply known and seen, not merely right. Most of all, we have a deep and abiding desire to be truly loved, not merely tolerated or submitted to. Because of these desires, the one thing necessary for civility to grow again, reconciliation, is inevitable. The inevitability of reconciliation does not mean there will not be more executions, cancellations, and excommunications but rather when there are no longer any ‘others’ to attend to and we’ve made such a mess of our own homes and communities, we will remember a world where words mattered.
We will remember fondly the role dialogue and respectable debate played in matters of justice. In each and every instance where society has embraced the way back to civility, reconciliation has been the spade and shovel that has re-planted the seeds that have sprouted a new beginning. Reconciliation is hard and gritty work but ask those who have led the way, people like Bishop Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Theresa, if it was worth it and they would all say a resounding yes.
In the cool breeze of a humming summer night, as one lingers in the salty air, smelling the lilacs and admiring the hydrangea, the hard work of planting, pruning, and establishing our gardens is forgotten-what is left is the pure joy and pleasure these sights and smells bring to our senses. Human flourishing through the pursuit of civility by way of reconciliation is just like that, it will give way to a better life for all.