With an election year looming and our energies running hot these days, let’s take a few minutes to talk about civility and how some extra care given to civility in 2020 might look. Civility is not compromising or giving up on our strongly held convictions, but it’s a more productive and honest way of speaking to the issues and ideas which move our politics and public discourse. Our words matter. Our convictions matter. Our neighbors matter. So, civility matters. I’m asking us to commit to a higher level of civility in 2020 in two specific ways…
First Resolution: Let’s not post and share the name-calling mean memes in 2020, or ever. They aren’t fair, usually aren’t too accurate, and they likely hurt someone we love, a friend or family member. Let’s just be done with mean memes. Name-calling is simply the least productive and least accurate way to talk to, with and about people, and accuracy is important. Name-calling generalizes people, usually undercuts their personal value and worth, and it’s a childish way to score a point or make ourselves feel better. We often proudly claim and use titles and political designations like Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian, and more, and using those titles is ok. But using offensive slurs like dopey, traitor, libtards or deplorables, meant to degrade people and grab a laugh, is when we stray into incivility, stop advancing what we actually hold as political convictions and lose the argument. Really. As soon as we start throwing around names and meanness like that we’re no longer arguing a political point of view, but we’re resorting to bullying tactics and personal attacks to intentionally hurt someone. We’re also possibly hurting someone we love with these ugly names, someone who thinks a bit differently than we do and just got a derisive label slapped on them by our social media post. It’s not a joke, not laughable and not right. Besides, that mean meme is probably not only wildly inaccurate but was made by an internet troll to do exactly what it’s doing: to cloud issues and to wreck your civility and relationships with family and friends. Don’t feed the trolls, my lovely people. Let’s stop the mean memes.
Second Resolution: Let’s speak to people’s actions and words, not evaluations of their character. Ridiculing or attacking people just doesn’t get the job done. We’re taking about de-weaponizing our speech. We have to speak with civility, which means making our point about ideas and issues, while not stooping to attacking personalities and personal attributes. This is admittedly a tough one, but it’s such a powerful habit if we can throw some real energy behind it. Let’s apply this to President Donald Trump and me… I personally cannot abide most all of his rhetoric. I do not approve of his calling people names or attacking them personally. I don’t like his use of Twitter to throw personal attacks at children, public servants and other politicians. I cannot stand all the false statements he makes. And yet, I can say all that without saying “F*%k Trump.” I can also study up on and speak against all his inaccurate and false public statements without saying “he’s a liar” or attacking some aspect his personal appearance with a mean meme. Just point to the facts. We can apply this to any politician. I can say, “I really wish Joe Biden didn’t have so many public gaffs, and I’m actually worried at the thought process and disconnect which leads him to say something like, poor kids are as smart as white kids.“ I don’t have to attack Biden’s character or call him a racist to talk about the systemic racism in America which has encoded ideas like equating poor with non-white and therefore equating white with wealth and intelligence. I can be appalled that he would say such a thing and I can hope he reflects deeply on his way of thinking about the world, all without calling him a racist or needing to demean his character. As someone so completely opposed to our current President on so many issues of economics, environmental protection and civil rights, I do find this a tough task. President Trump’s words and actions are hurting people, or have great potential to hurt people, often people whom I love. Attacking his words and actions instead of him personally helps me stay sane, helps me better present an opposing position (which will hopefully help make a safer world for those threatened people), and honors my commitment to civility.
This is a heavy lift and will demand more from us as participants in our civil discourse and interaction with issues and details. It’s takes way more energy to construct an opposing view on something or to deconstruct a stated view, than just saying “they’re a piece a sh*t” or “they don’t love America.” We cannot allow ourselves to get distracted with name-calling and pettiness when there are simply too many things being said and done which we must strongly and unequivocally oppose. We need to maximize every opportunity to expose the threats and crimes which must be confronted. Civility will help us get more done for more people.
Ok, that’s a lot of writing about only two things I’m asking us to embrace: 1) no more mean memes and name-calling, and 2) speaking to people’s words and actions instead of character assassinations. This is doable, and as crazy as 2020 is bound to get, civility is going to be so needed. Also, there are political ideas which need to be confronted and defeated, for our neighbors’ sake. We’ll accomplish that when we keep our convictions and keep it civil.
You are not alone.
To every one of my Muslim friends and neighbors, you are not alone. The demonizing of your religion will not go unchallenged. Threats to discriminate against you because of your faith will not go unchallenged. You are our neighbors, friends and family. There are so many Americans, so many Christians, who will defend you.
To every immigrant, even those who came to us undocumented, you are not alone. We will still speak of your dignity and worth and celebrate our connection as human beings. You are our neighbors, our fellow humans, and you matter to us. Your children matter, and we will not leave them forsaken.
To every woman who feels that deep pain in their soul when men use and excuse demeaning language like “grab them by the pussy,” you are not alone. We will continue to hold people accountable for their words and actions. We will always speak of your value and we will defend your bodies and rights.
To every LGBTQ friend and neighbor, you are not alone. We have seen important civil liberties achieved in the last decade for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer minorities, and we will not sit idly by when those are threatened. You matter to us, and we will continue to safeguard your life and liberty.
To the millions who have healthcare for the first time, and those who finally have coverage even in the face of preexisting conditions, you are not alone. We will not sit idly by while your health is threatened by political games and rhetoric. We will fight for you and with you to keep the healthcare you so desperately need.
To our non-white friends and neighbors who have been vilified, faced condescension, and suffered demeaning, racist abuses, you are not alone. We will continue to stand with you for equality and truth. We will continue to work for a day when no one’s race or ethnicity is used as a weapon to disenfranchise, demean or discredit them.
To refugees around the world and those who have made it to US soil, you are not alone. We will not allow you to be further victimized by fear and suspicion, but will loudly proclaim your dignity, value and humanity. You are our sisters and brothers.
Those holding public offices change, but some things will never change. We will always stand together to create a better world, a safer world and a more beautiful world where our diverse gifts and shared dignity brighten every dark time. We will work harder each day to embrace love and accept our differences, and we will safeguard one another against all threats. We will stumble and we will misstep, but we will always rise and be better for our shared efforts.
You are not alone.
So, yeah. That’s me in a clerical collar. I didn’t grow up in churches that used collars. In fact, we didn’t have robes for preachers or choirs either. We did have zippered robe-like things for baptisms, but I guess we didn’t find the clerical clothing awfully palatable. Last Sunday, as we set up a booth at the local farmers market to offer a blessing of the pets for all our neighbors, I wore a collar for the first time in my life.
Please don’t call me Father Todd or Padre. If you know me, then you know that I have a deep respect and sincere affection for priests of many orders whether Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal. I also have an abiding respect for other traditions of Christianity that use the collar in various forms and ways. You can call me Vicar Todd… I kinda dig on that one.
In recent conversations and readings I have been introduced to the idea of the clerical collar as an invitation to speak with me about things spiritual. It has been regarded by some as a means by which others found them approachable and open for prayer or conversation. I’d like to think that a collar could do that for me, too.
Thinking about our Sunday morning of offering blessings for pets I must admit that I found people’s reactions as either very happy to see us or distinctly not interested in our blessing. There was very little ambivalence. We were all smiles and not at all intrusive. And we had many fun conversations with some of our Jewish neighbors at the market. I was asked twice if I was OK with blessing “Jewish dogs” and I was more than happy to bless them. Heck, I’m pretty sure I blessed at least one agnostic dog. It’s good stuff. More than one person got all smiley and affirmed the movie line/title, “All dogs go to heaven.”
I believe the blessing of the pets was a beautiful thing to do, and I’m glad we did it. I hope we do it again next year to celebrate St. Francis’ feast day and to serve our community. Not everyone wanted their pet blessed by us, and that’s OK. We were a blessing to many pets and their owners, and asked nothing in return. Good stuff.
And I didn’t feel like the fraud I feared I would see myself as when wearing the collar. That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I did my studies ahead of time and learned that many churches and traditions use the collar in many ways, so I wouldn’t be “stealing” from anyone’s rich (exclusive) claim on the collar. I’m also a very informal guy, and I wondered if the formality of a collar would seem ridiculous on me. It felt pretty OK.
I’m not sure what future the clerical collar has in my ministry and life. We’ll see how the Spirit leads. For now, I’m happy to have blessed some pets, and in the process, their humans. I’m so proud of and personally blessed by our faith community at Church in Bethesda who rallied and came together to help bless the doggies, keep the water bowl filled, over-indulge some furry friends with treats, and to offer smiles and hand shakes to our neighbors. It was a community event in every way.