It all sounds so easy.
Turn the other cheek.
Be kind to people who hold different opinions.
Be tolerant, understanding, patient.
But when asked to comment on religion and incivility, members of Akron’s clergy immediately knew how hard it is to live a civil, godly life in a very human world.
And many times religious issues discussed by religious people are the most nasty.
Some of it comes from fear.
The Beacon Journal held a focus group of clergy that produced the following exchange.
A male preacher — they were guaranteed anonymity to allow for open discussion — began by saying he has a “very angry congregation and I’ve never been so emotionally abused. I didn’t think it was possible that clergy would be so abused. And they almost got my soul. …And what I have found and I am playing sort of the race card and the economic card, because the congregation I serve, they’re afraid.”
A female preacher responded: “Of course”.
Another man said, “My congregation is afraid. They’re afraid of everything.”
And the woman said, “They’re afraid of what they do not know.”
And, she concluded, “When people are afraid they do drastic things.”
Bishop F. Josephus Johnson II of the House of the Lord in West Akron said things are getting worse.
“We have lost civility,” he said. “If we can’t be civil I’m not sure we are going to make it.”
He accepts a role in bringing the nation out of a situation where name-calling, personal attacks and innuendo almost became a national sport during the last election.
“At the individual level, to be human is to have to learn to deal with differences,” he said. “You have to live with other people. It could be one of the major roles of religion if we make people understand that you don’t have to be uncivil to be different from other people.”
He had a simple answer for why people lash out: “Sin.”
“I don’t think [civility] is too complicated,” he said. “I think it’s just not very much tried. It’s been lost.”
But he said bad behavior is pervasive.
“When I have couples in [for counseling] I ask if they have any conflict-resolution models — marital — generally no,” he said. “So if I don’t have any model, how do you handle your conflict? They say ‘I just say what I want to say, and he just says what he wants to say.’ That’s a formula for disaster because you are going to say some things that are not only going to be destructive but you are going to say things that cannot be taken back.”
He offered ideas on how to find peace with others on difficult issues, such as abortion and gay rights, even if there is tension in the process.
“You don’t reconcile it …through niceness, and you don’t reconcile it easily,” he said. “Those are very deeply held values. … So it’s gotta be a very intense robust debate.”
And after that debate, when society decides a direction, Johnson said there is no sin in living in a society that has values different than your own.
“Even if you disagree with what is determined, you should go with the agreement,” he said. “You don’t have to do it, but tolerate it.”
Religious intolerance adds to the problems.
“Religion, particularly religion that becomes extreme like the society, is often just a reflection of society,” he said. Some who claim a scriptural foundation may in fact be more influenced by societal forces. “For instance I think fundamentalism is an extreme reaction to modernism.”
Avoiding the issues
The focus group of clergy, conducted by Alice Rodgers of Rodgers Marketing Research, was asked: Is there anything you can’t discuss?
“Sometimes, clergy, we have to pick and choose our battles, too,” said one man. “And that’s the reality of the call.”
A female preacher added: “Homosexuality is one”
“The fear is both personal and it’s institutional,” said a man.
“The Jewish community is afraid.”
The Rev. Vince L. Monden, pastor of Wesley Temple AME Zion Church in Akron, said the Bible in Ephesians is clear on how to handle the passion that comes with debates:
“Be angry but sin not. Let not the sun go down on your wrath.”
That doesn’t suggest squelching passion, he said.
“It’s more of how you say what you say,” he said. “How you project your faith. It’s one thing to be passionate, it’s another thing to be evil. …it’s another thing to be enraged or to try to be dogmatic or oppress someone for their not agreeing with you.”
As the leader of a predominately black church, he knows that racism and other issues can spark reprisals, and he knows he has a responsibility to keep things calm.
“I do say things that can seem to others as inflammatory or that seems as if I am being uncivil to them,” he said.
The Rev. David Loar, pastor of Fairlawn West United Church of Christ, said he has been changing his strategy for dealing with potentially uncivil disagreement.
“I have said for years you have to be open-minded. I’m not sure we can make ourselves open-minded,” he said.
His solution: “I have found in the later stages of my life it is curiosity that‘s helping me to move down off my high mountain to listen more and pay attention to others rather than a willful desire to be open-minded.”
Some religious figures judge too much, he said.
“The loudest voices in the Christian scene are condemning, even though the one we worship said to a person of notorious sin, ‘I do not condemn you’,” Loar said, referring to Christ’s encounter with a woman accused of adultery.
“If I think I know who’s going to heaven and to hell, then I am going to rant,” he said. “I’ve got to have some passion, some feeling of vulnerability about myself and I’ve got to have some passion to want to know the other person if I want to have civil conversation.”
Loar and Johnson, pastor of House of the Lord, both offered evolution as a reason for hope.
“We clearly have evolved and yes you can quote me as a minister saying we have evolved,” Loar said. “We have evolved up this way to other types of emotions and thinking but back here [pointing to the back of his neck] we still have this reptilian brain and at one point it’s a liability. It means we are reactive. We get uncivil.”
Then he put it more simply. That ancient part of the brain enjoys getting mad, or uncivil.
“Indignation gets the endorphins going and I think we are more addicted to endorphins than we are crack cocaine in this society,” he said.
Johnson said there is hope.
He said evolutionary scientists have discovered “the reason humanity survived is that they learned how to cooperate…the groups that cooperated survived over those that couldn’t.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro