Civility in the Age of Reason

If there’s an unwritten rule of the Internet, it’s simply this: “Never read the comments section.”

Whether it’s a post on Facebook, a news article, or essentially anything else, the comments left there will invariably prove a quagmire of vitriol and hatred leavened with conjecture and accusations. Nothing good can ever come of wading through this morass.

So I was reading the comments section of a news article today, and it was . . . as terrible as one might expect. The article in question featured the mother of a gay son who was offering to be the fill-in mother of anyone whose biological parents refused to come to their same-sex wedding. Whether you agree with her views or not, you must at least appreciate her desire to love and support those who are abandoned by their loved ones. Or so I thought before I got to the comments. Below are the highlights of the first seventy-four.

“It would be a good thing if this woman died today.”
“I give 10 to 1 odds she goes by her own sick little hands.”
“there is the ‘stand your ground’ law. how about a hunting season for these?”
“She’s just doing it for the easy hookups.”
“people like this should not be allowed to live.”
“What a vile creature.”
“Just what does that Arabic tattoo on her wrist say?” (The first reply: “Broken, even they realize it…”)

All of these are both horrible and horrifying. (And her tattoo says “Israel” in Hebrew, actually — she is a pastor, after all.) The human race protected by relative anonymity is capable of atrocious, heinous things. A person attempts to show compassion, and what is the response? Vilification. Libel. Death threats. Not because she killed children (or, worse to the contemporary reader, puppies). Because she wanted to show love.

We live in the Age of Reason, the Information Age. We have access to more knowledge than ever before. We pride ourselves on our rationality, our cognitive abilities, and our devotion to logic and reason. Somewhere along the way, though, we’ve lost the ability to be civil, particularly in our disagreements. The new definition of tolerance is excessively intolerant to anyone who fails to align with a particular view. (It’s a very IngSoc sort of thing: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. Bigotry is Tolerance.”) And this goes for both sides, too. Conservatives label dissenters as snowflakes just as quickly as they themselves are branded homophobes by liberals. No one is allowed to calmly and politely state disagreement on a rational basis without provoking a disproportionate, irrational ad hominem response.

This is what kills brands, careers, and individuals: the repercussions of honesty in an uncivilized society.

We are right to condemn hatred and evil where they arise. Racism, for example, should never be tolerated. But our response to such things shouldn’t seek the obliteration of the transgressor; rather, rehabilitation is needed. Love. Truth. Knowledge. Jesus. We cannot combat hate with more hate. We cannot deny people the right to say and do as conscience dictates within the limits of moral law. The same moral law binds us as well, and our responses are to be tempered with the civility which springs from morality. Logic is also nice; if you can’t dismantle the argument/action, don’t move on to trying to dismantle the person.

“Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag.”

Love. They will know us by our love (John 13:35).

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Fatal Death

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

I like the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and not just because you can sing most of it to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. (Go ahead and try it with the lines above. I’ll wait.) She wrote fascinating things, and as someone with a taste for the macabre, I can appreciate her morbid death poetry more than most. (“Morbid Death Poetry” is a good band name.)

But I bring up Dickinson because that subject, death, has been on my mind recently. My church’s Bible study class is working our way through the gospel of John at the moment, and we hit Lazarus a few weeks back. While doing my preparatory study, I discovered something truly fascinating. The word in John 11:33 and 11:38 all English versions translate “deeply moved in spirit” . . . isn’t. It should say, “Jesus was livid.” Enraged. Furious. German translations seem to take that more literally, but English translations insist on an impassive Jesus who isn’t allowed to be human enough to get mad outside of the temple.

I believe it’s a grievous mistake in this particular instance. After all, just a few verses earlier in John 11, Jesus declares himself to be “the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). Three chapters later, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and five chapters earlier he is “the bread of life” (6:35). Repeatedly Jesus refers to himself as life itself. Here at Lazarus’ tomb, then, we see Life encountering Death. Life sees destruction, devastation, sorrow, pain. Life see the horrors of Death victorious, a world enslaved by its oldest enemy.

And Life. Is. Furious.

It was never supposed to be this way. Death was never intended to exist in our world. Mothers were never supposed to lose children. Sisters weren’t meant to mourn brothers. Sons weren’t born to bury fathers. But in this moment, Christ sees this playing out before his very eyes. He sees the Fall, feels anew the betrayal of our first parents, sees our continued rejection of eternal life as we prefer to wail at tombs, servants of Death who have refused Life time and time again.

And he is angry.

Angry any of this happened. Angry Death has won for thousands of years. Angry people will grieve and lament and die for thousands more.

And so, just this once, just for these beloved friends, with tears in his eyes, he thinks in his heart, “No. This will not do.”

It’s a clear call of command, raw divine authority infusing every syllable. “Lazarus! Come forth!”

Lazarus comes forth.

And Death loses the day after all.

It’s a victory repeated as Christ raises others, just as the Prophets had. And it’s a victory which will be completed on the cross and in an empty tomb, the power of Life on display, a God “born that Man no more may die.”

Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus is engaged in no less a divine showdown than Elijah at Mount Carmel as he takes on the prophets of Baal. It is a display of power, it is a show of righteousness, it is anger and truth and heaven on earth.

But it’s also a dramatic reminder of a deeper biblical truth: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). Death will one day die, cast into a lake of fire (Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy of Life; Christianity affords it no other place in the cosmos. It is never good, never a friend, never sweet release, never the will of God. It is a price to be paid, a blood debt owed for sin — the necessary consequence of a planetary rebellion.

I’m not entirely sure we see it that way, though. No one who has sat by the bed of a loved one struggling to survive has ever prayed the gasping and pain never ceases. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit we’ve begged God for people to die — not out of hate, but out of love. It’s why we turn off the machines in the end: we love them. We don’t want them to continue suffering in a body which feels nothing but agony. We want them to have rest, and death is sometimes the only escape. We love them enough to want that for them, because we all eventually stop being afraid they will die and start being afraid they won’t. It’s not cold, cruel, or callous. It’s mercy. Respect. Love.

But is it? Again, Scripture is clear: death is evil, an enemy to be destroyed. How can it ever be a welcome friend? I think we’ve always struggled with this, really. It’s why we converted the angel of death, slaughterer of the firstborn, to a guy in white in Touched by an Angel. Death, to Christians, stopped being the Grim Reaper and became a blessed escort into the afterlife, a mere psychopomp. Honestly, I feel it’s a natural progression of perception. The question remains, however: is it accurate? Are we correct to make the shift? It’s a question which keep recurring in our modern world as things like physician-assisted suicide and right to die laws become more and more commonplace. Do we force people to endure torment because death is an enemy? Do we let them kill themselves and pronounce God’s blessing upon the act? The world is asking these questions. Christians must answer them. Offhand, I’d say we’ll all devise different answers, too. It’s a complex issue, and there’s a lot at stake.

Death is a curse — the Curse. It is also a sometime blessing. How do you feel? How do we think about death? How does it matter for how we live our daily lives?

Memento mori.