July 19th, 2018

Age of outrage

One of the most difficult obstacles when writing about incivility in the age of outrage is that everything moves too quickly. By the time you read this, the events that prompted it to be written will be the ghosts of news cycles past. With that in mind, let me ask you to recall a simpler time: mid-June 2018. The world was much like the one you live in now. Tweets were just as offensive, evidence of a cultural divide was just as clear, and there was always somebody or something to spark public anger.

In mid-June, news broadcasts were covered in videos and pictures showing children being held in wire cages, sleeping on mats. The Trump administration had instituted a new “zero-tolerance” policy in response to illegal border crossings. The policy, aimed at stopping all unauthorized entry into the United States, resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families as adults were taken into criminal detention and children were placed in temporary shelters and foster care. Administration officials like Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security, defended the policy as an effort to fix “our broken immigration system” until “our borders are secure and families can stay together.”

The controversy spurred vocal and widespread protests against the policy. One impromptu example took place on June 19 at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., where Nielsen was dining. According to a New York Times article, about 15 activists confronted Nielsen, shouting, “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

This was just one of a number of incidents that prompted new questions about the proper way to respond to perceived injustices. How uncivil can civil protest be? Should Christians approach these issues any differently?

Three Days Later . . .

Three days after the confrontation with Nielsen, a much quieter protest took place in another DCarea restaurant. The chef at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, notified restaurant owner Stephanie Wilkinson that the staff were unsure they could serve a customer, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, because of her defense of Trump administration policies.

“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson told The Washington Post. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive.” Nevertheless, Wilkinson decided to ask Sanders to leave after telling her group that what they had already eaten was on the house. “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty and compassion and cooperation,” Wilkinson told the Post.

When Sanders tweeted about the incident, it sparked a new round of debate about appropriate forms of public confrontation. Sanders, despite having to defend many uncivil statements made by the president, said, “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters urged administration opponents to keep the heat on. “You tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” Waters told a Los Angeles crowd, according to The Atlantic. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station — you get out and you clear the crowd. You push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome.”

A church trial?

During this same week in mid-June, a group of United Methodists mounted yet another unusual protest. Some 640 people took the almost-unheardof step of bringing charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his defense of the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. The complainants cited immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of The United Methodist Church, all of which are chargeable offenses in the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

One of the complainants, the Reverend David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, told CNN that the goal wasn’t necessarily to bring Sessions, a member of a UM congregation in Mobile, Alabama, to a church trial. “The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing,” Wright said.

At a service the following Sunday, the Reverend Tracy McNeil Wines, pastor of Clarendon United Methodist Church in northern Virginia where Sessions also attends, addressed the charges in her Sunday sermon. “I do have strong beliefs. . . . I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans . . . and I am committed to listen to them.”

Making space

In truth, ours is not the first age of outrage. Similar debates about injustice and incivility raged in the 1960s during the civil rights era and, more worryingly, in the 1850s prior to the American Civil War. Martin Luther King Jr. once chided white society for being “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” King was aware of how often such tranquility only comforted those who were already comfortable.

However, the Reverend Richard Lowell Bryant, a United Methodist pastor in Ocracoke, North Carolina, worries about our tendency to move into tribal camps. Having lived in Northern Ireland with its Catholic-Protestant tensions, Bryant senses a growing divide here too. “Is it possible to make space at the grand Eucharistic table for those seeking asylum while we are fighting our own struggles of who carries the greater degree of moral clarity? That’s the question we face.”

Perhaps the theological lens we need is one centered on “making space” — showing the kind of hospitality that allows us to see and hear one another as well as those suffering injustice. In the end, we’re all included in the space opened up by God’s redemptive love on the cross. Will we use that space to shame and shun those whom we oppose or to dream together about who else might be included?

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