On Nov. 14, the Mormon Church issued a statement saying, “attacks on churches and intimidation of people of faith have no place in civil discourse over controversial issues. People of faith have a democratic right to express their views in the public square without fear of reprisal.”
The Mormons discovered this principle after tens of thousands gathered both in California and in Utah to protest the church’s tactics during the referendum on Proposition 8. And while I share more sympathy with the protesters than with the Mormons on the topic at hand, I could have told church leaders that simply to enter this debate was to waive any expectation of civility. As a religious leader, I find myself in the midst of many controversial issues, but the debate over gay and lesbian rights reached a flash point in my church when the Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay bishop in 2003.
Although I became an Episcopal bishop in 2005, and waited another three years to make any public statement on the topic, the personal attacks began immediately. I have been called a “heretic” and a “hypocrite.” My life has been threatened, and my wife and children have been attacked on the Internet, often on sites with noble-sounding names like Virtue Online.
I’m tempted to remind my Mormon brothers and sisters that he who lives by the sword shall perish by it. But the truth is, the attack methods now common to our political life has so infected our spiritual life that no amount of civility in their opposition would have protected them from backlash, just as it has not protected our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. In politics we have come to believe that the way forward requires us to remove any opposition from our path. But Jesus says, “I give you a more excellent way.”
You’re thinking, “This is the part where he says we have to love our enemies,” and you’re right. But stay with me.
Even if you aren’t religious, even the kind of religious rhetoric you’ve heard lately has turned you off, consider this: a strategy that removes your enemy leaves you to inhabit a relatively empty landscape. It’s not only right to consider a different road; it’s in our own best interest.
The long road back to civility begins with three commitments: nonviolence, listening and valuing our enemies. Lies and distortions do violence to the human dignity of others. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the etymology of the word sarcasm, which means “tearing flesh.” To be civil, we cannot strike out with the tongue any more than we would strike out with the hand.
Having bridled our own tongues, we must move to deep listening. I do not believe that we who are considered “straight” have truly listened to gay and lesbian people. I am not naïve enough to think that if we listened to each other that we would finally all agree. But here is something much deeper that can occur. We can actually understand why we differ and affirm through that disagreement what is valuable in one another.
This is how we value our enemies. We give up self-interest and discover mutual interest. Perhaps more to the point, self-interest and mutual interest become inextricably connected. And this dissolves the notion of enemy. What we value is each other and the ways in which we need each other.
In the Episcopal Church, we promise at Baptism to “strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.” This striving leads us down the road to civility. The true road signs are nonviolence, listening and valuing of enemies. The character of our travels becomes more important than the destination. And if we miss these markers of civility, we will find ourselves on a detour or, worse, at a dead end.
The Rt. Rev. James R. Mathes is the Episcopal Bishop of San Diego. He is the spiritual leader for 50 congregations where the mourning are comforted, where the hungry are fed, and where the poor hear good news.
Filed Under: Letters