Obedient Incivility

Obedient Incivility
3-31-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

“It is the first warm day of Spring in Montgomery, Alabama,” explains the opening line of the cover story from a 1997 issue of U.S. News and World Report.

Michael Walcott takes his guitar down to a [Montgomery] Elementary School to wage a war on incivility. Speaking clearly, he tells the sixth graders, do not use profanity or chew gum in class or answer the phone in an unpleasant voice. Instead show respect to your elders, say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and, most of all, treat others the way you want to be treated. Then Walcott plugs his guitar into a pair of giant amps and sweetens the struggle to save civilization with a little soul music. In an original composition set to a 1960’s pop tune, he sings,

All the world over, it’s easy to see;/
People everywhere need a little courtesy,/
Shout it from the mountain so everyone can see,/
Courtesy can bring har-mo-ny./

After finishing the song, Walcott asks the sixth graders, “Would you try to behave more courteously in school if I promise to come back and play another concert for you?”

In unison, the entire group of sixth graders exclaim “No!”

This Rascal’s hit song, “People Got to Be Free,” from 1968 is forever part of the civil rights effort. The song came out on the heels of the assassinations of King and Kennedy as a plea for peace and freedom in the land. “People everywhere just wanna be free, ask me my opinion, my opinion will be, it’s a natural situation for a man to be free.”

I wonder about this man up on school stage is talking about and singing songs about courtesy and good manners in a Montgomery, Alabama elementary some 40 years after Rosa Parks was arrested by Montgomery police for so rudely and illegally refusing to give up her seat on the bus and some 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others marched from Selma to Montgomery after their first attempt, known as Bloody Sunday, ignited anger and rage along both sides of the racial divide. While I agree that good manners and courtesy are important, it almost seems to be a form of profanity to sing this song of freedom in the land where the struggle was hottest but to turn it into a plea for the use of common niceties, to water it down from a call for freedom to a request for ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I wonder about changing the words from ‘let’s work together for freedom’ to ‘let’s play nice.’

You know, we’re in the midst of a bloody, drawn-out war in Iraq, we are living under the largest deficit this nation has ever seen, the global market is shifting away from us toward Asia, the earth is spiraling into an environmental crisis, poverty and disease and genocide run amok throughout the world, America can’t seem to figure out how to make a hybrid car let alone construct a coherent energy plan or a health care system that can actually work: I think we are way past ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I think we are in the realm of moral outrage and indignation. I think we are past the plea for common niceties and deeply mired in the run to reclaim the vision of our country based in liberty and justice for all.

And yet, as pedestrian as Michael Walcott efforts are to bring courtesy and manners to sixth graders, he is on to something when he imagines there to be the need for a war against incivility in our country. To conflate bad manners with injustice is perhaps akin to rearranging deck chairs on the titanic; nevertheless, they are related. I’m not ready yet to suggest we dispense with good manners just because the situation is bleak. To do so would be to bring the struggle for peace and sustainability and equality and liberty down to the level of a street fight; this would be a big waste of time and passion because of the way it would play in the media.

I have not watched TV for several years and this past week I found myself in the dentist’s waiting room with a large flat screen television on. Oh, we own a TV, but we don’t have it hooked up to anything except the VCR and DVD player. The grocery store where I usually shop has TV sets hung at every check-out line, but thankfully they only play the weather station, where I laugh every now and then when the “Storm Team Forecast” calls for scattered showers. I guess the name “Scattered Showers Team Forecast” would have been accurate more often – but lacked that compelling edge. So I was only mildly surprised by what I saw in my dentist’s waiting room. The closest thing I can think of to call it was a news program – but it was more like an exercise program for the anxiety centers of your brain. I had read about how TV news programs were becoming sensationalized and entertaining rather than informative and relevant – I had probably even experienced some of it before I quit watching TV. But I was still mildly surprised to experience the emotional manipulation. It was very distasteful.

To check in with this way of reporting the news, I had pulled up “YouTube” videos of Barack Obama’s United Church of Christ pastor, Jeremiah Wright. It was fascinating to have heard about Rev. Wright’s prophetic preaching prior to this fuss, to have known about the powerful way he could juxtapose biblical lessons with current affairs. And then to see the sound bytes offered on FOX news reporting of the harsh rhetoric Rev. Wright was known to have used. Taken out of context, a judgmental statement against the practices and policies of the United States can be seen as anti-American. They fond the most anxiety-producing snippets they could get and spliced them all together as ‘news’ and it worked because what the TV news programs seem to be offering these days is not information but anxiety. The result is that in the public mind, Pastor Jeremiah Wright is given a quick label, and Barack Obama catches that same label by association, and instead of moving toward a better understanding of each other and of what is going on in the world we distance ourselves from what is happening by fitting things into labels and boxes.

It is not unlike what happened here in Binghamton on March 19th when we held a peace vigil commemorating the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq. Now, I’ve already told you I don’t watch the news on TV, but I went home that evening a googled the Binghamton News stations to see what coverage there would be. I didn’t find anything – which I think means I didn’t find the right sites or I should have been watching my TV. I’ve since learned that Channel 34 had extensive and good coverage of our peaceful vigil and our march from the church down to the confluence where about a hundred people gathered with candles and signs. But none of the other stations offered anything. I picked up the local newspaper the next morning and saw a nice large photo of the vigil, but no story. Instead the story was more coverage of the BU students’ Tuesday demonstration that got out of control. It was a long story going over again how the students marched out into the road and the police came and there was pepper spray and big traffic delays and a traffic injury and arrests. You know what they say, “It ain’t news if the plane don’t crash.” I wrote a grumbly letter to the editor about it that I haven’t seen them print yet, which may be for the best.

One friend said the students stole our thunder. We were playing by the rules: we held a vigil in the church, we marched peacefully down the sidewalk (not in the street) of Riverside Drive, we stood at Confluence Park and later on the bridge, calmly, peacefully, prayerfully! And because no one was shoved by an officer or hit by a student’s peace sign, we were summarily dismissed as uninteresting and therefore not newsworthy (or should I say, anxiety-worthy.) We couldn’t be fit into that delicious box known as “angry and aggressive peace activist who hits people.” We couldn’t be fit into a label that matched the palate of the average news consumer, so we were ignored.

It’s enough to make you want to smack someone with your peace sign – just to get some news coverage! I can’t tell you how many times I receive e-mails calling for a moral outcry! “If you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention” was a popular phrase for a while. “Why aren’t we beating down the doors of our elected officials?” The author of the plea will bemoan how we just shrug when the next egregious breach of ethics spins past our TV screens. “Where are the angry and incensed masses?” they ask. It almost makes you want to throw your good manners out the window and start calling people names. It almost makes you want to set aside the common niceties of society and say rude things about various authority figures. It almost makes you want to march down the street and get in trouble with the law, just to make a point! Of course, the minute you do that, you’ve lost your message and all anyone hears is the ill-mannered actions you offered.

So, if you want to bring about real change in society, you can play by the rules, stay calm and polite – and be ignored. Or you can forget the rules, get in people’s faces, make a scene – and be dismissed. One would think that at some point a third method would have been invented!

On the fourth of July, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into his rough-hewn cabin on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord, and he wrote is likely the most recognized piece of American non-fiction, and the manifesto of natural simplicity and retreat for the maddening crowd.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

And two years later, when he came out from Walden, he wrote:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spend any more time for that one.

The account of Thoreau’s time at Walden was not published for several years.  When it was published, it was received with great acclaim!  But when Henry David Thoreau came out of the Walden what he presented to the world was his short essay on “Civil Disobedience.”  When he came out from Walden he wrote, “Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison,” and “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” When Thoreau left Walden he did so as a rabble-rouser and disturber-or-the-peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King kept a dog-eared copy of that short essay on hand for moral sustenance and encouragement.  In his 1963 book, Strength to Love, Dr. King wrote, “The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!”  I think that is the heart of what we are aiming at this morning. We are beset by many causes that concern the progress of humanity – not just the Americans, but all of humanity. Look, however at the way Thoreau was a non-conformist. First he withdrew to Walden and then he engaged society with Civil Disobedience. First he turned inward to gather his resources, to take stock, to get right with himself. Then he stepped forward and took his stand. Time and again, the Civil Rights movement of the did the same thing, taking time to gather and take stock, to plan and get right with who they were in relation to each other and to God and to the high principles they were struggling toward. Then they would step forward and take a stand.

It doesn’t count as Civil Disobedience to just step out and get in people’s faces. Part of the work is to plan, to get right with yourself, your God, and the high principles toward which you are struggling. When you step out trying to march down the street with a little impromptu civil disobedience – beware the anger that marches along within you. Beware the temptation to think your goal is to make a scene, to disrupt the daily rounds, to get in the way and be noticed. Beware, for that is not the point. That’s just ego and anger – and that does not have a place in our struggle for peace and liberty and sustainability and equality.

As much as it seems like giving in or selling out, you still have to play nice. Good manners matter as much – for they will know us by our love. Otherwise, we’re just being disobedient. We lose the civil side of our civic engagement. And we play right into the expectations of the stereotype: we demonstrate almost obedient incivility when we march our anger with us into the streets rather than our purposeful, principled, premeditated passion for peace and liberty. Compassionate Communication, as our own Jane Connor will tell you, does not deny anger and frustration. Injustice certainly leads to anger, but the struggle for justice does not let anger take the reins. Of course, neither does it give itself over to politeness and decorum!

As we in this community prepare for the continued war in Iraq, for a push toward universal health care, for a debate about the economic feasibility of environmental sustainability, or for a confrontation on the issue of civil marriage – let us be clear with each other right now. If we choose to engage with faith in real justice-making work then we will be inviting passion and anger and pain and outrage and anxiety to sit with us in our struggle. We approach these issues remembering that not everyone in this congregation agrees. As one colleague has said, we will cuss and discuss. Let us remember that our covenant to treat all people with respect and support is a covenant that extends not just to those with whom we agree, or who sit within these walls. Therefore, let us go forth with care; but by all means, let us go forth!

In a world without end, May it be so.