Anticipate one another in showing respect. Romans 12:10
There is a destructive “virus” spreading across the land. I am not talking about the “bird flu,” but the inability of people to engage in respectful discourse. It seems to have started in politics a few years back and has now invaded our churches.
Television, always on the look-out to cash in on what’s popular, has picked up on this meanness and now regularly cranks out “reality shows” which showcase the meanest and nastiest of human traits: name-calling, humiliation, character assassination and cruel put-downs. It is the new entertainment.
Some time back, I received the second of two letters from a man who called me a “simplistic, uneducated leftist who does not love our country” because he disagreed with something I wrote. I am sure he is a good man, but I refused to take the bait because it appears that his anger is much broader than what was directed at me.
I sincerely believe that it is possible to be both critical and committed. We can love our church and our country and love them enough to criticize them sometimes, without having our loyalty questioned. Good parents do it all the time with their children.
Pope Paul VI used an expression that I find useful: “the asceticism of dialogue.” In his encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam,” he says that dialogue for us is “not proud; it is not bitter; it is not offensive; it is peaceful; it avoids violent methods and barbed words; it is patient; it is generous; it is respectful.”
Much of our disagreement is more than who is right and who is wrong, but a matter of different experiences of the same truth. The truth is the truth, but we often experience different parts of the same truth. It is by talking to each other with an “asceticism of dialogue” that we can hope to experience the whole truth.
Sometimes a story is the best way to make a point and the best story I know to make my point is an old one about three blind men and an elephant.
Three blind men were led to an elephant. The first touched the elephant’s leg, the other his tusk, the third his ear. The first said the elephant felt like a tree trunk. The second said the elephant felt like a long, curved sword. The third said the elephant felt like a leathery sail.
They argued with each other without end saying, “You are wrong and I am right! I know elephants! I touched one!” Of course, they were all right and all wrong. None was able to describe the elephant as it really was; all of them were unable to comprehend the entire form of the elephant.
My critic has something to say and I will listen. We could understand the whole truth by sharing our experiences in a respectful dialogue. This is what our world and our church so desperately need.
Father J. Ronald Knott
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