I am taking slow, deep breaths to center myself after a third presidential debate and another week of reading too many articles about our world, our nation and the upcoming election. When I scroll past another story, another statistic, a new twist or turn, I feel my heart start racing. Nate Silver is clear that his models take several days to accurately refresh, but that doesn’t stop me from checking daily. I told myself I wouldn’t watch Wednesday night’s debate as I still hadn’t scrubbed the second one out of my brain, and yet there I sat, mouth agape.
This election has gone off the rails. There is no healthy debate and reasonable disagreement about governance and policy between candidates or voters. We are now witnessing and participating in something that makes no sense. Each week’s news cycle has grown more and more preposterous. We as a nation have rolled our eyes or read headlines aloud to one another with mixed parts incredulity, horror, amusement and bemusement. But none of it is funny anymore, and I feel the same fear in me that most of you do. Our national discourse, if you can really even call it that, is not about the common good and working for the shared needs of citizens living together. We are confounded. We are glued to the newspaper or to our phones as we refresh social media feeds to see what new disaster has been tweeted.
A mere 18 days away from a presidential election, large factions of our country are completely unable to hear one another and some of them are ready to evict large swaths of the nation while repealing the rights and benefits of others. The climate has moved beyond sarcasm and private judgment to name calling and actual threats of violence, some of which appear to have credibility behind hateful words. Some citizens are prepared to literally fight for what they fear is being taken from them. At best, we are de-friending and hiding each other on Facebook and uncertain how to talk with friends and family whose worldview are at odds with our own.
After last week’s debate, my colleague, Tim Lauve-Moon, and I were overwhelmed and discouraged talking about the vitriol between the candidates and the anxiety the scene produced. In our Monday staff meeting, we decided we needed to host a Kindness Corner to greet our neighbors. And so we set up our table and chairs on Tuesday morning at the corner of St. Charles and Broadway along New Orleans’ famous streetcar tracks. We prepared a coffee cart and boxes of KIND bars to offer for free to passersby, along with stickers that read “Kindness Changes Everything.”
Because a general sense of kindness is what we are lacking. Human kindness. This isn’t partisan. This isn’t even uniquely Christian. We are talking about basic generosity and affection for neighbors and strangers. The ability to be polite even when you disagree with someone or do not understand the “otherness” of someone. We must now intentionally practice this old way of communicating.
Take a beat to be shocked by that, please. This is where we are as a society — we need to remind one another of the shared value of kindness. And guess what? Some of the people who stopped by for coffee and a KIND bar really challenged my efforts at kindness. Either the angry-toned political T-shirt one man was wearing, or the person who stayed too long and never quite seemed to understand what we were doing, or the woman who seemed horrified by my lady-pastor-ness and longed for us to find our home in a different religious tradition. But there was also the woman who wanted to hug us both even though she’d never met us, and the folks who smiled and high-fived and appreciated that we weren’t selling church and weren’t even selling coffee. We watched it wash over people as they realized we truly wanted only to make a brighter Tuesday with a momentary exchange of shared humanity between strangers.
In the midst of this tremendously difficult season, it is easy to forget who we are and give into fear. The campaign season may have gone off the rails, but we don’t have to follow. As people of faith, we must pay attention to the voices and teachings that are shaping our minds and realities. In the Church, the teachings that inform our lives are not the ones that make us more afraid but the ones that that make us more generous. More trusting. More hopeful. More loving. More compassionate. We must pay attention to what is manifesting within us and what we are releasing into our world. Are we becoming angrier? More anxious? More hostile? Less trusting? More afraid? There’s a pretty good chance that those are not the ways of God.
When we are stepping forward in truth, we are braver, kinder, stronger, more fully alive and more fully ourselves. We remember that the image of God is within us and within all those whom we meet. When we are on the Way of Christ Jesus, we are extending the same grace and peace to others that has been extended to us. Even in a frightening and divisive political season, the words we profess as followers of Christ are true. Especially now, the world needs us to grow more fully into the Spirit ways of peace, love, joy, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. If all of that sounds like too much, let’s at least agree to start with the kindness part.