Kids don’t show up at school and suddenly say racist things to their classmates because of who won a presidential election; most often they repeat what they’ve heard at home. College students don’t suddenly start yelling racial epithets on a Baptist campus out of the blue; they’ve heard these threats go unchallenged somewhere else before. Adults don’t just show up at church and behave differently than they do other places; often they reveal themselves in times of stress or opportunity.
What we have seen unfolding in America over the last week is a peeling back of inhibitions and a willingness to blame bad behavior on someone else. The outcome of a presidential election did not suddenly make people do or say bad things.
The Bible addresses this clearly with the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:34: “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” And then there’s that great little children’s song from Sunday school: “Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.” I know, parents at this point are saying, “But my kids hear bad things from other places than me.” And no doubt that’s true, which reminds us of the urgency of making sure young ears hear a counter argument toward justice and kindness and grace at home and at church.
Rather than pointing a finger at a rising political figure — which is the easy response — perhaps we should ask what the rest of us are made of. Where is this spate of bad behavior springing from, and why have we allowed it to fester unseen? And what will we do to speak and teach kindness instead?
One answer came from a speaker I heard last week, a University of Virginia student who has led her classmates to acknowledge problems with inherent racism and oppression on campus and in society. Aryn Frazier spoke of lessons learned from her mother, who always stood up for the slightest injustice, even at the fast-food drive-through window. As a child, Aryn thought her mother was excessive and overdramatic. She was embarrassed when her mother asked for seemingly small wrongs to be righted.
Those lessons learned at home prepared Aryn for the day when it was her time to determine the difference between right and wrong. And her message to us now is to think in advance about how we will respond when our time comes. She asked: “How much wrong will be too much wrong?”
That’s the question we must ask both of our own behavior and our response to the behavior of others around us. Rather than lamenting that some public figure may have unleashed bad behavior, let us remember that good manners begin at home and at church and in our everyday relationships. That’s the kind of behavior that shines through.
A friend recently told about the time he knew a supervisor was not a person of good character. They dined together at a fancy restaurant, and the supervisor paid zero attention to the server, only seeing that person as a nameless, faceless servant of his needs at his barking command. In that single experience, my friend knew what to expect in the rest of his relationship with that supervisor. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth spoke.
What we need to teach our children now is that the behaviors and attitudes we learn at home and at church must stand true not only for us but also in defense of others. And then we need to live out those convictions with courage and consistency. In our own behaviors and in the behaviors of those around us, we must think in advance about how much wrong is too much wrong.
Toward that end, I applaud the Baylor University students who last week rallied around a black classmate who was harassed while walking to class the day after the presidential election. Those Baylor students knew what had been shouted at their classmate was too much wrong to let slide, and they stepped up. Out of the abundance of their hearts, their actions spoke.