Recently, a friend asked, “Has American culture gone completely mad?” Today, I’d add to that troubling question this troubled response: “It’s not just that American culture has gone mad, it’s also gone mean. Meanness, to quote a Bette Midler song, ‘echoes through the land.’”
In a June 25 New York Times column, Timothy Egan writes that “underlying these (cultural) cynicisms and suspicions is a truly sad development: The United States is becoming a mean country.” He notes, “Tribalism, and the corrosive hatreds that go with it, has always been just below the surface in the risky experiment of our multiethnic democracy. Of late, it has surfaced in many of our daily interactions — and accounts for much of the meanness of this moment.”
Documentation of the meanness of this moment is readily at hand:
A May 15 Associated Press article begins: “San Diego authorities charged a 28-year-old woman with felony battery after an attack on a Southwest Airlines plane in which a flight attendant lost two teeth and suffered other injuries to her face.”
An Aug. 4 NPR story says: “A passenger aboard a Frontier Airlines flight has been charged with three counts of battery…, accused of inappropriately touching two female flight attendants and punching a male attendant on Saturday. The flight crew then restrained the unruly passenger and used (duct) tape to ensure he stayed seated for the remainder of the flight.” (Must air travelers now pack carry-on duct tape in case a seatmate goes rogue?)
American meanness is also local. The Aug. 23 Winston-Salem Journal reported: “In the early-morning hours of Sunday, Donna Blackmon, 61, died in her husband’s arms after she was struck by a bullet that police say was fired by a juvenile. The juvenile was among a group of people who were riding back and forth along 14th Street and firing weapons, according to a media report. Lorenza Blackmon said his wife died from a shot that came through the wall and hit her in the back.” A 14-year-old youth has been charged with the murder. (Did the foolishness of youth and access to firearms morph into the meanness of murder?)
COVID-related issues have unleashed considerable meanness, especially related to mask-wearing and vaccinations. A June 2021 CNN report describes the fatal shooting of a clerk at Big Bear Supermarket in Decatur, Ga., by a man she admonished to pull up his face mask. (In a nation armed to the teeth, isn’t meanness instantly life-threatening?)
“COVID-related issues have unleashed considerable meanness, especially related to mask-wearing and vaccinations.”
An Aug. 18 CBS report begins: “A parent in Austin, Texas, has been accused of physically assaulting a teacher during a (“Meet the Teacher”) back-to-school event — over mask wearing. It’s not the only incident of its kind. Several incidents at schools and local school board meetings have gained national attention as debates over mask requirements turn heated, some of them resulting in physical violence.” During a raucous school board meeting in Vail, Ariz., one parent declared: “It’s my constitutional right to be as mean as I want to you guys.” (For the foreseeable future, shouldn’t all PTA meetings be limited to Zoom?)
American politics always has had its share of meanness, and now is no exception. Florida’s Ron DeSantis is one of numerous governors forbidding mask or vaccine mandates in their states, with DeSantis threatening to withhold salaries from school administrators who defy his order. Meanwhile, Florida claims the highest COVID rate in the country, with many hospitals running out of morgue space and COVID-related oxygen. (A Florida court recently ruled against the governor’s mandate, but isn’t it the height of political meanness to send unvaccinated, unmasked school children into classes together?)
Social media seems a fountain of meanness, filled with harmful threats, attacks and lies. Witness the “deworming” saga. Recently, Fox News personalities Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham keep recommending the animal deworming med ivermectin as an alternative COVID medication for unvaccinated Americans. Caleb Wallace, age 30, leader of an anti-vax, anti-mask movement in San Angelo, Texas, died on Aug. 28, leaving behind his pregnant wife and three small children. He refused early hospitalization and instead took Vitamin C, zinc, aspirin, and ivermectin. (Have the Fox News folks reported on or mourned his passing?)
“Social media seems a fountain of meanness, filled with harmful threats, attacks and lies.”
And what about the church? Doesn’t the gospel call us to resist the “meanness of the moment,” whether personal, corporate or ecclesiastical? Or does that spine-chilling dictum, “there’s no mean like church mean,” define too many of our congregations? Are people deserting or avoiding church affiliation today because of a prevailing secularism, or is the church’s own meanness syndrome exacerbating their flight?
Martin E. Marty, dean of American historians of religion, acknowledged that problem in a 2006 interview with Krista Tippit on “Speaking of Faith,” commenting: “One of my distinctions in religion is not liberal and conservative, but mean and non-mean. You have mean liberals and mean conservatives, and you have non-mean of both.”
Conservative church consultant Thom Rainer expressed similar concerns in a 2015 podcast, acknowledging: “I love local churches. But I have to admit I am hearing more from longtime church members who are quitting church life completely. One member wrote me: ‘The non-Christians I associate with are much nicer people than the members of my church.’” Rainer concluded: “Are mean churches really increasing in number? My anecdotal information would indicate they are.”
Given those realities, how might Christian churches and individuals remain or become “non-mean” amid the “meanness of this moment?” Let’s start with some questions:
- When does “doctrine” or “conviction” camouflage the meanness of bigotry? Nineteenth century slaveholders convinced themselves that inerrant Scripture gave them permission to own other human beings. What meanness are we proof texting?
- When does “Jesus is the only way” become a license for the meanness of religious violence verbally, politically or physically? Christian anti-Semitism is a 2,000-year-old case in point.
- When does the “priesthood” of the individual believer become a tool fostering meanness in the body of Christ? How many church “splits” have been predicated on that premise?
- When does the body of Christ (the church) move from gospel dissent to the meanness of the mob, “othering” those who disagree with us? Current religio-political polarizations, left and right, reflect that destructive dilemma.
In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris says that on the feast day of St. Gertrude, the 13th century monastic, she learned this prayer from Gertrude’s Fourth Spiritual Exercise: “Deliver me from timidity of spirit and from storminess.”
Amid the maddening crowd of our own times, perhaps we 21st century Christians could learn to pray: “Grant us the courage of dissent and deliver us from meanness. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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