In recent weeks, the clash of race and culture made its way back into the headlines in the most ungracious of ways, signaling the death of civility in its wake.
Whether it was the N-word blaring over the airwaves courtesy of Dr. Laura Schlesinger, the heated debate over a mosque too near "Ground Zero" for the comfort of some, or the revelation in the Pew Research Center's report that 18 percent of Americans still believe the president to be Muslim – despite his outward declaration of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior ….
To my way of thinking, attacking public policy is fair game, but judging one's redemption or "brand of Christianity" puts us all in very dicey waters. It is a clear indication that we've lost a focus on what is essential – the notion of civility.
What some call racism, intolerance or even ignorance, others point to as their Constitutional right to freedom of expression, while drawing hard lines along one side or the other of the controversy.
No matter which side of the argument you land on, you can't ignore how far we've come from being civil to one another in our discourse on race, culture or religion – taboo subjects once relegated to hushed whispers or benign neglect.
At issue is the First Amendment, which protects both the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. But how can we balance both objectives while maintaining a modicum of gentility or even grace?
In sharp contrast to Don Imus' firing over a similar on-air lapse in consciousness, Dr. Laura apologized for her racial-epithet-laced tirade and then went on to decry her loss of free speech from the desk of "Larry King Live."
Likewise, in the name of civil rights, bloggers are free to launch stealth attacks virally from the safety of Cyberspace with their true identities sequestered from scrutiny. Tabloids thrive on innuendo and Photoshopped imagery to validate titillating headlines. The accused are presumed guilty. Anything you may not have said or done will be used against you in the court of presumption equals reality.
What's so civil about that?
We've entered a new phase in the information age. What used to pass for news has taken a giant leap to public opinion and group-think supported by polls and consumer surveys. The Pundit-spokespersons are no longer thought leaders, but mere spectators shaping and honing the views of their demographic-like modeling clay.
In the shift, we have become so accustomed to the point-counterpoint argumentative style of communicating that we are desensitized to our need to actually listen to one another.
Abraham Lincoln said it best when he remarked, "You can't please all of the people all of the time." We can hold strong convictions without being acrimonious toward one another. The Bible says "A gentle answer turns away wrath."
But what does this have to do with the Church?
As the Church, our civility lies in our ability to engage our brethren as a corporate body. But, how can we lead where we have not overcome?
As some ask rhetorically "What Would Jesus Do?" I ask, "Would Jesus be appalled to learn that institutional racism is alive and well in most churches in America – despite the progress of many church leaders who foster inclusion by design?"
These noble strides aside, researchers still estimate that only 8 percent of American churches have a congregation in which 20 percent or more of its members do not belong to the congregation's dominant race.
If we are to make true progress, congregations must subjugate the practice of worshiping where they "feel most comfortable." We must heed the call to lead the lost, heal the hurting while relinquishing those worship styles that preclude those that don't look like, vote like, dress like, smell like or think like us.
As Paul says, we are to become all things to all men.
We must make room for those who are to come and remove the reserved signs from the VIP sections set aside for the "frozen chosen" already populating our pews. The day is coming when the first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
The Spirit and the bride say "Come," to whosoever will take the water of life freely.
Until we transcend our own divisions, "isms" and comfort zones and enter a true dialog on the racial and cultural divide on Sunday morning, we cannot aspire to civility.
Therefore we must endeavor to create a worship experience that engages the "whosoever wills" from different denominations, traditions, worship styles, economic classes, races, ideological and cultural pedigrees so that we can once again meet on common (Holy, Consecrated) ground.
We must model for the world what true harmony looks and feels like. We must fulfill the promise found in Psalm 133: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!"
In so doing, we become a Divine reflection of who God is. We can then "let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
The Church must lead the way. Only we can destroy the barriers that separate us – whether it be the hue of our skin, cadence of our dialect, the inflection of our accent, expressiveness of our worship, or the privacy of our political preference.
Then and only then can we achieve true civility.
"Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near."
Thank you for listening to me think out loud.