Martin Marty is one of my favorite historians and he’s seen lots of differences displayed in numerous religions, various churches, and a wide range of politics over the years.
Our typical differences like: conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, gay or straight, religious or non-religious, Black or Brown or White are not near as significant, Marty has come to believe, as this one crucial difference.
Are people mean or are they not mean?
I’m seeing this one important distinction demonstrated in spades these days. Everywhere we turn, we can find mean conservatives and mean liberals, unkind rich people and unkind poor people, unpleasant people of all colors, shades and belief systems.
At the same time, all around us, we encounter plenty of conservatives who are not mean, lots of liberals who are kind, untold numbers of people who are generous, many non-religious people who are compassionate and quite a few of us religious people who actually try to practice what we preach.
As a matter of fact, I choose to believe that there are more kindhearted people in the world than there are cruel people.
So this awareness brings two thoughts to mind: when I judge other people, will I assign them to the stereotypical boxes of superficial differences or will I go deeper, considering the content of their character?
And further, will I choose kindness in my own thoughts, words, deeds and affiliations?
I weary of people whose sloppy thinking allows them to make foolish statements like:
All Black people are…
All gay people are…
All Democrats are…
All Trump supporters are…
Such cheap shots demonstrate a willful ignorance that definitely falls within the “mean” range on the moral spectrum. When any of us engages in this kind of small minded stereotyping, it calls into question the content of our own character.
These are the kinds of cheap shots I hear coming from our current president and his enablers. I don’t know if this president believes all the mean and ugly things he says, but he sure knows how to use meanness to his political advantage. He seems to have an evil genius that allows him to tap into people’s veiled resentments and bring them to the surface, giving them permission to follow his lead and be overtly, outspokenly “mean.”
So that brings me back to my second thought: what will I choose in this climate of toxic public unkindness?
Will I choose my words carefully when I speak and post? Will I seek out opportunities to do acts of kindness to all kinds of people—even those with whom I disagree? Will I discipline my thoughts and challenge myself to be gracious toward others in ways that honor our shared humanity?
And will I choose my affiliations based—not on party or race or religion—but based on fundamental values of kindness and compassion?
Here is where I find myself in a dilemma. Some people I love definitely fall within the “not mean” range of morality and yet have chosen to affiliate with this very mean president. I puzzle over this contradiction, obvious to me and yet evidently not at all obvious to them. I sometimes struggle to talk to them without being mean myself.
So I’ll keep challenging myself to embrace kindness, to embody goodness, to exemplify fairness.
I’ll keep working to improve the content of my own “not mean” character.
But even so—at the same time—I won’t stop calling out “mean” whenever I see it.
This 2004 interview with Martin Marty and Krista Tippett is really important and very helpful to students of U.S: history. Find the OnBeing podcast and transcript here at America’s Changing Religious Landscape.
Here’s Mr. Marty’s actual quote: “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…”
The phrase “the content of their character” comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I have a dream” speech given in 1963.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
See the speech’s full text here at the NAACP website.
The Content of Our Character is also the name of a book published in 1998 by Shelby Steele.
“In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations–the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. The Content of Our Character is neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but an honest, courageous look at America’s most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.”