Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Getting Past Our Meanness

I’m having a “Life of Reilly” moment. Rick Reilly is the American Sportswriter who once was the back page columnist for Sports Illustrated. When I was younger—much younger—one of the high points of the week was consuming the weekly edition. SI was a short read for me, however, as the teams I followed (the San Diego Chargers and San Diego Padres) seldom made print.

It wasn’t some East Coast bias. In those years, my teams just weren’t that good. Planes would fly over Jack Murphy Stadium with streamers calling for the coach to be sacked. The owner of the Padres, Ray Kroc (think MacDonald’s) once got on the public address system and announced, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the Dodgers drew 31,000 for their opener and we’ve drawn 39,000 for ours. The bad news is that this is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen.”

Still, I could always count on Reilly to write something that made SI worth subscribing to and reading. In one of his columns, his daughter came in one day and asked, “Daddy, what do you do with your time?” Rick responded, “I write an article for the back page.” Confused, his daughter asked, “What do you do with the rest of your week?” Reilly thought about it and answered, “Thinking about what I will write.”

This is what I am doing today. Thinking. On most occasions, God moves me in a particular direction (I must blame someone!). At present, I can’t get out of my head an article I read in The Atlantic last night by David Brooks: “How America Got Mean.” At first, I found the title intriguing but wondered if this is true. My neighbors are still pleasant. The guys in the locker room are generally nice, and the Safeway manager still helps with my app questions. And on the few occasions when Heather’s cell phone is charged, she still answers when I call.

Nonetheless, when I look below the surface, Brooks may be on to something. Lots of people seem angrier and more put off. Talk about politics, and relationships can be permanently fractured. Identify as an evangelical who believes in the ultimate authority of Scripture, and some are ready to consign you to their back page. It’s harder to have a civil talk without someone ready to virtue signal.

Brooks backs up his opinion with some scary stats and concludes, “The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces.” Listen to pundits who assess the recent presidential debate or who track the President’s movements and missteps, and one finds there is no shortage of mean-spiritedness. I used to be a “newsaholic” of sorts, but I have grown weary of a media that seems more bent on creating resentment in my spirit than informing my mind about what matters. I seldom watch it anymore.

Brooks seeks to give some explanation for the rise in meanness: social media, loss of community, diversity, and economic inequality. There is, however, a far greater explanation for our growing abuse of one another—the loss of ethical training. Brooks writes, “We live in a society that is terrible in moral formation.” America was once heavily influenced by morally formative institutions that included churches and schools. There was a conviction that an objective moral order existed. “And then,” as he puts it, “it mostly went away.”

Moral formation has become archaic, People have become convinced they simply need to get in touch with themselves. Whatever is moral is what feels good to oneself. But this has left people without a moral compass. And, as Brooks concludes, “A culture that leaves people morally naked and alone leaves them without the skills to be decent to one another.”  We have become mistrusting, hostile, and ready to shame those who see life differently.

Is there hope out of our present nastiness? Brooks presents these “necessities”—all of which can help us become the best version of ourselves—

a vision for character building—one that will lead to the moral act of casting a just and loving attention on other people

the development of social skills courses–with curriculums that enable people to appropriately treat one another with kindness and respect

a shift of emphasis from meritocracy to intergenerational service—one more concerned with serving one another than climbing up the ladder to success

the creation of moral organizations—less concerned with utilitarian goals and more consumed with building moral realists who fight to defend moral standards

a radical swing from amoralism to politics as a moral enterprise committed to character and human dignity

Having read Brooks for years, I deeply appreciate his willingness to take on so many of our culture’s ills. He seems, by all counts, to be a writer devoted to character excellence (note his book, Road to Character). But as with previous writings, he leaves out the one essential—the radical change of the heart that only comes through the salvific work of Christ. Broken humanity needs a full-scale deliverance that a renewed vision, social courses, moral politics, and better impulses cannot provide. Only the ministry of Christ can get to the depths and do the repair.

In his Deeper, Dane Ortlund writes, “The gospel does not take our good and complete us with God’s help; the gospel tells us we are dead.” We are helpless until he makes us alive. There is no penetrating, lasting moral formation apart from the Cross. To believe otherwise is wishful and dishonest thinking.

Appropriating the work of Christ will not automatically take away our propensity to be mean-spirited. Some of the meanest people I have ever met are in the church. But when we yield ourselves and allow God to do his reconstructing work on a daily basis, we will become radically changed–even say kind words about the Padres.

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