Civility has left the building

We have broken faith with each other. Civility has left the building.

May 03, 2024

Spiritual Reflection - Fr Ron Rolheiser
Why do we no longer get along with each other? Why is there such bitter polarization inside of our countries, our neighborhoods, our churches, and even in our families? Why do we feel so unsafe in many of our conversations where we are perpetually on guard so as not to step on some political, social, or moral landmine?

We all have our own theories on why this is, and mostly we choose our news channels and friends to bolster our own views. Why? Why this bitter polarization and nastiness among us?

Well, let me suggest an answer from an ancient source, scripture. In the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament), the prophet Malachi offers us this insight on the origins of polarization, division, and hatred. Echoing the voice of God, he writes: “Therefore, I have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions. Have we not all the one Father? Has not the one God created us? Why do we break faith with one another?” 

Isn’t this particularly apropos for us today, given all the polarization and hatred in our houses of government, our churches, our communities, and our families, where for the most part we no longer respect each other and struggle even to be civil with each other? We have broken faith with each other. Civility has left the building.

Moreover, this afflicts both sides of the ideological, political, social, and ecclesial spectrums. Both sides have their particular ideological wings which are scornfully unsympathetic to those who don’t share their view, paranoid about hidden conspiracies, rigidly uncompromising, and disrespectful and belittling of anyone who does not share their perspective. And, for the most part, they preach, advocate, and practice hatred – believing that all this is done in service of God, truth, moral cause, enlightenment, freedom, or nationalism.

Someone once said, not everything can be fixed or cured, but it should be named properly. That’s the case here. We need to name this. We need to say out loud, this is wrong. We need to say out loud that none of this can be done in the name of love. And we need to say out loud that we may never rationalize hatred and disrespect in the name of God, the Bible, truth, moral cause, freedom, enlightenment, or anything else.

This needs to be named, irrespective of wherever we find ourselves amid all the divisive and hate-filled debates that dominate public discourse today. Each of us needs to examine himself or herself vis-a-vis our partiality, namely, how little we even want to understand the other side, how much disrespect we have for some people, how civility is often absent from our speech, and how much hatred has unconsciously crept into our lives.

After this, we need a second self-scrutiny. The word “sincere” comes from two Latin words (sine without and cere – wax). To be sincere is to be “without wax”, to be your real self, outside of others’ influence. But that’s not easy. How we picture ourselves, what we believe, and our view on most anything at a given moment is heavily colored by our personal history, our wounds, who we live with, what work we do, who our colleagues and friends are, the country we live in, and the political, social, and religious ideologies we inhale with the air we breathe. It’s not easy to know what we really think or feel about a given issue. Am I sincere or is my reaction predicated more on who my friends and colleagues are and where I get my news? At the core of my being, who am I really, without wax?

Given our struggle for sincerity, particularly in our present climate of division, disrespect, and hatred, we might ask ourselves, how much of what I am passionate about enough to generate hatred inside me, is really rooted in sincerity as opposed to ideology or my instinctual emotional or intellectual reaction toward something I dislike?

This is not easy to answer, understandably so. We are pathologically complex as human persons, and the quest for sincerity is the quest of a lifetime. However, while on that journey towards sincerity there are some non-negotiable human and spiritual rules. The biblical prophet Malachi names one of them: “Do not show partiality in your decisions and do not break faith with each other”. When we parse that out, what is it saying?

Among other things, this: You have a right to struggle, to disagree with others, to be passionate for truth, to be angry sometimes, and (yes) even to feel hateful occasionally (since hate is not the opposite of love, indifference is). But you may never preach hatred and division or advocate for them in the name of goodness; instead, in that place inside you where sincerity resides, you need to nurse a congenital distrust of anyone who does proactively advocate for hatred and division.

Civility has left the building.

(Oblate Fr Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He writes a weekly column that is carried in over 90 newspapers around the world. He can be contacted through his website

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