Clergy unite on message: Thou Shalt Be Civil
Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service
December 17, 2009

Clergy unite on message: Thou Shalt Be Civil

Clergy unite on message: Thou Shalt Be Civil
Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service
December 17, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — It’s gotten ugly out there in the public

square — on television, at public meetings, on the Internet.

Whether it’s health care reform specifically, or politics

generally, people seem to demonize each other, shout each other down and

gleefully circulate vicious e-mail messages distorting the other side.

So much so that Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy here

recently found common ground about one, clear thing. They’ve decided to give their

congregations a message: Get ahold of yourself!

“The whole atmosphere has been getting just nasty,” said

Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer. “We’re not going to change the

world, but we’ve decided we need to raise people’s awareness — that this is

just not right. It’s wrong.”

A standing group of about two dozen New Orleans-area clergy

recently drafted and began circulating a “Faith Statement on Public Discourse.”

It urges members of their congregations and the public to show basic respect to

those with whom they disagree.

Some of the two dozen or so priests, ministers, rabbis and

an imam have agreed to raise the admonition from their pulpits — and some, like

Loewy, already have.

At his congregation’s Yom Kippur service earlier this fall,

he pronounced himself “disgusted” with the “obnoxiously partisan” tone of the

national debate around health care reform.

Some clergy have handed it over to their church

communication networks, and the civility statement has begun circulating among regional

Episcopal and United Church of Christ clergy. Copies are going to local, state

and federal politicians urging them, too, to keep a civil tongue.

The statement is founded on the shared Christian, Jewish and

Islamic premise that “since we regard all human beings as God’s children … we

regard an offense against our neighbor as an offense to God.”

“Violence begets violence,” the statement says, “in speech

and in action.”

It calls on people to display respect for those with whom

they disagree; to debate issues, not demonize opponents; to stop misrepresenting

opponents’ views; and to stop circulating e-mail messages that “demonize or

humiliate persons or groups.”

The initiative comes from an interfaith group that was born

last year in response to hateful intolerance, when somebody burned “KKK” into the

lawn of a black couple in a predominantly white neighborhood in suburban


A little more than a year later, the group has taken stock

of the general level of anger in the public arena.

The new effort was triggered when a relatively new member,

Ginger Taylor, interim pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, came to

a clergy meeting, having attended a raucous town hall meeting on health care

reform sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

“To say they were a bunch of wing nuts would be absolutely inaccurate.

They’re the people who go to church, who mow each others’ lawns when they’re

sick, who bring a pot of soup over,” Taylor said.

But that evening, she said, they were shouting at each other

and so distorting each others’ ideas the event amounted to “bumper sticker discourse.”

Soon after, Omar Suleiman, the imam of a Metairie mosque,

Masjid Abu Bakr al Siddiq, told fellow clergy that local Muslims changed venues

for a public celebration when they learned that a gun show also was booked into

the facility at the same time.

Coming on the heels of the massacre at Fort Hood — allegedly

at the hands of a Muslim gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan — Suleiman said his community

has become wary of public reaction, especially the women.

“We’re all on edge. We know when something like this

happens, there’s usually some kind of backlash,” Suleiman said.

In that kind of climate, spectators’ passiveness can be seen

as implicit consent, so some clergy said the civility resolution was all the

more necessary.

“Silence allows more and more incivility to develop. It

allows people to develop a culture of incivility, and as clergy people we should

make some kind of statement,” said Episcopal Deacon Priscilla Maumus, who

drafted the one-page document.

“What we’re hoping is it’ll get conversations started. “Not

about what your opinion is, or what mine is, but that we both have an opinion, and

if we disagree we’ll be civil. Not because we’re polite, but because as people

of faith, we’re called on to do that.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New