It was two a.m. when I was awakened by a loud conversation taking place in the next campsite at a state campground in southern Vermont. After fifteen minutes of being forced to listen to my neighbors argue about various issues in their relationship, I decided to pay them a visit and ask them (politely, I thought) to tone it down.
They received my request as a threat, and warned me not to come any closer. I skulked back to my tent, and spent the next hour or so listening — much louder now, to them complaining, not about their relationship, but about the “asshole” next door.
I stewed in silence.
Years later, attending a baseball game at the old Yankee Stadium, a group of fans — all women and all drunk, were holding what seemed to be a competition as to who could be more rude and crude. My Vermont experience had taught me about the risks of confronting hostile neighbors — especially if they are lubricated with alcohol, so I kept my mouth shut. A guy in my row presumably had a different frame of reference, and he turned around to ask the women if they could tone it down.
It was all they needed. Their rudeness and crudeness now had a focus. For the remainder of the game they verbally skewered the stunned man (and may have even dumped beer on him). Calling security was a non-starter, because they were overwhelmed with breaking up the dozens of physical fights among drunken men that cropped up throughout our section of the stadium.
Challenging bad behavior can be a deflating or humiliating experience. Offenders take offense. Sometimes, as we were horrified to learn last week, the challenge can be fatal. In a neighborhood north of Houston, in the early morning hours, a man took extreme umbrage when asked by his next door neighbor to stop shooting target practice in his yard so his baby could sleep. No way, he was told. My property, my rights — not my problem.
As the deflated and humiliated man returned home, he was followed by his now infuriated neighbor who proceeded to shoot and kill five people in his household.
How can this happen? we wonder. Has civility totally broken down? It is one thing to be verbally vilified; it is another level of societal degradation when making a legitimate request of someone becomes a trigger to commit murder.
In response, we lament. We mourn. We express outrage. And we debate about what needs to be done to prevent such egregious acts from happening again. Reform gun laws; beef up mental health resources; provide various protections; lift up the level of civility. All of which needs to be engaged — comprehensively, clearly and completely.
And something else. Years ago, I took a church youth group on a white water rafting trip on the Lehigh River in eastern Pennsylvania. To get to the river, we had to take a forty five minute bus ride. Our group of fifteen sat near the rear of the bus ride. At the very back were six guys in their early twenties who were out to have a good time. They were drinking before they got on the bus, and continued to finish off the remaining beer on the bus — throwing their empty cans out the window. When the beer ran out, they began ogling our teenage girls. I thought about saying something, but realized that if I did I might be thrown out the back door. And would just make the situation worse.
So I stewed. For a half hour. In the course of my internal burning, a phrase came to me: “love one another as I have loved you “(John 15:12). Yeah, right, I said to myself. A beautiful concept, an important theological construct. But it doesn’t apply here. The phrase hit me again. Love one another as I have loved you. Yes, I thought, but not these guys. So I stewed some more.
At the time, I thought of love as a process of transforming oneself into an emotional doormat. Embrace the other, regardless of who they are or what they do. Allow yourself to be walked on. I have since learned that a key ingredient of love is holding people accountable. Confronting bad behavior can be a loving act. How to do that, when to do that, is an ongoing challenge. And requires immediate — and ongoing, discernment. Loving is hard work.
What I have also learned is what love is not. Love doesn’t allow dismissing or demeaning — or destroying someone else. Even when — no, especially when, we want to.
Loving is hard work. it is a discipline of offering hope in the face of so much harm. Love is the energy — which we all have, that can hold us together, especially when everything seems to be falling apart.
Let’s use it.