Ethics & Christian living

Lent: giving up ‘malicious talk and the pointing finger’

I see Lent as an opportunity to realign ourselves.  A time to re-commit to an integrity between who we are on the outside and who we are on the inside.  To seek a wholeness between the person that we present for the world to see, and the person we are when no one sees. 

Whilst booze and chocolate might be classic ‘things to give up’, I was challenged a few years ago by Anna Whittaker’s guest post about giving up negativity

It’s a valuable provocation. It doesn’t mean trading thoughtfulness or honesty in exchange for bland niceness. It is important that we say what we mean.

But it does challenge our tendencies to slide into moaning, snide comments or secret delight in other people’s struggles. Also the way we can view those who we disagree with in the worst possible light, giving into tribalism and dismissing others unfairly.  These forms of negativity flourish online.

The impact of negativity

These forms of negativity are toxic. They drain energy and spread cynicism about whether positive change is possible. It produces echo-chambers of those whose negative views reinforce each other.

Negativity can be contagious. Just as children in a school playground gather around a fight, adults are also drawn to rows and disputes. Perversely, negativity and conflict among others fascinates and excites us.

Negativity tends to blames others.  It tends to point the finger at others and simplifies complex issues to someone who can be blamed – often on a particular leader or group of people.

Negativity labels others.  It uses short-hand terms which de-humanise those we disagree with. Debates turn into ad hominem attacks, using labels such as ‘liberal’, ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘bigot’ which fan the flames of conflict.

Negativity is popular. Newspapers are full of negativity because humans are drawn to it. Blog posts with negative titles are more popular than positive ones.

Negativity plagues the Church. Whether on a local or national level, it is so easy to focus on what the Church gets wrong.

Negativity has been supercharged by social media. Stephen Fry said:

‘Let us grieve as to what Twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know.’

Building hope

There are plenty of problems in the world that we need to be concerned about and to be committed to changing. And I know that peace-making and working for justice often involves speaking uncomfortable truth into situations.

But we always have a choice in any encounter: are we seeking to build bridges of understanding or fan the flames of conflict? Does our contribution help produce heat or light?

Isaiah 58 speaks both about the negative tendencies we should give up as well as the positive actions we should take:

‘If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourself on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light shall shine in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.’

And staying with the theme of light, Martin Luther King’s words are directly relevant to the compound effect of negativity and hatred:

‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’

A Lent commitment

So this Lent, I want again to train myself to be more constructive and be a more hopeful presence – at home, at work, in my church and my community and online.

So specifically this is the commitment I want to make for the next 47 days:

  1. When faced with disagreement to think the best of the person who thinks differently
  2. To accept the validity of other people’s perspective and not to belittle or caricature them
  3. To not speak negatively of people I know if I have not spoken to them first
  4. To not fan the flames of disputes and seek mutual understanding
  5. To recognise when I fail to do the above and to apologise

Who wants to join me?

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