Recently I was captivated by an opinion editorial in USA Today titled “I’ve played a role in toxic public debate” by CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers. I am not familiar with the author and have not watched her on television. Powers took a leave from social media to reflect on her role in the “increasingly toxic public square.”
Her subsequent assessment: “I cringed at many of the things I had written and said. Many I would not say or write today, sometimes because my view has changed on the issue and sometimes just because I was too much of a crusader, too judgmental and condemning. … I will continue to stand on the side of equality and justice, but also mercy and grace. My goal is to speak in a way that remembers the humanity of everyone involved.”
Our society is not shy about expressing our opinions, and people resort to the many channels of social media to give their viewpoints the loudest amplification.
We opine quickly before we see all the angles, nuances of context and underlying complexity. We gloat in acerbic mockery and derive a certain satisfaction in the public humiliation of offenders. We forget that we are dealing with human beings and not surprisingly fail miserably in our ability to substantially address any serious issue, be it global warming, immigration, health care, gun safety, etc.
Among the many blueprints for our Lenten observances, Powers’ conversion is definitely on the mark. She withdrew from a practice that she sensed to be polarizing and divisive.
Powers had the humility to acknowledge how her lifelong professional, creative and heartfelt work may have been an obstacle. By so doing, her priority pivoted toward “the other” as she recognized the importance of grace and mercy: ultimately the grammar for constructive discourse.
Powers set the tone for Lent by seeking to recover in her writing “the humanity of everyone involved.” Taking the cue from her, our goal for prayer, fasting and almsgiving can reorient us toward a way of thinking, communicating and acting that restores the barren and scorched civil commons for thoughtful and caring dialogue.
In our prayer, we ask God to help us hear him, recall his image particularly in the people we dismiss or denigrate, and heed his call for mercy. Understanding our own limits, we pray for his help to imitate his tenderness, and mind his warning to leave the judging to him. We seek his imagination to address the fears and insecurities that harden us and pit us against each other.
Fasting invites us to look at our appetites and our dependence on anything other than God. Most of the things we go overboard on, like food and comfort, have some positive value that then lures us beyond healthy portions. When we look only to ourselves as the source of wisdom and the arbitrator of what is acceptable or unacceptable to God, we have gone too far. We can fast from an indulgence in our own righteousness and unchecked appetite for winning.
Almsgiving turns us to the needs of others. There is so much we can give: attention, genuine listening, understanding their positions and the fears that padlock these, legitimacy of their needs, and the dreams we hold in common.
Lent is the season for heart work: a time for transformation from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. It is an invitation to cultivate our humanity toward each other so that we do not make a mockery of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for all of us.
Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.
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