Guest column: Make room on the perch

Guest Column by The Rev. Joanna M. Adams

In our backyard is a bird feeder that can be seen through the window from our kitchen table.

Lately, I have been learning to identify the various kinds of birds that drop by for a snack. How different they are in size, color, shape of beak; yet, they have in common one dramatically apparent feature: They want seeds in the feeder all to themselves.

There is a lot of fussing and fidgeting, as the birds try to get their own feet wrapped around one of the perches. Sometimes, there will be more than a half-dozen fine-feathered beauties out there, plotting, pushing, swooping and executing stealth attacks. At our feeder, it’s every bird for himself.

We might say the same thing about American society these days.

In his book Civility: Mannerisms, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen Carter observes that the principle by which many people live today is “every American for himself.” The consequences of this way of thinking and acting are obvious everywhere: People act rudely and with disdain toward those who do not share this point of view. Witness the vitriolic nature of political rhetoric in recent months.

Generosity in the form of charitable giving is in decline across the board. If all one cares about is one’s own needs and those of one’s family, why would anyone be motivated to address the needs of others? It’s every American for himself.

“Get out of my way.”

“That’s my parking place”

“She is an idiot.”

“It’s my cellphone, and I’ll talk on it when I want to.”

Expressions like these have become the language of common, everyday parlance. Surely, we can do better. Surely, the toxic spirit of incivility that seems to have seeped into virtually every aspect of our life together can be replaced with a renewed spirit of civility.

It will take time, but it can be done! One of the key ways is by embracing the best of our religious traditions. No one can deny that religion has sometimes contributed to societal polarization. Sometimes, followers of a religion manifest self-righteousness and show disrespect toward those whom they consider to be outside the circle of God’s concern.

As far as the Christian religion is concerned, whenever that has occurred, it has been a perversion of the true nature of Christianity. A movement that grew out of the great Hebrew tradition with its core concern for the welfare of others, Christianity is centered around the life and teachings of Jesus, whose personal grace toward all he encountered continues to inspire and point the way to higher ground.

Perhaps the most compelling story Jesus ever told was about a man who had been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Several people walked right by him, paying no attention, but then along came a man from Samaria, himself a stranger in the area.

He asked no questions about why the man was in the ditch.

He just cleaned him up, bandaged his wounds and carried him to an inn where he paid for his lodging and promised to come back with more funds if they were needed. To the ones who originally heard the story, Jesus said, “Now you go and do likewise.”

This is civility taken to the highest level.

In our day, what shall we do? How about a recommitment to the Golden Rule — to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated? What might happen if each of us made the conscious choice to act in love toward our neighbors, to bicker and criticize less, to make room on the perch, so to speak, for somebody else?

I believe that if you and I made these commitments, gradually but surely civility would be reborn amongst us.

The late Czech President Vaclav Havel once wrote: “There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility and tolerance. And that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly and tolerantly.”

Mohandas Gandhi put it more succinctly: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Formed in 2010, Higher Ground was born of a unique relationship among four long-time Atlanta faith leaders, Imam Plemon El-Amin, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, the Rev. Joanna Adams and the Rev. Joseph Roberts. Though they come from different faith backgrounds, the founders of Higher Ground share common experiences and legacies built as the leading voices for their congregations and for positive change in their communities. Now together, Higher Ground’s leaders speak with a distinctive, collective voice, helping to raise awareness and to inspire action on key issues affecting the greater Atlanta community to effect positive change.