Looking back over nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry in Baptist churches, there are many reasons to be thankful. One of the confusing things, however, is that there are a few people who have been -and as far as I know still are – angry with me or have decided they don’t like me, for no obvious reason. I’m sure I am over-sensitive about this, as it has happened rarely, and the occasional irrational hostility is probably inevitable for anyone in a prominent or public position. It is important not to give such unpleasantness more weight than it deserves.
My experience is minor compared to the abuse received by some others. But why does unexpected, and apparently unreasonable animosity, even hatred, arise? Is the need to have enemies an integral part of human nature? In the past, such prejudice between nations or ethnic groups sometimes resulted in war. There is no reason why this may not still happen, but there is a different, and more pervasive spirit in evidence today. Abuse and threats are made against individuals in many areas of life, particularly those involved in public service such as politicians, social workers and sporting referees. It causes significant personal distress and is a serious disincentive to people taking up such positions, undermining the whole concept of public service.
People in positions of authority will inevitably be unpopular sometimes, and the decisions they make are bound to be resented at times. The divide between those perceived as having power and others who see themselves as victims has always existed. It is also important that powerful people are accountable for what they do, especially those in public office. But the level of distrust and depth of hostility evident today is symptomatic of a destructive trend which is in danger of pulling society apart. We see and hear it in political debate, which is more about ridiculing or abusing opponents than reasoned argument, in newspaper headlines and media interviews, in ordinary conversations when anything of public or political interest is touched on, and constantly in social media. Occasionally this anger expresses itself in acts of violence. The election of Donald Trump in America and the decision to reject the European Union were driven, at least in part, by it. A widespread disaffection searches for someone to blame.
The social media has undoubtedly reinforced this trend, increasing divisions in society by making it easier for us to find others who agree with us, and distracting us from serious political engagement. The process of globalization has also played its part, creating a sense of powerlessness in the face of forces beyond the control of any one country. Both of these powerful forces shaping our world also have huge benefits, and neither of them are going to go away, so simply blaming them for what is going on is not a sensible answer.
Anyone concerned about the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit has a responsibility to consider how to nurture a greater spirit of respect, trust and co-operation in this kind of environment. There are many small ways in which this can be done. Showing appreciation for good done, for example, refusing to participate in destructive gossip, speaking out in defense of people unfairly attacked or taking steps to learn about people who are not like us. There are many ways of contributing to good community relations through local groups.
Those who find themselves victims of personal abuse need resilience not to be intimidated and to seek support. Organizations, including churches, need to develop a culture of intolerance for rudeness and abuse. And we probably all need to bear in mind that when anger spills over into destructive words and actions, the root cause is most likely to be found in the kind of world in which we live, rather than with the individuals directly involved. The task of opposing acrimony and unpleasantness is one we all share.