Towards An Ethic of Decency

“Film director Scott Derrickson noted recently that things such as racism and misogyny are in our American DNA. It’s worse than that. It’s in our human DNA. That’s not pessimism. That’s good theology…Untaught, unrestrained, unaddressed, and well fed it will grow into a cancer that will consume us. What is needed is a community of ordinary men and women embracing a contrary ethic, an ethic of decency…” Randy Greenwald, Somber and Dull

The other night, I went for an evening walk in my neighborhood.

For context, I’ll tell you that the first week I lived here, someone was murdered less than a block from my apartment. One night, also in that first week, shots were fired kitty-corner from the Casey’s that sits next door. In other words, my neighborhood isn’t considered the best area of town.

Still, having lived in an even sketchier neighborhood in Minneapolis (where my friend Kathe often worried that I might be the anonymous victim discussed on that morning’s news), I wasn’t particularly concerned for my personal safety. However, in the year I’ve lived here, I’ve spent very little time actually out and about experiencing my neighborhood. Which makes me sad, since I believe that neighborhoods are important building blocks of community, no matter where we live.

Which brings me back to my evening walk the other night. It was still early, only about 6:30 p.m., but in late October that means dusk is quickly giving way to full dark. As I stepped outside my apartment and started walking down the street, I noted activity – children playing in front yards, adults in cars pulling into driveways, finally home from the day’s work. Every dog in the area seemed to be outside and barking. It all felt a bit alien to me – like I was just a visitor passing through, someone who didn’t quite belong here. After all, I didn’t know who any of these people were. Like an involuntary reflex, I felt myself hunching up, alert to any sign of possible danger.

Not quite a full block into my walk, I glanced up to see a man sitting with a small child on the steps of their porch. I said hello, and the man responded, “Nice evening, isn’t it?” And then, as I continued past, he said, “Excuse me. Don’t you work at the university?”

I stopped, and we chatted briefly – exchanged names, brief bios related to our mutual connection to the school where I once worked. As I continued on my walk, I chuckled to myself: I had been recognized. And just like that, the internal narrative that I had been spinning in my head (that I didn’t belong and, therefore, might not be safe on these streets) came to an abrupt halt. I continued, less inclined to see signs of the sinister everywhere I looked – in spite of the gruesome Halloween decorations in many yards (and the scent of marijuana smoke wafting out of an open window).

Later, as I thought about my walk, and how quickly my experience flipped from the alienation of stranger to the groundedness of belonging, I couldn’t help but see it as a metaphor for much of what has been troubling me throughout the past two years of political wrangling in America. We have focused so much on The Other – and the ways that other poses a threat to us, somehow – that we’ve forgotten to put our focus where it truly belongs: on the ways our choices make US the other. I’ve spent very little time thinking about the ways MY behaviors create division, reveal an uncharitable heart, even pose a perceived threat to my neighbors.

I can’t help thinking about the immediate assumption I made, as I walked out into my neighborhood, that if anyone was at risk that night it was I. The fear I felt led to a readiness to catalog my neighbors as physically dangerous to me. As I write this, I compare my experience with the photo I can’t get out of my head of a man at a political rally, wearing a t-shirt calling Hillary Clinton a nasty four-letter word beginning with “C”. (I’m not claiming that Clinton supporters haven’t said bad things about Trump, though I’m hard-pressed to come up with an equally nasty word that could be lobbed at a male candidate.) Clearly, the man in that photo thinks of Clinton as OTHER. Clearly, that allows him to respond to her in a particularly dehumanizing way. Sure, his language choice is one I would never make – but is his visceral response to “the other” all that different from mine? Fear? Anger? Blame? Yep, all there in me, and I would guess in him.

Over on his blog, Somber and Dull, pastor Randy Greenwald has been musing on decency. The quote, above, speaks very directly to what I’ve been thinking about. (I hope Randy will forgive my edit; the emphasis in bold/italics is mine). My theology and Randy’s might differ somewhat; whether in our DNA or in our cultural conditioning, the fact that we each carry a shadow within us is undeniable. That shadow can take many forms, misogyny and racism being two of particular note recently.

We are called by our humanity, and/or by our faith in a loving Creator, to see and address that shadow, to combat its negative expression and impact on our world. I can’t help but echo Randy’s call for an ethic of decency. But the ordinary woman I am calling to this ethic is me. I have to confront my own tendency to cast my fellow humans, citizens, neighbors as “other”. I have to confront my urge to be judgmental, to demonize, to dehumanize – even as I speak against behaviors or political realities that I find troubling. I must remember the community I hope to create, even as I walk down unfamiliar streets, or find myself in emotional spaces of fear or anger. Embracing an ethic of decency, it turns out, is often difficult in the face of today’s world. But I believe it is worth striving to do.

As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.   — Caroline Kennedy


(If you are looking for a decent blog to follow, written by a truly decent man, please check out Somber and Dull by Randy Greenwald, link above. Randy is neither somber nor dull, the blog’s title is a joking homage to one of his favorite books!)


3 thoughts on “Towards An Ethic of Decency

  1. It is good to know your neighbors. I walked my dog in the dark last evening – something I rarely do – out of fear of being a woman in the city out in the dark – it felt good.

  2. Well, now, I guess this makes me famous. 🙂

    Yes, our theology may differ ‘somewhat’ (!) but, the sense that the one who needs to change is me is a sensitivity we both share. And I’m glad for that.

    Thanks for the kind words.

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