The Harpy

The Moral Case for Incivility

‘The call to be meek and passive feels like an insult. Even a turned cheek burns when it’s slapped.’


It’s always interesting to see when the question of civility arises in a profoundly uncivil country, and who raises it. As the federal government rushes to punish journalists and restaurateurs that rebuke their vicious policies, the leaders of the Democratic Party, in the true tradition of Neville Chamberlain, advocate for politesse, servility, and “unity,” as if large swathes of their base ought to placate those who seek to destroy them.

To those on the left, who are not adequately represented by the executive, legislative, or — increasingly — judicial branches of the government, the command in the nation’s op-ed pages and network broadcasts to seek “civility” feels like a command to surrender the only weapon they have left: outcry and confrontation. With the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, it has become abundantly clear that the fate of generations rests on this moment’s struggle. As more than 2,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents; as racial gerrymandering and a Muslim ban is enshrined by the Supreme Court; as the cyclone of corruption, deregulation, and racist rhetoric emerging from the Trump administration whirls faster and faster across our taxed consciousnesses, the call to be meek and passive feels only like an insult. Even a turned cheek burns when it’s slapped.

There is, of course, a peevish case to be made for incivility — the notion that a political wing whose watchword seems to be “triggering the libs” does not deserve the politeness it never affords its opponents. Beyond the questionable tactical value of continuing to give ground to those who never relinquish their own, there is a sense of reciprocity in the desire to ostracize and shame members of the administration. After all, they have caused suffering; should they not suffer, even in the smallest and most fleeting ways, a little themselves?

But there is another case to be made for incivility, one that goes deeper, and further back — millennia, in fact. I would like to submit as an example the prophet Jeremiah, author of the eponymous Book of Jeremiah, a prophet of the Old Testament. In the 52 chapters of his moral opus, which begins around 627 BCE, he lashes out at Jerusalem with such ferocity that the modern English word for a castigating speech is jeremiad. His prophetic mission overlapped with, then responded to, the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE; it was an empire, as he saw it, on the precipice of doom due to its moral failings. And in his anger, the absolute nature of his moral clarity, and its ultimate futility, there is an example for us, if we choose to see it.

Jeremiah is coarse, urgent, repetitive. When it comes to “the blood of innocents” — a favorite phrase of the prophet — he is uncompromising. At the top of his ragged voice, he condemns the rich who “are waxen fat” and fail to plead the cause of the fatherless. From them, he demands shame. He demands they cringe at their failure to protect those who need protection, at their cruelty, “as fowlers lie in wait; they set a trap, they catch men.” Those he verbally assails are doubly condemned for their lack of self-awareness and repentance. “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: Therefore they shall fall among them that fall.” Those who embrace cruelty — those who are cruel to those separated from their fathers — deserve the worst vagaries of fate.

For this — the lack of compassion, and humility — the punishment promised is to be total. There is no quarter given in the divine vision Jeremiah passes through his mouth to the men of Earth. The Earth will be bronze, the sky lead; “both the great and the small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried,” and no one will be left to mourn. To the men that surround him Jeremiah cries his warning, and the wages of not heeding it are suffering without surcease.

Jeremiah walks on the edge of society. He is commanded by God not to take a wife or bear children, for sons and daughters and the mothers who bore them are destined to die by the sword and be fodder for beasts. With the precision of a surgeon he severs his life from adherence to what is expected. He walks on the edge of himself and finds God there.

What does it feel like when God speaks to a man? Is it like the thrilling curl of a drug through a vein, a blood-pain rushing down to the tip of each limb? Jeremiah says, “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones”; he is impelled to speak each searing word.

Jeremiah is not impressed with the pomp of civil authority or its riches. From the first chapter onward, his most frequent metaphor for Israel is that of a sexually transgressive woman: an adulteress, a shepherdess with many suitors, and, again and again, a whore. The prophet likens idolatry to promiscuity — a lust so profound as to be inhuman. “A wild ass used to the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind in her desire; her lust, who can hinder it?” he asks, of his own people. In the age of a golden temple with priests fattened on sacrificial meats, in an age of thriving pilgrimage, the form divine inspiration takes in him is the clear and piercing sight of condemnation. All the lavish accoutrements of Jerusalem have no more dignity than a donkey in heat, snorting unheeded in the wild desert.

Jeremiah, a powerless man, confronts the agent of the state. In Jeremiah 19, he is instructed by God to take an earthen vessel, and approach “the elders of the people” and “the elders of the priests,” and shatter it in front of them, declaring it a symbol of the fate of Israel. He does not waver. He does not consider their standing, nor their material worth, nor debate civility or submissiveness. He smashes the pot and speaks his prophesy.

For his act of daring, Jeremiah is punished by the state: He is placed in the stocks, in full view of passersby. He cries out: “I am become a laughing-stock all the day, everyone mocketh me.” He laments his own life, wishing that his mother’s womb had been his grave. Nonetheless, he speaks, and speaks, knowing that his words could hold the unimaginable destruction of his home at bay. His command is simple, even after his suffering:

“Execute ye justice and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”

It would be easy to mistake Jeremiah’s uncompromising stance, his tongue-lashing, with hatred for Israel and its people. After all, he predicts their deaths unceasingly; after all, he looks into their souls and sees profound injustice. After all, he does not respect the agents that fashion the kingdom’s edicts. But this is not so. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the kingdom’s harshest critic becomes its chief mourner.

When Jerusalem was destroyed — the destruction of the Temple and its golden host — Jeremiah issued a second book. It’s called Lamentations, and it is five sparse chapters of terrible grace and grief. Jews recite it once a year on a day of fasting for past tragedy; into this little book, we imbue all our losses, every atrocity inflicted on us. The text — fierce and loving, a howl in biblical parallelisms — spares nothing in its mourning, just as Jeremiah spared nothing in his futile desire to keep horrors at bay. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet takes on the voice of a scorned God; in Lamentations, he assumes the voice of Jerusalem, a woman in mourning: “I called for my lovers, but they deceived me; my priests and mine elders perished in the city,” he cries out. The burning of prophesy becomes the burning of grief. “Mine eyes do fail with tears, mine inwards burn,” says Jeremiah. The piercing nature of his sorrow stems from love — the same love that animated his rage.

Love can be fierce. Love can be critical. Love for country in a time of moral turmoil must be fierce and critical.

This is a time to smash the vessel of vanity, to heed the moral urge of the soul, and to speak, knowing it will be met with retribution. To despair when it is called for, then raise oneself and speak again.

There is no punishment from the state that should deter us from condemning injustice, no matter how freely the federal authorities use their platforms to crush dissent.

There is no value to meekness or servility, no moral purpose served by figures like Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi denouncing their more outspoken colleagues. The most moral figure in the Bible is its least civil. Jeremiah never considers electoral strategy, or even the popularity of his cause. He speaks what he knows to be just.

Truth and justice don’t care about what polls highest, don’t care about popularity, don’t care for decorum, don’t get measured by Quinnipiac.

What does it feel like when God speaks to a man, when the urge toward morality triumphs over social convention, over politesse? For Jeremiah, it meant walking a burning, lonely walk. For those who care to see clearly where we are standing now, at the precipice of the abyss, perhaps there can be fellowship in knowing our cause: The cause of the stranger, the widow, the fatherless, is our own.