When I was a child and amazed by something, I often gaped. Adults would say, “Close your mouth, you might catch a fly.”
I have lived through many fly-catching moments when I was dumbstruck and could only stare. My brain couldn’t quite catch up with what I was seeing and hearing. Our nation has had many such moments: the assassination of presidents, black smoke rising from the USS Arizona, the Challenger explosion and 9/11.
They were moments when we could only stand in shock. Reality stopped, our brains froze and the world seemed to shift to a different reality, both dangerous and sad. And, yes, sometimes we even saw the face of evil. Evil divides. Evil destroys. Evil kills. Evil hates.
Jan. 6, 2020, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol by an angry, vengeful mob was another fly-catching moment. Many of us stared at our computer, phone and TV screens with our mouths open.
As Bishop David Ricken said in his Jan. 10 homily, “It is sad that our country has become so divided, so rancorous, that such violence could happen right here in our nation’s capital.”
The bishop said, “Violence is never a solution to any problem. It usually only births more violence and deeper problems. … Sometimes words themselves can directly or indirectly kill.”
This is where we come in. We are part of what happened Jan. 6. Certainly not all of us were violent or condoned it. However, we have stood around with our mouths hanging open — and not in silence. We have gossiped, denounced, torn down and even spread what we knew — or suspected — was untrue.
Words can indeed kill. That’s why one of the commandments is: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Bishop Ricken cited a quote often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French diplomat and philosopher. The words, while not de Touqueville’s, have been cited as his by many presidents: “America is great because she is good. She will cease to be great when she ceases to be good.”
While many have said this well summarizes de Toqueville’s “Democracy in America,” considered one of the most influential books of the 19th century, let’s look at a verified quote from that book: “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”
As private citizens, we must not “cease to be good.” We must support the democratic principles of the republic we started over 240 years ago. As Benjamin Franklin is cited as saying, our form of government will last, “if we can keep it.”
If we want to keep our country strong, we must close our mouths — both from gaping and from violent words — and we must open our hearts and our brains instead. There has always been “fake news.” Roman ruins are covered with graffiti. And there isn’t one true journalist who doesn’t know about “yellow journalism,” a practice at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Its purpose was not truth, it was sensational; it was to sell papers. And it was also, more darkly, to stir up prejudice and hatred. Yellow journalism may have led to the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Today, we have social media — some of which seeks to be truthful and even beneficial. Still others are largely entertainment, loosely, if at all, based on facts. Finally, some have dark motives that others take as truth.
We don’t want to catch flies and swallow them like a fish on a lure. So we need to close our mouths and open our brains and our hearts, seeking the truth at all times. We are smart enough to know, or find out, which news is truth and which is sensationalism. Yes, all media reports jaw-dropping events. That’s their job and it’s why the U.S. Constitution lists “freedom of the press” as one of the basic freedoms.
But we all know that freedom is not free. We must protect it. That means doing something that might seem hard now — prayer, peaceful protest, admitting wrong, calling out what is dangerous. But whatever we do must never be violent or hate-filled. It must always be done from the right motive and that motive, if we are the Christians we say we are, must start in truth and love.