Like many Americans, the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona last January gave me pause – pause enough that I lost my taste for blogging for more than four months. But my distaste had less to do with the speculation over the alleged motives of the shooter and more to do with my own reaction to the news.

On that Saturday afternoon, I was sitting at the kitchen table working on a sermon, and my wife entered the room to tell me that a U.S Representative had been shot at a political rally. My exact words were this: “Well, I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later. I blame Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.” And then I turned back to my laptop and resumed my work.

About twenty minutes later, I decided to take a break from the sermon, and I logged onto Facebook. I had actually forgotten about the news from Arizona that should have been downright shocking, but I was soon reminded by the animated chatter scrolling by on my news feed. Almost immediately, I engaged in a heated debate with a conservative friend about whether the shooting could be blamed on the heated rhetoric that had been boiling over from the right since the health care debate started.

We argued passionately for over an hour, and I felt my anger level and my blood pressure increase with each furious reply. Only later that evening, as I turned on CNN and watched the horrific videos and interviews coming out of Tuscon did my guilt hit me right in the face. The pain on the TV screen was not partisan. The people in shock and mourning did not care whether the shooter was a Democrat or a Republican, or whether he had been pushed over the edge by this pundit’s rhetoric or that politician’s policy.  

They just knew, and suddenly I realized, that we have arrived at a very dangerous place in our national discourse, and that pointing fingers of angry blame – even when correctly pointed – is not the solution. Only humility and sincere efforts at peace-making are going to bring us back from our destructive two-sided war on reason and civility. Sometimes, being right isn’t what is important. It’s speaking and behaving in the right way. As I reflected on my visceral and hateful reaction to the tragedy, I realized that I need to start thinking and writing a little differently.

I pulled out my laptop again, and started a new sermon from scratch. Using a passage from James about the dangers of careless speech, I made a plea for people on all sides of the political spectrum to stop listening to pundits who preach divisiveness and bait our prejudices; to stop voting for politicians who spend more time attacking their opponents than proposing constructive solutions; and to avoid all kinds of political discourse that seeks to destroy and demean rather than foster unity and respectful disagreement.

After that sermon, one of the more conservative members of my church – who happens to be the be the administrative secretary for a Republican politician – told me that the sermon had touched her deeply and had spoken to many of the alarming trends she has noticed in her work. I also heard the same comment from one of the most liberal members of the church.

Two people who agree on none of the “hot button” issues of the day agree strongly on the great need for civil discourse and respectful disagreement. And that’s just one of many areas in which these two sides – which are needlessly at war – can find some common ground. It’s the only way our nation will ever tackle the huge problems that we face.

So going forward, my writing will take a different tone and a different focus than it has in the past. I still hold my progressive values near and dear to my heart, but I am seeking better and more fruitful ways to express them – and in the process, I am finding that those “damn conservatives” that I have hated for so long aren’t quite as evil as I have believed them to be. I still disagree with them, but I am seeking a different sort of conversation with them. I encourage us all to do the same.