A few months ago, at the request of a friend, I joined one of those neighborhood listservs — you know the type, the kind of place where people post everything from a request for the name of a good nanny to commentary on a proposed housing development to spare furniture that they are hoping to sell to a neighbor. The most interesting thing posted to date has been a request to borrow a pet pig for an advertising shoot. (This from a man named Kevin Bacon. Seriously.)
This week, however, things went in a strange direction when someone asked, “Am I actually hearing assault rifles at the firing range this morning??? Why???” The responses ranged between factual information to a debate on the Second Amendment, with a man objecting that the question was even asked, and then a whole bunch of people bashing “liberal bullshit.” Finally, someone demanded that the discussion be terminated, because the poster did not want this listserv to become a hostile environment. By which they apparently meant, they did not want it to become a place in which real-world issues could be discussed.
The thing is, this week saw a spate of mass shootings, in which large numbers of Americans were killed or injured while going about their daily lives. So there were good reasons that a person might be alarmed by the sound of rapid rifle fire. A lot of us are on edge. People are weeping when they drop off their children at school in the mornings; after all, we are a short distance from the site of the deadliest school shooting in American history.
I was struck by what wasn’t said in the discussion: that courtesy plays a necessary role in the maintenance of a community. That our legal rights ought be to lived out within the constraints of our moral obligations, which might possibly include having the tact not to terrify our neighbors at a particularly fraught time. Jesus, after all, commanded us to love our neighbor, and love requires self-restraint. We do not hit the person we love when we are angry. We do not insist on our own way, when that insistence will harm the person we love. We have enough trust to ask when something puzzling arises, rather than rushing to condemn.
We in this nation are blessed to have expansive legal rights, but we need to recognize that those rights constitute the foundation of our society, not its ideal. Our rights seek to strike a balance between personal freedom and the most fundamental needs of our society. But a flourishing society requires more than an endless assertion of self: it requires courtesy, respect, and self-restraint — which is to say, it requires us to make space for people who are genuinely different than ourselves. Sometimes, humility is the truest face of love.