As you are aware, several State governments decided last week to reopen non-essential businesses, at least on a limited basis. Leading up to the reopening of those businesses, there was speculation about the effects of doing so. One potential effect received little attention in the news until it became a noticeable issue: the reopening of non-essential businesses has occasioned some very poor behavior on the part of consumers.
There were several news stories this past week about violent and anti-social behavior in restaurants and retail businesses. In one city, the patrons of an ice cream shop were so verbally abusive to shop employees that one teen-aged employee resigned from her position. In another city, a fast food restaurant customer shot at employees while they flipped burgers. In a third city, a security guard at a department store was killed by an irate customer who had been instructed to put a face mask on her daughter.
The irrationality of these violent acts prompted one of the business owners to surmise that the six weeks of stay-at-home orders had caused people to forget how to behave in public. This would make an excellent topic for sociological research, but I think that the premise is incorrect. I think it’s unlikely that a relatively short period of reduced social interaction would lead to such appalling violence.
Today’s second reading says, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope but do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Pt. 3:15-16) The author was instructing newly baptized people about the standard of behavior that is expected of Jesus’ disciples. Firstly, the author says that the baptized should live in a way that manifests Christian hope. Secondly, he says that Christians should live this counter-cultural lifestyle “with gentleness and reverence.”
To live a life that displays hope requires more than merely making a claim to be hopeful. As with anything in life, it’s easy to make claims about hope. The daily news reports are filled with fraudulent claims of miracle cures for the Covid19 infection; the insistence of the claim does not equate to validity. Claiming that one has hope is not necessarily the same as behaving as if one is motivated by hope. The author of the First Letter of Peter says that the baptized are obliged to live in ways that are motivated by the presence of real hope in their hearts.
One of the perceptible consequences of real and lasting hope is that it motivates one to treat others decently. Decent behavior in public is by no means the only evidence of faithful religion but it is one of the required results of faith. Rather than being instinctual, decent public behavior is an acquired skill; for the baptized, it is also a required skill. Learning to behave decently in public is not impossible in the absence of overt Christian hope, but it is quite uncommon; the senseless violence I mentioned above is sufficient proof of the difficulty of learning to be a decent human being. Violent acts like making threats about ice cream and attacking strangers over safety precautions are not the result of forgetting how to behave in public; rather, they are the result of never having learned decent public behavior.
Decency, gentleness, reverence, and the like must be learned; these virtues are most easily but not exclusively learned through living in Christian hope. To that end, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about the hope that all the baptized are obliged to practice.
What kind of memories do you want when the social disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic come to an end?
Do you want to remember the privations and difficulties you faced and find gratification in having obtained all the consumer products and services you wanted? Do you want to remember the many times you ran short of patience and forbearance and feel relieved that you avoided embarrassing yourself by vulgar behavior? Do you want to remember the widespread fear and frustration and find consolation in the fact that you made the world a better place at a time when the world was sorely in need of betterment?
Satisfying one’s desires or avoiding shame are not indications of the presence of Christian hope. Making a positive contribution to a world in need, however, is behavior motivated by the commitment to proclaim one’s hope in the Resurrection. The tendency of human nature is to respond to threats or privation by taking from others what one wants for oneself. The tendency of hope is to be gentle toward others and reverent toward God. In order to learn to be a decent human being, one must be convinced that a necessary consequence of religious faith is to be gentle and reverent always and everywhere.