Jewish legend, as recorded in the Midrash, is that after God had parted the Red Sea, allowing the Children of Israel to pass through safely, and then closed the waters again, drowning the Egyptian soldiers who were pursuing them, angels broke into song in celebration. God, however, told the angels to stop, saying, "How can you sing when my people are dying?"
This profound story illustrates the sacred nature of all life and God's desire to keep his creations from celebrating any who are lost. The Egyptians had held the Jewish people in severe bondage for centuries, and yet they, too, were children of God in need of redemption.
That is a lesson of which many in today's increasingly polarized political landscape need reminding. Americans do not suffer from any widespread or sanctioned political oppression. Even the competing political philosophies that dominate discussions on the airwaves and in town hall meetings do not rise anywhere near the level of suffering imposed by the Egyptians upon the Jews. And yet many who participate in these discussions take delight in deliberately dehumanizing their foes, comparing them to the worst despots in history. Public officials, it seems, are deemed unworthy of empathy once they achieve a certain level of fame.
Last week, word came that former Vice President Dick Cheney had undergone a heart transplant. Almost immediately the uncivil chatter lit up social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. "In other countries they put their evil leaders on trial. In America we give them a heart transplant and a book deal," said one. The web site Politico.com listed several others, most of which are too offensive to print. The gist was that the former vice president had no heart to begin with, or that he ought to have received one from a liberal.
Politico interviewed one such tweeter, who said, "The gags were hard to pass up, given the subject and the topic." In other words, the urge to attract attention to oneself at the expense of another's painful surgery was too great to resist.
Even worse behavior was on display earlier this year when conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart died suddenly at age 43. Many hailed the death as worthy of celebration, calling him evil and exclaiming "good riddance."
Such behavior is not characteristic of only one side of the political spectrum. When Sen. Edward Kennedy died, conservatives reacted with similar invective. And the recent tirade by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh against a young woman who argued in favor of mandatory contraception coverage, calling her a vulgar name, was a dehumanizing blow against decency.
Such behavior does not characterize all for whom politics is a passion. But the speed and vehemence with which such hateful comments spread at the first sign of personal misfortune is alarming, and the way people sometimes try to justify their bad behavior by pointing to how the other side behaves is disgusting.
Because differences of opinion always exist, a nation where people govern themselves must embrace a certain basic level of civility that allows for a respect of those differences, as well as dialog and meaningful compromises. Even if one side fails to live up to this ideal, the other sides will thrive best by maintaining those principles rather than by giving into and reciprocating incivility. A nation in which a majority of people dehumanize those with differing opinions or practices will quickly degenerate into chaos and oppression.
The coming Easter season is a good time to examine whether we, like the legendary angels at the parting of the Red Sea, are treating all life as sacred. One cannot dehumanize another without losing a bit of one's own humanity, as well.