In the midst of 2020, listening to someone extol the virtues of civility brings to mind images of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. In the best of times, we’re still residents of a fallen world under the curse of sin. But in addition to the usual consequences of sin that encumber our lives, this year we are navigating life in the midst of a global pandemic, a national reckoning over racial justice, and the final sprint leading up to November’s presidential election. Suffice it to say, this is a tense and contentious time. But even amid all of the chaos and tumult, this is the right time for Christians to raise the banner of civility.
Christianity as counterculture
For a long time we’ve been told that Christianity is a “countercultural” faith. Indeed, what is more countercultural than a political ruler who claims authority not by force but through a message of peace and whose rule is ushered in not through triumph but through death? Jesus taught us a new way to conceive not only of politics, but of victory, power, and strength. He redefined for us what it looks like to win, and what it looks like to rule. Because, in his kingdom, the last shall be first and the poor become rich.
What does this have to do with civility? Everything. In a world obsessed with victory, fame, and power, Jesus taught us that the way of the kingdom is different. He taught us that strength often looks like weakness, that winning sometimes looks like losing, and that power isn’t a weapon. Most importantly, he taught us how to fight. Because we are not actually at war with that which is flesh and blood, we are commanded to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us (Eph. 6:12; Mt. 5:44). We are called to demonstrate compassion and forbearance, to serve those we are tempted to despise, and to forgive those who sin against us.
In sum, the way of the kingdom represents a completely different way to live. Jesus taught us to see other people the way that God sees them, as sacred and precious beings made in his image and likeness (Gen 1:27). He taught us to treat other people in ways that recognize their inestimable value and dignity. And he taught us to live each day in light of the reality that our true citizenship is not here on earth but in heaven (Phil. 3:20). We are but sojourners and strangers in this world (1 Pet. 2:11). Our lives on earth are only a vapor, but our life in the kingdom will last forever. This is the way that Christians are to live.
Politics and civility
Most of the time when we think about civility, we think about politics. That makes sense because “politics” is one of the main things we do to participate in public life as citizens. But as everyone knows, even the mere mention of the word tends to foster strife and division. People are often passionate about their political beliefs because they recognize the stakes. More than candidates or abstract policies, the decisions we make at the ballot box affect real people’s lives in significant and meaningful ways. Still, all of us have witnessed the kinds of intense and uncivil clashes that are produced through “passionate” political discourse.
For the people of God, passion is no excuse for intemperance. Instead, following the example of Jesus, we should be the first to listen, eager to gain understanding. We should seek to persuade instead of coerce. And we should have the humility to recognize that our own beliefs are not infallible.
The political commentator Fred Smith once said “underneath our politics are values.” There is a lot of truth reflected in that statement. Beneath our political views are the things we care about deeply and regard as essential for human flourishing. Justice is a fundamental component of a healthy society. For some people, justice is the driving concern in their approach to politics. The same thing is true for other fundamental principles like freedom and equality. Obviously, each of these things are massively important. In fact, each one is critical. So it is no wonder why our tempers tend to flare when we feel that something we value and deem essential is being neglected or threatened.
In many cases, this is what drives incivility. Rather than taking a step back and trying to understand the concerns of those we disagree with, we simply judge them. We accuse our opponents of being unconcerned about justice or liberty or equality, or whatever it is we care about, when in reality they are likely trying to balance multiple concerns at the same time. Political discussions often generate more heat than light because we make unfair assumptions about our political opponents. We assume people who reject our views are rejecting us. We assume our opponents are uninformed or uncaring. We are slow to listen and quick to speak, ready to judge and reluctant to understand.
But for the people of God, passion is no excuse for intemperance. Instead, following the example of Jesus, we should be the first to listen, eager to gain understanding. We should seek to persuade instead of coerce. And we should have the humility to recognize that our own beliefs are not infallible.
The kingdom and civility
Jesus’ reign will last forever. As the creeds testify, his kingdom “shall know no end.” Seeking to live as citizens of his kingdom should make it easier for us to exercise civility as citizens of the United States. After all, we know that our lives right now are nothing compared to our lives in the kingdom. If we are promised eternal life and a perfect future, we should be able to exercise the kind of patience and forbearance it takes to treat others with decency and respect. There is no election or principle that is worth the price of your public witness.
No matter how turbulent our current times may be (or how quixotic it may look to the world), Christians are called to march forward, confidently carrying the banner of our king, who taught us what it means to fight hate with love and how to meet chaos with calm. Jesus is the prince of peace. By living lives marked by civility and kindness, we can show the world what he is like.
How should Christians think through issues of our day? The new Courage and Civility Church Toolkit gives pastors and church leaders a helpful path to walk with their congregations about the things that truly matter and shows them how to process this chaotic and polarized moment.