Why civility could change our politics and culture

February 18, 2019

You probably don’t know who MaryLinda Moss is, unless you live in California or you have read journalist Robin Abcarian’s beautifully written and harrowing account of the hostage situation that took place in a Trader Joe’s near Los Angeles last summer. This was the retelling of yet another act of gun violence in an era when we have become tragically numb to the shedding of innocent blood.

This is the story of an ordinary woman who happened to be a customer in the store at the time the gunman Gene Adkins burst in and pierced the normalcy of a day at the supermarket. MaryLinda Moss, a local artist, diffused a potential mass casualty situation by doing the unthinkable.

She could have treated Adkins like a monster or a super-villain. Nobody would have faulted her for lashing out in anger at a man whose irrational actions just resulted in the death of an innocent store employee and caused untold trauma for the workers and shoppers who converged unsuspectingly with Adkin’s anger that day. But she didn’t. Instead, she stepped forward courageously and engaged the dangerous hostage-taker by appealing to his humanity.

At one point during the standoff, after treating the gunshot wounds Adkins received in a shootout with the police, Moss placed her hand on Adkin’s chest and simply said to him, “You don’t want to do this.”

It would be foolish for us, untrained in hostage negotiation and criminal science, to extrapolate from this one incident a one-size-fits-all approach for preventing future tragedy. Nor is this story a guarantee that other brave victims will have the same success in preventing mass casualties in the future. But there is something in Moss’s simple appeal to Adkins’s humanity that might offer us a lesson, not only if we found ourselves in a similar situation, but in the way we might appeal to the common humanity of others in less tense, less volatile exchanges. An appeal to our common humanity might help heal our divisions and bring back civility to our public debates.

An ancient idea

The impulse to see someone’s humanity, even if we find that person morally compromised or objectionable or violent, has its roots in an ancient biblical text. In Genesis 1, Moses writes about the beginning of humanity, and he does it with rhetorical flourish. While the first chapters seem to rush through the origin of the rest of the created order, the text slows down and describes God as reaching down into the dust of the ground and sculpting humans with his hands. The Scriptures are telling us that humans required a special level of care—King David later states in Psalm 139 that every soul is knit by God in the womb—and that humans, unlike the rest of creation, bear “the image of God.”

Theologians have wrestled with the image of God language for centuries, and today we are still not fully sure what it means. But we do know this: Christianity assigns a dignity and worth to humans that it does not assign to any other living being in the natural world. Christianity says there is a reflection of God in every person, even in a fallen and broken world.

I don’t know what MaryLinda Moss’s faith commitment was or if she is even religious, but her appeal to a killer’s humanity borrows from this Christian vision of dignity. The historian Timothy Shah says in his monumental work on religious freedom that “apart from the Christian Scriptures, classical civilization lacks the concept of human dignity.” And philosopher Oliver O’Donavan says that the idea of human dignity is “only ever a theological assertion.” It could be argued that without Christianity as a foundation, you have very little basis for human rights and human dignity.

That isn’t to say, of course, that Christians are always the best exemplars of their own professed theology. All you have to do is experience the way partisans on Twitter savage each other, some with “Jesus-follower” in their bios. And sadly, in some periods of church history, Christians have been silent or complicit in acts of injustice, even arguing that certain people groups have less value than others. Still, these ideas are always a move away from the Bible’s vision of dignity.

In fact, Scripture always presents two choices for image-bearers: we can look inward and worship ourselves, thus prioritizing our well-being at the expense of others; or we can look upward, toward the Creator and consider the humanity of our neighbors. The choice toward selfishness—to prioritize our desires over others—is at the root of every act of evil, from small sins to large acts of violence. Our tendency to look inward explains the mission of Jesus, who came to save us from our fallen humanity and restore us to our original, image-bearing purposes.

And even those who claim to follow Jesus are still tempted to not see the humanity of their neighbors. Jesus is rebuking this tendency in his parable of the Good Samaritan. He says to religious leaders who are looking for loopholes to the Greatest Commandment that their neighbor is the person they are most likely to pass by on the Jericho Road. James, Jesus’ brother, wrote a whole book to the first-century church, warning them against religion that marginalizes the poor and against rhetoric that dehumanizes opponents.

But imagine if we were able, like Moss, to see the basic humanity of those around us— even those with whom we most vociferously disagree? In many ways, Christians today could use a recovery of this holistic, all-encompassing view of what it means to be human.  

In his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, John McCain spoke of his experiences in the Hanoi Hilton and the lost moral ethic of his captors:

"I discovered in prison that faith in myself alone, separate from other, more important allegiances, was ultimately no match for the cruelty that human beings could devise when they were entirely unencumbered by respect for the God-given dignity of man. This is the lesson I learned in prison. It is, perhaps, the most important lesson I have ever learned."

Recent history and its accompanying atrocities have shown us what happens when societies lose a basic moral framework for human dignity. But what if we imagined a reversal? If men are unencumbered in violence when they lose the idea of dignity, imagine what men could do if they recovered it? Francis Fukuyama says this recovery is badly needed in our times:

"Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure. Unless such liberal democracies can work their way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, they will doom themselves—and the world—to continuing conflict."

Civility and justice

Of course, calls to civility always bring a healthy, but cynical riposte. Civility, it is assumed, is akin to giving up the fight for more just societies. While we should examine our motives to see if our appeals are just excuses for passivity, I believe this critique wrongly assumes civility is equivalent to quietism.

Two recent models of activism seem to refute the theory that civility is incongruent with movements for justice. Both William Wilberforce in the 19th century and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 20th century prove that appeals to a common humanity can help fuel social change.

Wilberforce constantly appealed to the humanity, not only of those who were considered less than human and bought and sold as property, but of those he was trying to persuade, especially UK evangelicals. He commissioned plaques depicting slaves in chains with the words: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” The theme song of his abolitionist movement was the hymn “Amazing Grace,” written by a former slave trader, John Newton. Wilberforce’s gospel offered freedom for both the slave and the slave trader, both of whom found equality at the foot of the cross.

More than a century later, Martin Luther King Jr. employed rhetoric of human dignity in his campaign for civil rights. There is an iconic photo of King in Memphis, surrounded by sanitation workers wearing sandwich boards that say, “I am a man.” This was the crux of King’s message. He was trying to persuade the white power-brokers to see people of color, not as problems or property, but as fellow human beings. In a 1965 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King preached:

"There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man."

He even spoke of the dignity of the oppressor in a powerful statement about forgiveness. To the Detroit Economic Council, he said:

"So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them. not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said "love your enemies." I'm very happy that he didn't say like your enemies, because it is very difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive, creative, goodwill for all men. And it is this whole ethic of love which is the idea standing at the basis of the student movement."

The basis for King’s movement, which was anything but quietest, appealed to the humanity of his enemies in order to persuade them of the humanity of those they continued to oppress. “The nonviolent resister never lets this idea go, that there is something within human nature that can respond to goodness.”

This doesn’t mean that movements for justice never require legal action or use of force. Terrorists should be hunted down. Laws against injustice should be enforced. And even war, the last resort, is necessary to take down tyrants and despots. As a Christian, though, I know that this world will never fully experience perfect peace until Christ returns to fully restore all things.

But more often than not, a simple, yet powerful appeal to our common humanity can remind potential oppressors of their own humanity, can shame those who are tempted to silence in the face of injustice, and can lead to social change. You don’t want to do this. You are better than this. You are a human and not an animal. This message needs to be heard, whether in a suburban grocery store, in the halls of Parliament, or on the streets of the segregationist South.  

In a world on fire with every kind of division imaginable—from religious to political to racial and beyond—how do we engage the world around us without fear? Join us at our 2019 National Conference, “Gospel Courage: Truth and Justice in a Divided World, “ on October 3-5 to learn what the Bible teaches us about civility.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24