A Plea for Civility

Last week a senior official in the Trump administration was asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia (a town that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016).  The reason?  According to the owner, the restaurant “has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation,” and in her opinion this presidential administration violates them all.

Those who live in liberal enclaves don’t have a monopoly on this kind of behavior.  Republicans have been guilty of it, too.  And it’s no secret that people in our society are becoming increasingly rude in how they treat those who disagree on hot button issues.

It’s hard to imagine our society long sustaining itself under the pressure of such incivility.  If we can’t disagree without demonizing those on the other side of the issue, how long can our republic stand?

Furthermore, this kind of behavior is completely unbecoming of Christians.  This blog post is my plea for civility from all who read it.  Here are six things to keep in mind so you can keep your head as you encounter politics and worldviews that differ from your own.

First, you don’t have to express an opinion on everything.  Politics has always brought out the worst in people.  Just read some of the things John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their respective surrogates said about one another during the 1800 presidential election campaign.

But with the advent of social media, we now feel pressure to share, like, or comment on every single controversial event that takes place.  In some circles, just reposting a news story and adding your own outraged statement means you’re doing something for the cause.

This pressure makes our civility crisis worse.  The reality is social media anger does not, in and of itself, do any good at all, nor will it change anyone’s mind.  You’re just another cog in the outrage machine.

No one has a moral obligation to comment on any particular news item.  You can refuse to engage.  If you fall into the trap of thinking you must, you’re not helping build a more civil society.

Second, avoid false dichotomies.  “If you want a strong border with Mexico, then you must be a bigot.”  “If you oppose the war, you must hate America.”  “If you’re ok with higher taxes, then you must be a Communist.” “If you don’t want to ban all abortions immediately, you’re supporting murder.”

Nonsense.  Principled, caring people can have differing views on all these issues, and framing issues so narrowly makes civil discourse impossible.  As D.A. Carson puts it, “Damn all false antithesis to hell, for they … perpetuate idols [and] twist and distort our souls…”

So, does that mean Christians can do or say nothing about the pressing political issues of our day?  Are we to be, as so many have accused us of being, “so heavenly minded we are of no earthly good”?  No.

Third, before you engage, remember issues are always more complex than the tweet, Facebook post, or Fox News/MSNBC story claims they are, so read up before you comment.  It never fails that when I investigate some outraged opinion piece I read online, I find that the facts of the case are more complicated than the author lets on.  Things are never as simple as one news story (or even two or three) makes them out to be.  Immigration law, economics, and foreign policy are all areas of recent controversy where one could study for years and still have lots of questions.

To comment, let alone spew outrage, without knowing more of the situation amounts to a violation of the Ninth Commandment’s prohibition on spreading a false witness.

Christians should be the ones who take the time to study some of the difficult issues of our day in order to learn before we speak.  If you are angry about legislation, have you actually read the statute?  If you’re angry about a Supreme Court decision, have you actually understood the opinion?

And while we’re reading, let’s take the time to survey a spectrum of views – liberal, middle of the road, conservative, secular and religious, Protestant and Catholic.  Only then when we speak up will we have something useful to say.

Fourth, when you critique someone’s position, respectfully represent it as strongly as you possibly can. 

Tim Keller puts it like this: “Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’  Then, and only then, will your polemics have integrity and actually have the possibility of being persuasive…”  If we do not give our opponents this kind of respect, we’re just setting up straw men that fall all too easily and, when they do, will harden the hearts of undecided people and those on the other side.  Remember Proverbs 18:17: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.”

Fifth, realize that solutions to the problems that plague our society will not be easy to come by and will take time.  

Sure, most who read this blog will agree that abortion is wrong, racism is wrong, and marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman exclusively.  But if these issues were easy to resolve we wouldn’t still be talking about them.

We live in a constitutional republic with more than three hundred million other people, all with views and thoughts of their own.  How, precisely, do we move forward on these issues and others?  Incrementally, or all at once?  And if incrementally, how big of a bite do we take at a time?  When we move, do we do so through legislation or litigation or executive orders?

Even among Christians who have the same end goal in mind there will be disagreement about the best tactics and which candidates for office will be most qualified.  All the more reason for care in how we speak about these issues.

Sixth, love your neighbor.  “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  Galatians 6:10.  The Christian duty to love, and to treat others with civility, is absolute – there is no political exception.

Follow these principles and then engage in the great debates of our day.  I want thoughtful Christians engaging in journalism and political advocacy, voting, calling their congressmen, giving to their candidates of choice, campaigning, and even running for office themselves.

We won’t agree on everything.  But we can agree to be civil to one another.  The continuance of the American experiment requires it.  For Christians, our civility in the face of anger from others is not only necessary in order to fulfill the law of love but will serve to promote the gospel among those who don’t believe. “You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  Matthew 5:14-16.

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