Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Season



On Saturday, I attended a Conference on Civility held in Washington, DC, at the National Presbyterian Church. The speakers were Dr. Richard Mouw (President of Fuller Theological Seminary) and Ross Douthat (NY Times columnist, author and editor). Michael Cromartie, VP of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in DC was the moderator. The speakers critiqued the current cultural climate in a helpful manner, and challenged the church to be more proactive in promoting civil discourse for the common good.

Dr. Richard Mouw spoke first. He began by outlining the need for religion to provide a constructive frame for social harmony. Without proper framing, humans naturally split into various factions. “Zeal” for our own groups (& groups’ agendas) overtakes civility and the need to live harmoniously with others with whom we disagree. Mouw referenced James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, wherein Madison explored problems posed to healthy government by human factions operating with harmful zeal (section 10.7). Mouw then expressed his concern that we not give up “zeal” altogether, because the apostle Paul clearly described the characteristics of both bad and good zeal in his letters (cf. Romans 9:30-10:4, & 12:1-21). Mouw cited John Calvin’s Institutes (book IV, ch. 2) in which Calvin wrote that civil government is formed and given the mandate to promote and preserve concord and common peace. It’s remarkable that the US government has had a history, within many of our lifetimes, of perceiving political rivalry as not inherently antithetical to or prohibiting of friendship and fellowship. Mouw specifically mentioned the political rivalry but personal friendship between Pres. Reagan and House speaker, Tip O’Neill.  

Rather, we need to choose the path of “convicted civility”. Mouw attributes the phrase to Martin Marty, who used it in his 1981 book, By Way of Response. Marty further developed the theme in a later book, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: “A problem in contemporary life, [Marty] said, is that the folks who are good at being civil often don’t have very strong convictions, and the people who have strong convictions usually aren’t very civil.”

The word, “civility”, comes from the word rooted in “city”. According to Aristotle, civility begins with kinship and friendship, but maturity enables us to recognize and respond respectfully to the stranger, because we share common bonds of humanity and dwelling together within the city. We can treat others with dignity and honor, respecting what we share in common while acknowledging the differences between us.

Catholics and evangelicals have had theological understandings based on being marginalized in American society for decades, but we haven’t developed a good theological understanding of how to live within the center of government, economics and society. [Blogger’s note: I understood that Mouw was driving at the difference in engagement and volume of rhetoric which is needed for outsiders and for insiders, here. Excluded, marginalized and disenfranchised people find themselves needing to crank up the volume of their voices and harden their words in order to be heard, as it were. Disharmony and dissonance result when those people are truly being listened to, but cannot or won’t stop shouting and harshly criticizing others, and/or cannot cease operating from an assumption of being marginalized.]

Humans have defective characters, and the way for Christians to participate healthily in society's center is founded in becoming “the right kind of people”, by which Mouw means that our character has to be reformed by humbling ourselves before God through spiritual disciplines and enacting Christian values. Our manners should be shaped for public life, and Mouw referenced Ronald Thiemann’s insight that local congregations should be functioning as schools of common virtue. Furthermore, we need to regain our old commitments to community which have been lost in our selfish, individually-centered pursuits. The sociologist, Robert Bellah, developed the understanding that we, as Americans, have lost our sense of being committed to something larger than ourselves. We have forgotten or misplaced the worth of loyalty to each other as fellow humans and citizens.

Mouw touched upon Calvin’s explication of Just War theory, and emphasized that, at the end of all the evaluations of arguments for and against war, Calvin specifically called upon us to examine ourselves and to perceive the opposing side as fellow humans. War should never be undertaken when we have failed to grasp both our own tendencies to over-evaluate ourselves as “good”, and dismiss others as “bad”. The Psalms have numerous shifts which demonstrate this necessary spiritual discipline. Psalm 139, for instance, after celebrating the humanity and wonder of the psalmist’s person and God’s creation, strongly denounces the wicked in vv. 19-22, but then immediately asks God to search his own heart and mind (vv. 23-24). Should God find any “wicked” or “offensive” way within the psalmist or today’s reciter of the psalm, we implore God to reveal that way and lead us in “the way everlasting”.

We need to love our neighbors as ourselves, in every way, action, conversation and choice. (In a later discussion with Dr. Mouw, we agreed that business and financial decisions and actions are included in this commitment to love our neighbors!) In every discussion, even regarding hot-button issues such as human sexual expression, “how may we express our views without being needlessly offensive” to the other? We must never bear “false witness”, either, by misrepresenting what the other truly believes or testifies to be true, because we’ve failed to listen well, and to allow them to tell us.

“We aren’t just pitting position against position”, according to Mouw, we truly need to see one another as humans together. Mouw has recently revised, expanded and re-published his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.

Next blog: Ross Douthat’s presentation.

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