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Whatever Happened to Civility?

Duke Kwon

Incivility in American politics is hardly new. Politicians and ordinary citizens alike have long bemoaned “the divisive tone of politics.” But this year’s presidential race seems to have broken new ground. We’ve beheld an embarrassing litany of personal invective, verbal aggression, puerile put-downs, and playground insults. We’re now at the point where the presidential debates overwhelm the viewer with anxiety, a sense of genuine uncertainty as to what might happen next, including the possibility that someone might finally drop an F-bomb or throw a right hook — at which point, as in the case of that “Access Hollywood” video, we’d be disgusted, perhaps devastated, but not at all surprised.

We long for the lost virtue of civility in public life and discourse. But what exactly is it? And how do we recover it? Here are some pastoral and theological reflections on some ingredients of civility — the “habits of the heart” that need to be cultivated for its recovery.

  1. Dignity

The bedrock of civility is the inherent dignity of all people. Every human being is the very “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, regardless of belief or behavior, all are worthy of your respect. Scripture is unrelenting on this point.

The Imago Dei serves as the primary grounds for James’ prohibition of contemptuous speech: “With the tongue we … curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (Jas. 3:8). “Honor the emperor,” the apostle Peter commands the covenant community, in stunning reference to the very one who authorized their persecution (1 Pet. 2:17). As modeled by the Apostle Paul, even when they’re wrong, even when their political or moral beliefs are “offensive” or absurd, a person’s dignity demands they be treated with civility (e.g., Acts 17:22-28; Rom. 12:18). Indeed, civility is a moral commitment to fight the temptation to dehumanize those who disagree with us or mistreat us.

In this regard, it is important to note that civility is more than “good manners” or mere “politeness.” It is something far more robust. It must have the moral durability to weather opposition with poise and self-restraint. Neither is civility equivalent to passivity or silence. Jesus honored all, yet did not withhold prophetic protest or rebuke when needed. He never did so, however, with ad hominem disdain. Civility is not the avoidance of unpleasant dialogue; rather, civility is what makes unpleasant, but constructive dialogue possible.

  1. Poverty

Poverty is essential to civility. I’m not talking about material poverty, but the grace of inward poverty that Jesus had in mind when he taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). To be poor in spirit is to be emptied of Self. To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Switchfoot’s paraphrase is pretty close to the truth: “Blessed is the man who’s lost it all.” Civility is the rare possession of those who are poor in spirit.

How so? Incivility is inevitable for the self-righteous and the know-it-all. For such as these, everyone else is only and always wrong. There’s little to be gained by listening to the foolishness of others. But the poor in spirit are eminently “teachable” — and civility flourishes when one is motivated to listen to and learn. The poor in spirit cultivate an ethos of interdependency — and civility flourishes when one can say, “I may not always agree with you, but I know that I need you.” Indeed, the poor in spirit are remarkably charitable to others, being keenly aware of their own flaws. They refuse to retaliate; they exercise self-control. Civility is the fruit of humility.

  1. Diversity

Any mention of “diversity” as an ingredient for civility may at first seem surprising. After all, our differences — political, religious, or otherwise — provide occasion for conflict. But there’s a particular kind of diversity we’re lacking in the public square that I think adds to its dysfunction. It’s the diversity of publicly expressed personality. Let me explain.

Jesus Christ himself was the portrait of true humanity. We might therefore use the threefold office of Christ as a rubric of human personality: we are “prophetic,” we are “priestly,” and we are “kingly.” Here’s what I see: We have plenty of “prophets” speaking truth, naming the problem, but far too few “priests” bringing people together, building bridges with the masonry of mercy and kingdom empathy, and far too few “kings” leading, bringing order to the chaos, and administrating actual steps of change. We need a balance of assets and temperaments to collaborate for the sake of human flourishing.

But everyone celebrates the prophets. (“She’s speaking out!”) Everyone thinks they need to be a prophet — that is, if they care. (“Silence is complicity!”) And with the rise of social media, there are more outrage-amplifying outlets of prophetic communication than ever before. We’re surrounded by prophetic anger. We’re surrounded by incivility.

I am certain Christian activists overplay Jesus’ fracas in the temple (Mark 11:15-17) as a guiding principle. This holy display of indignation was without question the exception rather than the rule in his ministry. I am also certain the problem in civic discourse isn’t outrage itself. It’s outrage that is exclusively prophetic in its expression.

The late Elie Wiesel famously declared indifference to be more dangerous than anger and hatred, reasoning that “anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses.” Civility isn’t indifference. Indeed, civility can be angry; Jesus often was. Holy indignation can be a creative force. But all we’ve got are prophetic outlets of public indignation, fuming diatribes in verbal and written form.

What we desperately need more of are priestly and kingly outlets of indignation leading to creative action. What we need are constructive working-dinners, counter-intuitive friendships, collaborative public policy, the advancement of creative ideas. Or a symphony.

The “prophets” among us have been the exclusive stars on the field, and we are the worse for it. It’s time to hand the ball to the “priests” and the “kings.”

  1. Community

I’ll be brief here. Civility is not an isolated act, but a habit of the heart: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Showing respect and disagreeing well takes practice. In other words, as with all virtues, civility is cultivated, learned, formed. And this happens best in community, particularly “diverse” community, which is to say, communities in which a range of political and cultural perspectives can be found, so that one’s capacity for civility is tried and tested on a regular basis. That’s how character is formed (Rom. 5:3-4; cf. Jas. 1:2-4).

That is an argument for belonging to a local church. Civility creates community. The reverse is also true: Community creates civility.

By no means is civility an exclusively “Christian” value. Rather, it is a civic virtue, and some of its best examples are not professing Christians (and some of its worst are). Yet I believe a Christian worldview can uniquely provide the spiritual and moral resources for the practice of civility in a pluralistic society. After all, civility is not optional for followers of Jesus. In the words of Richard Mouw, “The call to discipleship is itself a civility mandate.”

4 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Civility?

  1. Donald Johnson

    Great thoughts.

    As far as I can tell, Jesus and Paul was willing to be what we might see as uncivil when speaking truth in love to power that was being misused in an attempt get have them open their eyes and repent. In doing this, they were seeking to do the will of the Father, while we can easily have mixed motives which should be worked on first.

  2. g

    Let me just say that it is an honor to be taken seriously by someone of your intellect and biblical prowess. I have read most of what you comment here for some years now. I am a slow reader and not a very good writer. I usually resist replies now because commenting here for me is more a working out of my salvation rather than a place to argue or to be heard or seen. I think blog commenting has seen a high water mark of influence. As it has been suppressed most have move on to other media. I don’t have Facebook or Twitter. I’m lazy or old, maybe both. But still this is a small, if not silly, hope to somehow influence the influencers. This is my platform only in the sense that RAAN allows a Pauline like ethnic dissent here with out suppression unlike my East Texas white elder lead Reformed SBC church and TGC. I’m not under the illusion that any pay much attention to what I have to say. I do however have an opinion about what the Bible has to say with regard to the suppression of truth; Romans 1:20. It tells us that even unbelievers know about “the things that have been made”, even (men made in the image of God), how much more aware (Edwards) a believer then. Scripture also warns the church (Edwards) about the James Chapter 2 sin of the elect. So we the elect, like Edwards, are without excuse. We know. He knew. God brought much pressure on the American church with law and war: Romans 13. But then, right on schedule, God deliver the discipline over this sin he promise to the believers of the American church in its unique ethnic original sin, starting in around 1950. Many before were silenced But now He began to discipline HIs church Through a man. He did it kind of like he did the church with Luther 500 years ago. We remember Wycliffe and Huss and many more were silenced by the church. But right on time God save Luther from the church and his message rings louder every year. Well God save another Martin from the church 70 years ago and his message rings louder with each passing year. So the “cloud of witnesses” (Edwards) now sees what he could not see in his day and so do we because there were two Martins who were not afraid to be a Paul in their open public rebuke of the church. Praying for us now.

  3. William F. Leonhart III


    I doubt there was a lack of willingness in Edwards’ day to confront evil in the church. The problem was a redefinition of evil. Every generation must, to one extent or another, confront the ways in which evil has been redefined during their time. For instance, in America, we have a tendency to focus more on our petty struggles with words and awkward interactions over cultural pet-peeves. Meanwhile, the church is largely complacent in the face of the worldwide epidemics of human trafficking, pedophilia, the redefinition of marriage, the murder of babies in the womb in our own backyard, the glorifying and justifying of moral degeneration among, and the dehumanizing of, minority ethnic groups in media and entertainment, the devaluing of the home, etc. Surely, there were a handful of Christians who openly decried the evils of slavery in Edwards’ day. Just as there are a handful of Christians today who recognize that bickering in the church over musical styles and “safe spaces” is indicative of a spoiled, complacent culture that is more concerned with the speck my brother’s eye than the plank in my eye.

  4. g

    So with Philemon the new Christian may be more civility, but with Peter the mature Christian leader, well Paul got in Peters face in public. Civil? I assume Johnathan Edwards the mature Christian leader had all kinds of dignity and civility. I wonder what would have change for his black slaves if someone in the church would have been willing to be call uncivil for rebuking him in public over the ownership of men made in the image of God. I don’t think we have a record of that ever happening to him but certainly that would have been seen as uncivil with the level of historically verified blindness, biblical ignorance or cowardliness on the subject that existed in the celebrity leadership of almost all of the American church at that time. But would harsh and public rebuke have been biblical? Maybe Edwards would have been willing to go live with the Indians over that. Imagine the blowback we face then as we have read and seen historically what happens to the “Pauls” in the American church. It seems, that in Paul anyway, “Incivility” has a biblical context and is necessary for church purity. Perhaps the better question to ask then would be: is the incivility we see serving evil or rebuking evil? Praying for us now.

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