Articles of Faith: A Crisis of Civility

Civility and Politics

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This post is part of our Sunday Series titled “Articles of Faith.”
We investigate leadership lessons from the Bible.
See the whole series here. Published only on Sundays.
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A Faithlink study from 2009 posed the question: is civility dead?

Has it gone the way of written thank-you notes and bows and curtseys, practices of common courtesy that are now remarkable as the exception rather than the rule? Or is boorishness just a long-standing side effect of American informality?

For Christians, these questions go even deeper as we ask how our faith informs our interactions with others.

Civility has been on my mind since the midterm elections when all of the hateful and mean-spirited ads were taking up the airwaves. Regardless of political leaning, the attacks were relentless and set the stage for what turned out to be one of the nastiest elections in history. Former Republican Congressman Jim Leach, speaking in Delaware on his American Civility Tour, asked

If all men are created equal, then doesn’t it follow all men’s ideas are worthy of respect?

I think the answer to this question depends on who you ask and the nature of your character in this world.

One of the leading experts on civility in the secular world is P. M. Forni, author of The Civility Solution. Reflecting back on the original question regarding the demise of civility, Forni suggests that while not dead, civility is certainly on the decline. His thoughts provide a code of decency allowing us to break the cycle of rudeness in our lives. Forni states

The decline of civility is a social phenomenon that is being discussed now with the frequency and intensity that was not there 10 years ago.

The leading expert on civility in our faith life is Jesus Christ. In teaching about loving others, He tells us to make the conscious choice to love our enemies. This isn’t the kind of love you fall in to; this is the kind of love that defines us as Christians. Jesus defines for us a strong base on which to build civil discourse in Luke 6: 27-36 (NIV):

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

For Christians, the idea that civility is dead or simply just declining is somewhat irrelevant. The simple message we must take into the world is how others should be treated; and of this we have numerous examples:

Matthew 5:22 (NIV)

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

John 13:34 (NIV)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Colossians 4:6 (NIV)

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

James 3:10 (NIV)

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Perhaps Christians have a special responsibility in regards to civility, one of helping others respect one another and engage in a language of love. Kerry Robinson of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management offers a hopeful perspective

Anger and hatred have existed perpetually and they are symptomatic of our fractured condition. But religious faith, at its most authentic, can inspire us to inculcate qualities and habits that make us fully and truly human: respect, humility and love.

While certainly more than political in nature, civility remains something for which we all must be engaged. The Civility Project invites everyone to take its civility pledge:

  • I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
  • I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
  • I will stand against incivility when I see it.

I took the pledge… will join me?

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Dr. Hampton Hopkins is President of Hopkins Associates
He consults, writes, and speaks about leadership and organizational development
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Image Source: davegranlund.com

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