People of all political stripes, of every ethnicity, of faith and no faith are all decrying the current incivility in the public square. Everyone blames his ideological opponent for the breakdown in polite discourse. No one will take the first step toward mending this situation. Almost everyone cannot wait for the end of the current political season, but unfortunately the incivility will survive Nov. 3. Christians, of all people, should be deeply concerned by this state of affairs.
Incivility has always existed. Former president John Adams slammed former president Thomas Jefferson for his illegitimate offspring born of a slave mother. Jefferson hinted that Adams was not very masculine. George Washington had set a better tone when he said that “every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” But his counsel barely outlasted his presidency.
Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that “there can be no high civility without a deep morality, though it may not always call itself by that name.” As a follower of Jesus, I don’t often agree with Emerson but think he had it right here. Incivility is a symptom of a general forsaking of biblical morality.
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).
As a society, we have idolized doing our own thing. Everyone wants to be his own master, choosing lifestyles and pursuits that fit his/her tastes. Life is all about me and satisfying my desires. Inevitably that leads to conflict, because my freedom to pursue my happiness will certainly clash with your wish list.
The gospel of selfishness leads to competing demands, which cannot be reconciled without an external, objective standard of morality. I cannot take your property just because I want it. I cannot demand sexual gratification from you just because I want it. I cannot force you to accept my definition of family just because I think it just.
Some folks see God as the cosmic Santa Claus and prayer as a Christmas list airmailed to Him through the ether. Again, James debunks that approach. “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). Invoking God as the divine dispenser of all our desires is no solution to the incivility of ungratified passions.
No, the answer to the incivility is learning to bridle our uncontrolled desires. As Christians, we must learn to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Mark 12:13), to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), to “in humility count others as more significant than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3). We are to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Civility does not mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.” Gandhi was heterodox by biblical standards but he speaks Christian truth in telling us to seek good for our opponents.
That is the only way to stop the endless downward spiral of retribution. “A tooth for a tooth” leaves you only able to gum your food. The vicious personal verbal assaults can only be stopped when one party (or both) decide that the behavior is unproductive and unacceptable. We can choose to disengage in tit-for-tat reprisals.
If we disengage from the fray, won’t our enemies run all over us? Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Aligning ourselves as part of the family of the God who created and rules the universe is a plan for success not defeat. It may take time, patience, perseverance but ultimately the kingdom of righteousness will prevail. God has promised that the day will come when the wolf will graze with the lamb (Isaiah 65:25).
In a more secular vein, even the crass promoter, PT Barnum, recognized the value of civility. “Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business. Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly. The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed upon him.”
It is hard to imagine getting agreement on any subject from George Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jesus, James the Just, Mahatma Gandhi and PT Barnum, but the world has been hungering for civility for millenia. Will we Christians take the first steps in that direction? Jesus would be pleased if we did.
Doug Kiesewetter is a serial start-up business and social entrepreneur, having launched 13 for-profit ventures and many non-profits over the past four decades. He is currently CEO of a Montrose-based solar manufacturer and chairman of Waterstone, a public Christian foundation in Colorado Springs. Doug is a member of Cedar Creek Church. He and his wife Deborah have two adult children and four grandchildren.