“We were created for kind and gentle living,” writes Richard Mouw. But, he continues, “It is not enough merely to reclaim civility. We need to cultivate a civility that does not play fast and loose with the truth.”
That’s the core thesis of Mouw’s classic book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP). The problem he addresses is this: those who tend to have strong convictions aren’t often very civil, and those who excel in civility often lack a base of strong conviction. Our aim, therefore, is convicted civility, a term first introduced by Christian historian Martin Marty.
Mouw is clear that what he has in mind is not somehow holding conviction and civility in balance, which would be how many of us would talk about the two. No, properly understood, conviction and civility are not to be held in tension, but to be seen as two complementary attributes of a mature Christian faith. Indeed, Mouw writes, “Developing a convicted civility can help us become more mature Christians. Cultivating civility can make strong Christian convictions even stronger.”
One passage Mouw repeats again and again to support this belief is found in Peter’s first epistle. After instructing Christians to always be ready to give a reason for their hope, Peter emphasizes that this is only to be done “with gentleness and respect.” A chapter earlier Peter puts it simply, “Honor everyone.” Christians are right to have strong convictions, and we understand our mission to include speaking about those convictions. But if that speaking is to truly point to the reason for our hope, the reason for our love, the reason for our joy, it must be done with gentleness and respect. To speak about our hope harshly or disrespectfully distorts the gospel into something coercive, something ugly. But — and this is important — we don’t just speak with gentleness and respect as a means to an end: civility itself is a way of honoring God, regardless of any evangelistic opportunities it may bring.
When people of conviction look around, they quickly see much that has gone wrong. On the one hand, we might be prone to lash out, seeking to take matters into our own hands through coercion of neighbors and of society at large. On the other hand, we may be tempted to withdraw, to practice “tolerance” and to say nothing.
Like Miroslav Volf in A Public Faith, Mouw urges several correctives to both coercion and withdrawal, and I’ll summarize a few here. First, of course, we need to look no further than our own hearts, minds, and actions for plenty that is not right, and we must address those problems first. Second, we must not forget that everyone we meet is made in the image of God, and therefore a work of divine art. Third, while withdrawal is not a real option for those of us who believe Christ is at work to make all things new and that he has invited his people to join him in this work, we cannot and should not attempt to do everything. Much is beyond our control, and to acknowledge this is to place our trust in the God who redeems and restores. We begin where we are, practicing convicted civility among people very different from us but who are also made in God’s image and loved by him, though they may not acknowledge his Lordship with either their words or their lives.
Convicted civility is desperately needed all the time, and all the more during a presidential election cycle when gentleness and respect are all but missing from public life. In times like these, demonizing one’s opponents becomes the norm, rather than honoring them as works of divine art, made in the image of God. Attack ads and smear campaigns on TV, forwarded emails with inaccurate assertions, passionate Facebook posts intended to rile up, and enlivened conversations about dinner tables will all be tools of incivility. All too often, the truth is lost in a sea of emotionally charged but factually dubious propaganda, whether on the right or on the left, and all who participate dishonor those to whom they owe their gentleness and respect.
Christians will come down on both sides of the aisle, disagreeing on some policies and agreeing on others. This is democracy, and I think it’s a good thing. By disagreeing well, we can elevate the conversation. But it’s my hope and prayer that leading up to November and in the days following we will stand out as those who practice a refreshing kind of convicted civility that’s all but absent from the national stage. Let’s allow those who disagree with us to speak for themselves, rather than taking sound bites out of context to suit our short-term ends. We have good reason, after all, to care about the truth.
If we’re Republicans, let’s honor Democrats. If we’re Democrats, let’s honor Republicans. If we’re independents, let’s try to understand how those planted firmly on both sides of the aisle have come to their views. Let’s outdo one another in demonstrating love and honor toward others, beginning with fellow believers, and moving outward from there. It will surely confuse and intrigue many. And maybe, just maybe, our churches will stand out as a “model community” revealing, as Mouw puts it, “how God intends diverse individuals and groups to get along.”
In the rest of the book, Mouw tackles a variety of topics, like pluralism and relativism, homosexuality, war and peace, unsavory Christian beliefs like hell, inter-religious dialogue, and the danger of triumphalism. I’ll let you dig into those specifics for yourself, and please do consider how you might better embody convicted civility among your friends and family, in your church, and in the complicated, broken, polarizing world beyond. I’d love to hear your ideas about how Christians of all kinds might do this better. I know I have a lot to learn.
If you’re not particularly a book reader (or you want to share these ideas with someone else), check out this interview Mouw gave to On Being with Krista Tippett about this topic.
[Image credit: “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun” by Vincent van Gogh (1889) via ibiblio.org]