Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World

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“Can Christians be civil in a world falling apart?

In these wild and diverse times, prolifers square off against prochoicers, gay liberationists confront champions of the traditional family, husbands and wives face each other in court, artists attack legislators, and “politically correct” intellectuals abhor crusading fundamentalists.

Philosopher and ethicist Richard Mouw is concerned that, too often, Christians seem to be contributing more to the problem than to the solution. But he recognizes–from his own personal struggle–that it’s not easy to hold to Christian convictions and treat sometimes vindictive opponents with civility and decency.”

The paragraphs above invites us to look into the book. My reason was simple and perhaps existential – How do we engage in conversation with someone who holds strong convictions who are different from us? We tend to focus a lot on how to persuade the other person to accept our views of positions. But increasingly I believe we cannot pursue that process with out the practice of “convicted civility”. This book introduced me to this helpful term.

The relevance of this particular approach and reflection is urgent as I witness needed dialogue and healthy debate within the Christian community (and even beyond that) often degenerating into fruitless disputes and off-tangen directions which after some time drain the resources within us for better things ahead.

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Richard J. Mouw is one self-proclaimed Calvinist who breaks the stereotype of a crusading philosopher, scholar, and author in the Reformed tradition. I found myself receptive to the gems he offers.

I’m not much of a book reviewer. It’s simpler for me to share what has caught my attention and match it with my own reflections. So nothing fancy. What you see is what you get.

“one of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.”— p.12

During the E06 conference Workshop I facilitated we began framing our discussions between Dogmatism & Tolerance and the tension in between. The refreshing insight I got from Prof. Mouw is that no one needs to be “conviction-less” (that’s not in question), the problem is we lack civility. I think he’s right.

“Christian civility does not commit us to a relativistic perspective. Being civil doesn’t mean that we cannot criticize what goes on around us. Civility doesn’t require us to approve of what other people believe and do. It is one thing to insist that other people have the right to express their basic convictions; it is another thing to say that they are right in doing so.” – p. 20

Sometimes it “feels” or maybe “perceived” just because we allow the “other” person to voice their views we walk the slippery slope of compromise. The temptation to be quick to “defend” or to “show the fault of the other view” bubbles in us when some patience to hear them out further could clear the way better. At the end, we might all land up with different conclusions but we’d become better people as we walk through the issues and concerns – especially when we can get in touch with the deepest fears or highest hopes. We might not change our “views” but our “view” of the other person and what they stand for may change.

“When Jesus showed “acceptance” to prostitutes and tax collectors, he did not condone their sexual or economic behaviors. He loved them in spite of their unsavory ways. He called Mary Magdalene and Zacchaeus to correct their ways and become faithful disciples.

But Jesus refused to define people in terms of their present sordid circumstances. He affirmed their potential for living as faithful and creative children of God.” – p. 22

Acceptance, approval, affirmation. The way we negotiate how these words and what they represent and convey is needed as we deal with uncomfortable issues. so, often the battle is not out there but within us – our heart attitudes, the paradigms in our heads, and the praxis we are used to.

We talked about Homosexuality and Race/Religion/politics to keep the workshop concrete and not abstract. And even in the midst of that, I think conscious effort was needed for us as Christians especially to see the human faces behind the controversial issues. The temptation to be over excited about the issues and the arugments surrounding it tend to de-humanize us (both parties perhaps on the opposing end) if we are not careful.

“To be civil toward people does not mean that we have to like them… I can treat this person with gentleness and respect even if I haven’t manufactured those feelings that would count as “liking” them.” – p. 22-23

This was liberating! πŸ™‚ and realistic. But I think keeping in view how we feel about the other person is one big challenge.

“Ad hoc adjustments are necessary for all of us. We are on a pilgrimage, and our favorite formulas are often nothing more than helpful summaries of what we have seen thus far. We have to be open to new challenges as we continue in our journey.” – p.164

So often, it’s appreciating the limits of our perspectives and especially the limits of language for me has ironically been most liberating.

“Our fundamental allegiance is to the gospel alone. In the light of that basic allegiance, all other commitments must be tentative. … we must not be drawn into ideological attachments Convicted people are easily captivated by polarized positions, but Christian disciples ought to be very suspicious of hard-line identifications with either “left” or “right.” – p. 164-165

Even if one doesn’t want to be “captived by polarized positions”, the reality of being labeled by others is still inescapable. To some we are too left, to others we maybe too right, for many we may appear position-less, the list goings on. When all is said, I pause and submit my “struggles” to Christ for constant self-examination. What is true for us in our daily ethics is similar to our work in progress musings. Things look static on paper and when it’s captured in words to some degree … when we all recognize it’s surely more dynamic.

“The recognition that God’s standards of truth and morality are the only reliable reference points for our lives should instill in us a humble spirit. Arrogant self-righteousness must have no place in our hearts. It’s one thing to believe that God’s revelation is the only sure and certain guide for our journey; it’s another thing to act as if we ourselves possessed a sure and certain grasp of all the complexities of revealed truth.” – p. 166

I’ve heard this raw expression of the above refined paragraph: “You are free to affirm your convictions, but you don’t have to be a jerk doing it” It cuts both ways.

“Seeing God’s patience means being modest in what we expect of other people.”– p. 168

Sometimes, I wonder whether it’s easier to be more modest in my expectations for non-Christians than fellow Christians. Partly, because the inner voice may say “We should now better as Christians!” But then again …

“This is what civility comes to, finally: an openness to God’s surprises. What that openness marks out lives, we have learned patience – along with the flexibility and tentativeness and humility and awe and modesty that will inevitably come to the patient heart. And since none of this is possible without a clear sense of who we are, and to whom we belong, the patient heart will also be a place where convictedness has found its home.” – p. 169

Patience is rare these days. How often I have failed in this area. Hopefully after reading this post – and for some of us this book … the atmosphere of “patience” will increase starting from those of us who proclaim we worship one who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”

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