(RNS) Have we made civil discourse an oxymoron?
The once noble goal of decency in politics seems to have gotten lost, and the Christian’s call to love along with it.
For the sake of the Kingdom of God and the good of the world, Christians are called to lovingly engage people as Jesus did. But what does this look like when we all dig our heels into one side of a sea of red and blue?
The last few elections have pointed to increasing division, and this one has shown us at our worst. We talk past each other and don’t listen. We are so entrenched in our views that we are willing to vilify each other. Democracy sees the value of dialogue for the common good and with the goal of solutions. But I don’t hear many people talking about that anymore.
In 2013, I was part of a gathering with the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., to discuss such civility. This was a small, diverse group of religious leaders, along with some U.S. senators and members of the House. The group created a statement to foster civility in our country. I was glad to speak about the draft, but leaned against signing because I just don’t sign many group letters. However, as I watched the political climate become more polarized, after prayer and reflection I changed my mind.
In this case, I hoped religious leaders standing together as co-belligerents against incivility would help in some small way. That was 2013. After this year, it’s clear more is needed. Perhaps 2016 is how it feels to hit rock bottom.
If the only way to go is up, how do we begin? Here are three suggestions, easily drawn from the Christian Scriptures, but often absent from this election cycle:
1. Practice the golden rule.
“Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.” (Matthew 7:12)
It’s unfortunate that one of the most practical and powerful teachings in Scripture is often too quickly said and too rarely practiced. When love for neighbor is genuine and deeply felt, it changes not only what we feel for others, but also how we treat others.
What if we looked at those we disagree with through the eyes called to bear burdens, to be concerned for them more than ourselves?
Don’t we want to be understood? Don’t we want our positions honestly considered? Too often we think of others’ views in the worst way and demand others take our views in the best way. That’s hypocrisy. Without love, we are just “clanging cymbals” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Love is the fuel for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Love elevates our dialogue and seeks the greatest good.
2. Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.
This may be one of the best ways to explain what the golden rule looks like in an actual conversation, and it comes from the the epistle of James 1:19. As we engage with those who have different views, we should focus on listening. Too often, we engage by preparing our responses while others are still laying out their case. We can do better by listening well. It not only makes us respond better, but it shows respect.
Good listening leads to good understanding, and good understanding leads to good and accurate responses. When others do respond, we should refuse to get easily angered and offended. We take the words of others in the best way possible and focus on the discourse.
3. Model Christian discourse.
The first and second point flow naturally into the third: Leaders should teach the values of civil discourse. Before we expect it from anyone else, we must be the ones to model the path. It starts with truly loving our neighbor. It makes us better listeners, wise in using our words and not easily offended or angered.
More than a good zinger to win an argument, we should desire real discourse for the good of the causes we believe in and for the good of the world that we care to convince.
We can’t have civility if we don’t assume the other person desires the best for the community and country. Let’s pray and seek God’s guidance on how to relate and engage the world around us for the common good.
This season has been rough, and we have a lot of baggage. But God’s mercies are new every morning, which means we can try again. After the vitriol, it may seem impossible. But it isn’t. We can start today. It’s time to love our neighbors, even those with the wrong political sign in their yard.
(Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism)