Christian Civility: The Test of Intra-Faith Relations

Christian Civility does not mean that we won't disagree. There is a difference between incivility and disagreement. Incivility breaks down communication and ruptures God's kingdom.
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Recently, I read an article featuring a pastor with whom I had strong disagreements. The more I read, the less I liked -- and it was a long article. That pastor made statements about the nature of the Gospel and society to which I took personal offense. Unfortunately, this happened right before I went to bed and I spent an hour or so awake and fuming, wondering how this person could read the same scriptures and see such a different Jesus than the one I call Lord. The more I thought, the more I began to view a fellow Christian, whom I had never met and to whose beliefs I had been introduced third hand, as "the enemy." Like cement carelessly poured on a sidewalk, my thoughts hardened my heart into a stumbling block for my faith. Of course, my reaction isn't particularly unique or even surprising.

Religion evokes intense responses because it plays an essential role in our lives. Our beliefs reflect who we are, what we care about, our purpose -- what Tillich would call our "ultimate concerns." I serve as the Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University. Much of my work involves encouraging interfaith dialogue between students of different religious traditions, including a group of 30 students called the Religious Life Council who have committed themselves to being part of a community of diverse faith traditions and beliefs (including atheists and agnostics) that acknowledges difference while maintaining respect and friendship. This stretches the students as Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists articulate their disagreements on questions of the existence of God, how society should be structured, the relation between religion and international politics and the nature of salvation. When speaking to someone from a different faith, we start out with the basic understanding that we will and should disagree, but we can sit down and have some tea and talk together.

Inter-faith dialogue is hard, but intra-faith can be harder. Every Christian claims Jesus, so essential questions of how we understand Jesus, his earthly ministry, the meaning of the crucifixion, the nature of his call upon our lives (questions to which a non-Christian is largely indifferent) become the grounds of our essential debate and, literally, a matter of life and death. When we encounter a Christian who thinks and believes differently, we experience that difference as an attack on the principles upon which we have built our lives and as a betrayal to the faith. This feeling only increases when you add in politics. In recent elections, both sides of the political aisle found inspiration and legitimization from Christian constituencies. Political debates often adopted theological rhetoric, and religious leaders adopted political strategies. The result has been a "winner take all" attitude with Christian groups being particularly brutal toward one another.

These battles are not new. I remember being disheartened in seminary by the contentious nature of our debates over Christian traditions and their social implications. A fellow student reminded me that, as evidenced in Paul's letters, Christians have been disagreeing since the early church. The comment was meant to be comforting, and it is good to consider that our internal conflicts are not the result of any unique sinfulness of our time. But if we look at the history of our faith, we cannot gloss over the horrible violence committed by Christians, not only against people of other religions, but between ourselves. Thousands, maybe millions of people have died as the result of theological, social or ecclesial differences. Thank God we do not appear to be anywhere near that point today, but our history looms as a warning. Civility, and more specifically Christian Civility, serves as a safeguard against any threat of further violence or brutality. But more than utilitarian, Christian Civility should be adopted by every follower of Jesus as an important part of the spiritual discipline of our faith: not merely as one tool in our spiritual toolbox but as an integral part of what it means to be a Christian.

The word civility shares the same root as citizen. Citizens of a common nation survive because they enter into the basic contract that they need one another, and that all individual citizens have a role to play so that they might be collectively enriched. Laws are created that grant citizens individual rights balanced by mutual responsibilities to one another. The locus of civility within the Christian life is the kingdom of God to which we are all granted citizenship through our faith. In God's kingdom, we are bound by the covenant of the two great commandments: that we love God and love our neighbor -- even those whom we imagine to be our enemies -- as ourselves. Civility in the kingdom of God demands a commitment to reconciliation that goes to the heart of the Gospel.

The importance of reconciliation is stressed by Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24, when he instructs his followers not to come to the altar if we are in a dispute with one of our sisters or brothers. In this age of the Internet, in which anonymous vitriol and cruelty is as easy as a click of the keyboard, Jesus' specific demand that we approach the one with whom we have a disagreement face-to-face offers a profound correction. Just like the interfaith engagement of my students at Princeton, personal interaction forces us to recognize the humanity in the person whom otherwise we might easily demonize or dismiss. The more we know about a person, the more we appreciate their vulnerabilities, their aspirations and the reasons for their convictions. Hopefully we might ultimately acknowledge that God is working in her or his life as well as in our own.

The advantage of being authentically engaged with people whose beliefs differ from our own is that it serves as a safeguard against idolizing our own ideology. If we are around only people who nod affirmatively we risk the casual merging our own truth with the Gospel truth and subsuming the Way of Jesus to our own way. When we become adherents of our own certitude, our faith can calcify and stagnate. Christian Civility requires humility, a somewhat under-emphasized virtue among Christian leaders. Yet our commitment to "walk humbly with our God," as Micah requires, gives space for us to learn and grow from God and from our Christian brothers

Christian Civility does not mean that we won't disagree. There is a difference between incivility and disagreement. Incivility breaks down communication and ruptures God's kingdom, but disagreement between Christians is inevitable -- and even productive. One example is the disagreement between Christian leaders around the Civil Rights Movement in America. Many Christians were encouraging Martin Luther King, Jr. to temper his demands, to slow down his movement and to not create so much tension or disagreement. MLK responded in his now famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail: "But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth." Like MLK Jr., all of us benefit from clarity about where we stand. A call for civility is not a call for lack of conviction, rather it is about remaining engaged with those with whom we disagree in the hopes that we might somehow continue to move forward together forging new consensus as we go. The Civil Rights Movement is one example of civil tension that led Christians to a more authentic faith.

We will continue to have tension among Christians until we all agree on everything or Jesus comes again -- and I am betting on Jesus. Therefore the call for civility begins today and with each one of us. Christian Civility doesn't work if it is reduced to me pointing the finger at someone else and telling him or her to be more civil. While I still disagree with the pastor of my earlier confession, instead of only pointing out the speck in his eye, I should start by paying more attention to the log in my own. Perhaps then, when we can see each other more clearly, we will be granted the vision to build bridges into the future.

This article was first published as the forward to the book 'Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility In An Uncivilized World.'

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