The Civil Wars

 In Culture, Fred's Blog

A friend called this week to discuss the topic of civility. He has been commissioned to research and write on why Christians are not perceived as being civil – but angry and mean. As the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty observed, “People these days who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil.”

My friend thinks (and I agree) civility should be one of the characteristics of a Christian life in public. While we know that some of this mean-spiritedness is our being caricatured by people who have an axe to grind with Christians and a vested interest in portraying us in the worst light possible, we also know there is at least some truth in how we are seen. Unfortunately, some of the people who represent us most visibly are the least civil.

Only a few decades ago, evangelical Christians felt happily and successfully married to the American culture around them. Remember the description of the Episcopal Church? It was once known as “the Republican Party at prayer.” The church and the culture shared the same values, aspirations and general assumptions about what is good and bad. Robert Bellah called this “civil religion” in which we all lived with a set of religious symbols and suppositions that made us feel we shared a common faith. This culture was not as concerned with shared doctrine as it was with basic values that need neither explaining nor defending.

One day we woke up and were shocked to discover our spouse had been unfaithful. The rumblings had been going on for years, but with the Supreme Court rulings on abortion, it was clear the union was in jeopardy. How could they believe what they now believed? How could they be behaving in ways that were idolatrous and immoral?

What was our response? Unfortunately, it was not only to decide to divorce ourselves from the marriage, but to hire the meanest, loudest, most hateful and derisive representatives we could find to handle the divorce.

I have a friend who, while going through a divorce, her spouse said to her, “One of us is going down, and it’s not going to be me.” This is the tone of what people from the outside see – a messy divorce between evangelical Christians and the culture. We may lose, but we will make the other side pay. After all, we are no longer defending our position, but defending God.

As Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”

But isn’t there some kind of anger that is good? What about righteous indignation or the anger of the Old Testament prophets? Yes, I think there is, but it is different from people who are simply angry, hateful and vindictive.

What we see today is not genuine prophetic indignation but people enraged because they feel betrayed – and are going to win no matter the cost. Demonizing the other side (whoever that is) is now the norm in our “culture of outrage.” It only takes a quick look at Facebook to see otherwise gracious people post evil, factually dubious remarks about anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs.

If we look closely at the range of emotions and beauty of argument displayed by Isaiah and Jeremiah, their words were not merely venting or threatening. Their thoughts were so well composed that they have become part of the great literature of the world.

For me, the best way to be civil is not merely to be nice or try and avoid conflict.  It is not smug tolerance.  We can be tough without being mean. Instead, taking a page out of Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” we should encourage and instruct Christians (especially those in public) to have the disciplined confidence that comes from being taught to think clearly, be articulate, respectful and reasoned instead of resorting to loud attacks and rants.

I think Sayers is right when she says, “For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary…They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are prey to words in their emotions instead of being masters of them in their intellects.”

It does not mean we become pale and humorless ciphers. Just the opposite. Some of our best persuaders were those like G.K. Chesterton who used humor and logic both to argue his case. I believe we then become truly civil because we have the deep confidence that comes from a reasonable and defensible faith.

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    Scott Hillstrom
    Reply

    Thanks, Fred, for another message full of insight. I was in one of Rick Warren’s AIDS conferences a few years ago. Rick called on people to come forward and hug homosexual activists standing in front of the pulpit. I hugged one. He looked around and saw many from the church doing the same and said, tears in his eyes, “I have never seen such an outpouring of love for us,” referring to himself and his friends. He, and perhaps some of his friends, was deeply moved. Rick never wavered in his position on homosexuality. But he also left no one in doubt that he loves homosexuals. Jesus loves us all who are no less sinners. Maybe part of what it means to serve Him is to first love all of our neighbors without regard to their sin. To forgive their trespasses as we ask God to forgive our own and leave judgment to God who, alone, is capble of judging justly.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Scott, Rick Warren is a perfect example of civility!

  • Avatar
    Ryan Dowd
    Reply

    Very well said, Fred. Thank you.

  • Avatar
    Rob Moll
    Reply

    Excellent piece, Fred. This was shared at work today. I think the early church apologists also displayed this attitude of joyful, respectful, defiance. They offered a thoughtful position of where Roman society and ideas where wrong and right; appeals to stop throwing Christians to the lions while boasting that the Christians would keep taking care of the poor in Roman society.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Rob. I have been friends with Harold Myra and Paul Robbins almost my entire life and it was from Harold that I first heard the term “irenic” and, even more important, first saw it practiced. I was on the board of CTI for eleven years and pretty much retired when they did. However, it was always a pleasure to see how much the magazine strived to be civil and irenic. I hope your writing is going well. Keep writing!

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    Greg Smith
    Reply

    Thanks Fred for helping us wrestle with significant thoughts. I had a conversation recently about similar topics and my friend left me with something I am still digesting. He said “A lot of things change depending on whether we see the world and culture as a Battlefield or a Mission Field”.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Greg. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church and our hymns were the way we taught theology. I don’t remember a single sermon but I do remember every hymn. So, we probably grew up with a hymnal that created more than a little cognitive dissonance with singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” followed immediately by “We’ve A Story To Tell To The Nations.” It was a little like tracks on an Elvis Presley album – “Burning Love” followed by “How Great Thou Art.” None of us thought about that being odd. But, as you say, there comes a time when we do have to think about it.

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