Civility is needed now more than ever.
No matter the results on Nov. 8, civility will be vital to rebuild community and cooperation in the wake of a contentious presidential election.
Civility begins with respectful engagement with others, but, as the Institute of Civility emphasizes, it requires more than polite speech.
“It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions and teaching others to do the same.”
For Christians, this means conversing with others about our views and perspectives on issues “in a Christ-honoring manner,” as the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas explains.
This requires speaking truthfully as well as being careful with both anger and language.
Mudslinging during contentious presidential elections is neither a new nor recent phenomenon in U.S. politics, as I’ve observed previously. Yet, it seems that this has been one of the most polarizing elections in recent history.
With early voting already underway and the final presidential debate completed, it is an important time for goodwill people of faith to take the lead in recommitting ourselves to the art and practice of civility for the common good of the nation.
This will require repentance for harmful words voiced through in-person conversations and social media posts as well as acceptance of contrition from others for similar gestures.
Much of the incivility resulting from this presidential election seems to be rooted in a genuine, albeit misguided, fear that if one’s party or candidate doesn’t win, that harmful, perhaps irreversible, consequences will result.
Though this concern is observable in nearly every election – have you noticed that it is always “the most important election in history”? – such views appear to be more widespread this cycle.
A more measured perspective – recognizing that the nation’s salvation or destruction is not tied to a particular candidate’s or party’s victory or defeat at the ballot box – is needed.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s comments in “An Interpretation of Christian Ethics” (1935) offer a needed reorientation of our collective perspective: “No system of justice established by the political, economic and social coercion in the political order is perfect enough to dispense with the refinements which voluntary and uncoerced human kindness and tenderness between individuals add to it.”
Niebuhr summarizes his point by urging readers to pursue “the refinement of this justice by the love of individuals” and emphasizing that “the highest achievements of social good will and human kindness can be guaranteed by no political system.”
I would add, “and by no political party or leader.”
Politics, at its best, is about the pursuit of justice – the right ordering of society, the advancement of the common good.
While individuals, groups and political parties differ in their views of what this looks like and the means by which it can and should be achieved, seeking a just ordering of society should be the driving factor in developing and implementing policies and procedures.
I fear that this election, like too many before it, has revealed that collectively we are too uncritical of where, and in whom, we place our trust and our fear.
Are we too quick to believe that our party or candidate will bring about “the refinement of justice”? Are we too willing to accept the proposition that another party or candidate will bring a corruption of justice?
Could this be the inevitable result of an all-too-common tendency to embrace enthusiastically Micah 6:8’s imperative to pursue justice while ignoring the other exhortations the prophet set forth?
It is essential for Christians to remember and model all of Micah 6:8’s imperatives – to pursue justice in conjunction with (and, I would suggest, tempered and guided by) the embrace of mercy and the practice of humility.
Could the prophet be asserting that justice cannot rightly be understood or pursued apart from a love of mercy and humility (before God and others) to recognize that we are flawed?
To quote Niebuhr once more, “Every moral achievement [every effort we make in the pursuit of justice] stands under the criticism of a more essential goodness.”
Pursuing justice in society should be tempered by a merciful stance toward those with whom we disagree and a humility that our policies, perspectives and practices (however refined, well-researched and constructive) are imperfect.
While Christians should always be models of and advocates for civility in our efforts to pursue a more just society, it is particularly important that we do so as a divisive election draws to a close.