Being civil in an uncivil world

August 23rd, 2011 · by Tom Stuart · Communication, News & Reflections

Always be ready to defend your confidence [in God] when anyone asks you to explain it.  However, make your defense with gentleness and respect.  1 Peter3:15 (God’s Word)

 “You’re an idiot and you talk too slow!” the talk radio host blurted out as he hung up on the caller.  He hadn’t even let the guy on the phone finish his question, a reasonable question, before refusing to consider it, insult the man and move on to his next caller, someone the screener now made sure agreed with the political views of the show host.  I do not listen often to talk radio, particularly political talk radio, except to monitor from time to time what the hot topics of the day are. 

That exchange, which I heard recently, epitomized for me the polarization in our nation right now, not only politically, but also ethically and religiously. 

That divisive and acrimonious spirit is demonstrated by an incivility and a refusal to dialogue constructively or offer any real effort at resolving our differences.  Sadly, the state of civil discourse in our land has fallen on hard times. We have political parties who cannot work together to solve our budget issues.  We have lock-outs and walk-outs, firings and hirings based on political persuasions, and protests and litmus tests for those who don’t agree with us. 

What is it that keeps us from coming to the table with mutual respect to seek answers together as to what divides us?  There are no ready, all inclusive answers to that question.  In part however, it is that we have categorized those who disagree with us as the enemy.  When someone is the “enemy” we hesitate to have civil discourse with them lest we appear to be compromising our convictions, acknowledging our weakness or surrendering to their point of view.  And so we fall into the trap of doing what author G.K. Chesterton termed setting up “false devils” by labeling as evil those who disagree with us, thereby dismissing anything they have to say.  Therefore, if they are an “idiot” why spend any time talking to them?  

When I took logic in college I was warned about the ad hominem fallacy.  In general that debate tactic is an attempt to negate the truth of a person’s claim by pointing out a negative characteristic in the person advocating it.  For instance, if a person talks or sounds funny, we choose not to listen because we don’t like the way they are saying it – e.g. they “talk too slow. ”

The “false devil” characterization like setting up a false god, invariably leads us astray.  We cut ourselves off from hearing and seeing what God may want to reveal to us about them or through them. 

Jesus had respectful dialogue with all kinds of people who had different political and religious views including publicans, prostitutes and Pharisees.  His engagement with them was rooted in both listening to them and to His Father and responding appropriately.  He was not compromising His convictions nor surrendering to their ethic by conversing civilly with them.  To the contrary He was building a bridge of relationship whereby He could convey His truth to them in love.  Yes, sometimes, particularly with the religious leaders of His day, He was angry and stern in His rebuke of their practices that were misleading the faithful.  But even in that He maintained an attitude that was able to forgive them from the cross.

What would our world be like if we approached those who disagree with us from a Christ-like perspective?  What if we took the Apostle Paul’s advice to “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”?  (Romans12:18 – NIV).  Entering into a conversation with the intention to seek peace changes the atmosphere.  It can go along way toward helping two opposing parties find some common ground. 

The Apostle Peter gives some stunning advice when it comes to presenting and defending what you believe.  He encourages us to speak out when we are given the opportunity.  “Always be ready to defend your confidence [in God] when anyone asks you to explain it.  (1 Peter3:15NIV)  That is great advice, and throughout the centuries the church has done that with zeal.  We all would do well to be prepared to defend our faith. 

But sadly, we have often failed to read and heed the remainder of that verse.  “However, make your defense with gentleness and respect.” (3:15)  “Gentleness and respect” – that is civility in modern parlance.  So this verse is a call, particularly for all who are believers, to treat those who disagree and even oppose us with civility.  Let us, by God’s grace not fall prey to the spirit of the age that is spawning and spewing incivility.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

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2 Responses to “Being civil in an uncivil world”

  1. I feel that we are to wrapped in ourselves and that my way and thoughts are the only way, that we do not know what civility is any longer. I know I have to fight to listen what others are saying as I am already forming my comeback. We tend to tune others out that have different ideas, especially political or religious ones. Especially when defending the faith we must remember to tell what God has done in our lives and for us, for no one can dispute that but we must remember to be kind and gentle when doing so. If we really practice and be slow to speak and listen how to what the other is saying maybe civility can make a come back.

  2. I like the reference you make here to the James 1:19 passage: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” That is an important perspective/attitude to bring into any conversation. Thanks for your Input Dave.

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