Christian Civility

An elderly Jesuit, long experienced in interfaith dialogue, once told me ruefully, "These days it's easier to talk with people of other faiths than it is to talk with other Christians."  Strangely, some interpret the call to charity and civility in the Christian (and Catholic) world as a way of papering over differences.  It is not: it is the only way we can talk about our differences.  Here's Paul Raushenbush, a Baptist pastor and Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University (and Religion editor at Huffpo), on "intrafaith dialogue" and the need for Christian civility. 

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.

Read the rest here.

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PJ Johnston
8 years ago
There is so little civility in the Catholic blogosphere that when I couldn't get to your site for a couple of days over the weekend, I unhesitatingly assumed that someone who didn't like the content here carried out a DDoS attack on the site.  This probably isn't charitable of me, but it reflects one view (albeit a deeply cynical and jaded one) of the political situation.

I think the discourse of civility and Christian charity works differently among different groups.  One side (which I happen to belong to) believes that we're all citizens of the Christian commonwealth which is enriched by having more than one viewpoint, so the virtue of discourse is or ought to be civility wherein we recognize our importance to one another and speak in ways that respect that importance.  I think there is another equally large group that works on the model that there is a single authoritative Catholic tradition with well-defined criteria of orthodoxy and heresy, that you remove yourself from this commonwealth through dissent or heresy - and since civility is for citizens of the same commonwealth it is not a necessary virtue in disputes between the "orthodox" and "heretics," with something like polemic, anathema, and ecclesiastical sanctions being more appropriate.

If I am right about these models it might help explain some of the discrepancies in notions of appropriate speech among the different parties.  I hope I'm wrong though.
8 years ago
Thank you so much, Fr.Martin, for bringing up this topic.  It's about time!  Indeed, we christians (Catholic, Protestants, and all other Christian denominations) are our own worst enemies.  And the secularists are just loving it!  We have become the 21st century Pharisees, the judgmental hypocrites, self-righteous puny little critters.  Can we just please shut up for a bit,  so we can hear the Holy Spirit.  Let's heed what St. Francis of Assisi suggested:  Yes, preach, use words if necessary.
8 years ago
Thank you so much, Fr.Martin, for bringing up this topic.  It's about time!  Indeed, we christians (Catholic, Protestants, and all other Christian denominations) are our own worst enemies.  And the secularists are just loving it!  We have become the 21st century Pharisees, the judgmental hypocrites, self-righteous puny little critters.  Can we just please shut up for a bit,  so we can hear the Holy Spirit.  Let's heed what St. Francis of Assisi suggested:  Yes, preach, use words if necessary.
Jack Barry
8 years ago
If an ancient re-appeared to say ''Behold these Christians, how they love one another'', it could only be taken as sarcasm in the context that Fr. Martin so perceptively addresses.  
  Reference to violent and brutal history is germane as is a recollection of how the past conflicts were often resolved.   The two great commandments and supporting guidance have been proclaimed since Christianity began.   Yet, over many centuries, armed monks, armies of Christian kings, and programs of execution for those declared to be heretics have played prominent roles in settling conflicts driven by theological and ecclesial differences viewed as important at the time.  We are rightly thankful today that these approaches for resolving Christian conflicts seem to have passed.   
  To date, no equally effective alternative seems to be recognizable for settling conflicts seen as involving matters just as vital and important today as those that stirred people long ago were to them.   The concept of Christian Civility might be interpreted as either radically new or ancient, as old as Christianity.  Either way, there appears to be no modern force pressing towards its adoption as a path to reconciliation.  This is understandable if reconciliation is recognized as not a particularly desirable goal.   Rather, conversion of ''the other'' to one's views is the predominant goal.   The Pope for one speaks consistently in this vein about outsiders.  It should not be surprising to find the same goal driving insiders exchanging broadband vitriol.   
  The overriding importance of conversion (or re-evangelization) of others to one's version of orthodoxy leaves little room for reconciliation of equally sincere and deeply committed opponents, as history has shown.  Further elucidation is needed of what ''reconciliation'' means in a multi-factional religion.   Fr. Martin would be a good candidate to lead on by expanding on what he describes above.  
Kay Satterfield
8 years ago
The article refers to the words of Martin Luther King, "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."  
We know that MLK was prophetically bringing to the surface and exposing what needed to change in our country. He had a lot of courage and conviction that he was on the right path.  However, how do you know when causing some tension that it's not just about you?   I guess you have to discern your motivations?  

8 years ago
Dear Bloggers,  I just read Fr. Martin's 12 Things I wish I knew at 25: Spiritual Lear nings on my 50th birthday.  A perfect piece to reflect on. Really!  A terrific approach to practice Christian Civility. 


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