As Independence Day approaches, and as electioneering gets as intense as this summer heat wave, I’m hoping against hope for an outbreak of civility. Civility is a public virtue which is simple to praise and complicated to practice. It’s easy to dream about and hard to make a reality in the give-and-take of everyday life.
I believe that genuine civility has its roots in the character of God. As a Christian, I believe that God “rules the world with truth and grace” (a phrase from “Joy to the World”). We see God’s way of ruling most clearly in the servanthood of Jesus. God’s power is most definitively displayed in the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus’ cross.
Civility includes using our powers of speech to persuade and not to coerce; making our case but not manipulating; debating those with whom we disagree, but not demeaning them; and being clear and passionate about our convictions, while listening receptively to the passions and convictions of others. When we do these things, we reflect, in small, imperfect, but important ways, the God who uses power to serve and not to dominate, who rules the world by love and not by force, and who loves enemies enough to die for them.
Civility is also a way of bearing witness to the God-given dignity of all human beings. Even people whom we do not particularly like and with whom we have significant disagreements are made in the image of God. Richard Mouw has suggested that, when we are finding it hard to think well of someone, we remember:
Every human being is a center of value. The value may not always be obvious to us. This is why we have to go out of our to reflect on the value of specific human beings. We Christians can do this by reminding ourselves that the person in question is created by God. If an artist friend produces a work of art that I don’t particularly like, I can still treat that artifact with reverence if I remind myself of the value it has for the person who made it. The more I respect the artist, the more I will go out of my way to revere her work.
Every human being is a work of divine art. God has crafted each of us; we are all “special creations. Even when we have rebelled against God and distorted his handiwork in our lives, he continues to love us--much as an artist loves something she has worked on lovingly, even when it has been severely damaged. I can learn a lot about how to treat an unlikable person with reverence if I keep reminding myself of the value the person has in the eyes of God (from his book, Uncommon Decency)
People who do not share our views in whatever arena—family, friendship, faith, economics, or politics—are people whom God loves. We can oppose their positions vigorously and disagree with them strenuously, while at the same time treating them with respect and dignity. It’s possible to combine strong opinions and love. When we engage in that kind of civility we bear witness to the fact that all human beings are valuable because all are created in God’s image. And, we make our world a better, more peaceful place.