Civility in an Uncivil World
In our world today it seems the norm for people to freely and publicly express the diversity of their minds and experiences through the seemingly innumerable avenues available through social media and the Internet.
Where to Find It?
Those who are part of this global conversation know that it can get pretty volatile out there. But it may not be necessary to look “out there” to observe the culture and results of contention and incivility. Sadly, our personal social media feeds, our own homes, schools, churches, boardrooms, hallways, administrative offices, and spheres of influence, already provide adequate witness. Contention and incivility are everywhere, and the church is not exempt. Incivility is a powerful trend that hasn’t found sufficient resistance or boundaries, and can give the illusion that hate and intolerance are justified by strong values and convictions.
Thankfully, this social media society still allows for the possibility of finding gems of encouragement and wisdom. But when we disagree, the values of love and grace seem to be the exception rather than the rule. People seem remarkably inclined to use rightness and self-justification to excuse unpleasant words, actions, and attitudes toward others. Whatever the reason, it seems socially acceptable for intolerance and hate to trump decency and kindness in our reactions to the differences between us. Social media make it easier because we can often have our debates without ever meeting or looking each other in the eye—something that allows us to act or speak differently than we might in person.
How Old Is Such Behavior?
We may be tempted to assume that people acting differently from a distance than they do in person is a new phenomenon; but this is an age-old reality. In New Testament times the apostle Paul alludes, perhaps amusingly, to this dynamic in his own life: “In presence [I]am base among you, but being absent am bold toward you” (2 Cor 10:1, KJV). It is easier to be bold and critical when there is distance between us and to be humble and gracious when we are face to face.
The difference now is that the medium through which we express ourselves is visible to the whole world. What was once written in private to an individual or to a specific group is now easily broadcast for the whole world to see and to weigh in on.
I may blame exterior circumstances all I wish, but it’s what’s inside that counts when I get bumped.
But why should that be? Why should so many consider their opinion or perspective important and essential enough for the whole world to hear? And why should the world then make it important enough to have a public brawl?
Further, what is the role or value of Christianity in circumstances like these? Does it call us to bring something better, or stand for something different? It surely must, given the privilege of God’s grace that has drawn us “out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
As Paul explains, this dynamic transformation never comes to an end as “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). Widely famous examples of God’s continuously transforming miracle are the famous eighteenth-century slave trader John Newton, and John Bunyan, from the century before, once known by those around him as “the ungodliest fellow for swearing they ever heard,”1 engaging, according to his own testimony, “in all manner of vice and ungodliness.”2 Ellen White wrote: “John Bunyan was redeemed from profanity and reveling, John Newton from slave dealing, to proclaim an uplifted Saviour. A Bunyan and a Newton may be redeemed from among men today. Through human agents who cooperate with the divine, many a poor outcast will be reclaimed, and in his turn will seek to restore the image of God in man.”3
Their example, and White’s comment, show that the miracle of transformation never ceases within us, nor does its impact ever cease to be felt by those around us. Christians who are in constant transformation are also, in their turn, constantly serving as God’s agents for restoring His image in others around them. It may be asked quite fairly: If we aren’t reflecting the image of God in the world, then what are we doing? If my faith makes no difference in the world when it comes to the question of civility, then what is its worth?
Our Christian Calling
As those who follow Christ, even when we have enemies we are called to love them (Matt. 5:43-48); though I wonder if it has become too easy to make enemies these days. Nobody needs to harm anybody: all that’s necessary is a disagreement, or different preference for being or doing. Remarkably, these minor distinctions now warrant hatred even between Christians, with full character judgments standing on a single bit of information about an individual’s political or religious perspectives, parenting or educational philosophies, lifestyle practices, even race or gender.
Jesus said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32). Once convicted that we have found the truth, we are ready to serve as its champions, passionate about its values and our perspectives, with little distinction between the two. But whether our angle on any aspect of truth is entirely accurate or not, we need to remember that how we express ourselves may communicate more about our truth and its values than what we say.
Having “the truth” leads to wars against “error,” being whatever we now choose not to have. It is often in the expression of our rightness that the true measure of our characters is revealed. Our civility or lack thereof may be more about inner feelings, general mood, or overall temperament, i.e., our inner emotional world, than about objective distinctions of conviction.
Personal experience permits me to acknowledge the pointedness of Jesus’ evaluations: “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:22); looking lustfully makes you guilty (verse 28); “if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (verse 29).
I may hold my peace in public. No one may hear the comebacks, negative judgements, grudges, and scenarios in which my wit is winner or my cutting retort draws blood. But I know that as long as I still entertain them within me, choosing to privately revel in the payback or the win, I damage my soul as much as putting it out there for the whole world to see.
I recently saw an unattributed meme that encouraged you to picture yourself holding a cup full of tea. Someone bumps into you, spilling the tea everywhere. The question: “Why did you spill the tea?” Different responses suggest themselves: “because someone bumped me,” or “because the cup was full,” or other choice or blame-filled responses. The author’s answer: you spilled tea because there was tea in the cup. If there had been some other liquid in the cup, then that is what you would have spilled. The point being that what the cup contains is what it will spill when someone bumps into you.
With regard to civility, it’s what we have inside that will spill out when others in life bump into us; when we face conflict or difficulty in our relationships. I may blame exterior circumstances all I wish, but it’s what’s inside that counts when I get bumped.
Discussion and debate will go on as to the cause and effect relationships between social media and incivility. But there is no doubt that social media provide many opportunities for us to bump into others, and for others to bump into us. The question we each must face is: What will come spilling out? Are we spending time focusing our lives on Jesus, filling our cups from the wellspring of living water that will bring life and healing to the world when it spills over, or better, when we pour it out joyfully? For as Jesus promises, we will always have more to spill and pour out with the living water that He gladly pours into our cups, water that is itself “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
Modeling civility in an uncivil world is different from passivity, going along with whatever happens, and maintaining peace at all costs. Modeling civility means craving justice and contending for righteousness just as “the prophets who were before” us (see Matt. 5:6-12), and standing up for purity of soul as much as peacemaking (verses 8, 9). “The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). As people who have unlimited access to the love and grace of God through our knowledge of Jesus Christ, not only are we empowered to be civil in an uncivil world, but to lead our world by example through the difficult conversations of life.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 236.
Leah Jordache has served as a pastor and ministry leader in the Seventh-day Adventist church for the past 18 years.