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City of Churches painting by Paul Klee

Waging Peace in the Culture Wars

Toward a Civilization of Love

R. R. Reno

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Photograph by Joel Dinda

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  • Margaret Crandall

    many of the subjects discussed have become "lines in the sand" Among people who claim to be tolerant. I know that if I state gently that my conscience doesn't allow me to agree on a topic I can see the door close, firmly & forever. I think we have to be discerning about who is or is not open to other points of view. What good is it to loose an entire relationship by bringing up a topic which the other person has committed to & can't allow input. Many of the topics you cite are beautifully described for an ideal world. I propose we ask: if this ideal is not available, how is it lived in the world as it is? I have been in prison & jail ministry for 15 years - applying many of these ideals to the world of the poor & abused ends up submitting real humans to a lifetime of pain lived out because someone insisted they fill a theoretic premise.

  • Michelle Cox

    I will never understand why the vast majority of American Christians waste their time, energies and resources trying to convince secular Americans, and the world, to follow Christian values when they are clearly incapable of this. We as a church should know better. We expect them to act as Christians when they are not. It makes no sense to me at all. At a time in history when there is so much growing inequality, when so many are suffering under oppression and injustice in America and all over the world, we are suspiciously silent, not questioning why this is happening, and fearful of being labeled "communist", or "un-American". I feel like we are sending the world the message: "We are better than you because we believe x, y and z-- and you should too--you should be more like us." But why would they want to? What have we shown them that is good in us-- or in the God we trust? Instead of demonstrating our intolerance of social injustice and fighting for widows and orphans, instead of speaking on behalf of "the least of these" we lend our voices instead to the chorus of condemnation. All the world hears is "We are better than you--you are are sinners" and "We don't care about you or your earthly struggles." Could it be they are right--maybe we don't care? If we did we would surely show it in our words and actions and especially in what we choose to "fight" for (not so much what we are against). The main problem with American Christians today is that we believe in a political activism that advocates for the legislation of a sinless society, rather than a more just one. And for this, we deserve to be called out---even if it is by the "Godless ones".

  • Tom

    Mr. Reno...I agree in principle what what you say. My only concern is you limit your representation of morality to narrowly. The Catholic tradition for one incorporates a social vision of morality which includes economic, human rights, war and peace and of course now the environment with a flourish. While there is reason for concern of a dismissive culture that lacks moral standing for issues like marriage, abortion and pornography - if these remain the sole focus the consequence is a privitization of morality.

Christianity is a fighting faith. We’re called to gird our loins with truth and to put on the breastplate of righteousness, so that we can contend against the principalities and powers that rule in the present darkness (Eph. 6:11–14). And rule they do. We are living in an era of transition. Increasingly self-confident secular Americans, many very powerful, are frustrated with the residual influence of a Bible-formed worldview. They tire of the limitations Judeo-Christian morality puts on personal decisions about sex, family, and marriage. They’re indifferent to the soul-destroying effects of pornography. They turn away from the now widespread moral chaos among the poorest and most vulnerable, focusing instead on the things they want: abortion on demand should contraception fail, greater freedom to use an accelerating technology of reproduction should nature not cooperate, and the option of doctor-assisted suicide at the end of life should the trials of suffering and death be too daunting.

All of us feel in our bones that a great deal is at stake, and we can’t simply step aside. “Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 6:13). The truth demands our loyalty. Furthermore, Christ’s commandment that we love our neighbor surely means speaking up for the moral order God has inscribed into every heart. We owe our neighbors, Christian or not, a faithful witness to truth, even when those truths are controversial. Even when our witness gets us labeled as “culture warriors.” Even when our witness upsets the status quo and enflames political passions. The prophets of Israel did not come to bring peace, but the sword that is the Word of God.

Though we feel the dark undertow of post-Christian culture, Christ calls us to do more than stand against evil, denounce error, and fight against the corruptions and betrayals of moral truth. The armor of God includes a sword, but we’re to beat it into a plowshare. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). Our Lord arrays us for battle, yes, but he does so with the “equipment of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). The most profound Christian vocation in the public square is not to win debates and elections, but to build a civilization of love.

This is not easy today. In my view, the rancor that now greets Christian morality presents a significant spiritual challenge. When our witness is part of a society-wide cultural conflict, when once widely accepted moral truths are viewed as partisan political stances, our words can too easily rend the fabric of society. Our witness can heighten conflict rather than contribute to a civilization of love. Thus an important question all of us face: How, for the sake of peace in our society, are we to wield the sharp, sometimes flaming words of truth?

Saint Paul gives us a clear principle: We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Love seeks the higher peace of unity in Christ. In all we say and do, we should aspire to love’s heights. However, in civic life we may do better to start with a more modest enterprise, which is to develop good habits of public speech, beginning with the virtue of civility.

The Bible itself can help us become more civil, and in so doing turn our truth-telling, if not into peacemaking, then at least into something that preserves the possibilities of peace in our era of intense cultural conflict. In this regard, the Golden Rule teaches the most obvious lesson: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matt. 7:12).

I don’t want others to pretend that they agree with me when they don’t, and I find it condescending when people remain silent because they think I might be hurt by disagreement. The Golden Rule does not warrant shrinking from sometimes tough and sharply worded encounters. It is not a counsel of niceness, which at best produces an artificial peace in which everyone works very hard to avoid controversial topics. Admittedly, to agree to disagree makes a truce of sorts, and there’s a proper place for it in public life – we may need a cooling-off period, as it were.

But the peace of Christ that passes all understanding is not the merely negative peace of an absence of conflict. It’s the peace of union with him, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Peacemaking involves community building, which can’t be done if we refuse to engage each other about the moral underpinnings that shape the civic life we share. That requires us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us: engaging them as adults who can bear disagreement without rancor.

So by all means there should be public debate. The question is, will such conversations be civil, or will they be saturated with ad hominem attacks, as today’s debates often are? Here the Golden Rule’s lesson for civility is obvious. I don’t like having my views distorted, nor do I enjoy it when others suggest that I have mean, selfish motives; accordingly, I must refrain from treating my opponents in these ways. While it may be true that the thinking of today’s secular liberals has been distorted by the modern diminution of moral authority to the sovereign self, it’s not true that they are motivated by a selfish interest to make moral truth revolve around themselves. On the contrary, many are motivated by a profound regard for the rights and freedoms of others. The same goes for me, of course. I’m often the “conservative” voice arguing against secular-liberal efforts to change our laws and social norms to reflect “progressive” views. But that does not mean I “fear change” or am in some way psychologically incapable of engaging other views.

One of the most uncivil and destructive aspects of today’s progressive project in morality and culture has been to label morally reasoned opposition to same-sex marriage as “homophobia.” It is politically convenient to summarily dismiss those who disagree rather than showing how they reason wrongly. But doing so erodes civility. The Golden Rule stip­ulates that, no matter how deeply we disagree, we must take others seriously as moral agents who seek to promote the common good.

To the Golden Rule we can add another basic moral principle: Saint Paul’s exhortation to refrain from doing evil for the sake of some greater or higher good (Rom. 3:8). Political debate is a contact sport. It involves sharply worded polemics, and rightly so, because a great deal is at stake. It’s no sin against the Golden Rule to refuse to speak of abortion supporters as “pro-choice,” saying instead, “pro-abortion.” A picture of an aborted child is shocking, but then the reality is as well. Civility does not shy away from forceful words and images that our adversaries would like to parry, dismiss, and hide.

All the same, we need to be sure to discipline our interventions. We need to set aside the temptation to score merely rhetorical victories that sway the minds of others with falsehoods and half-truths – even when doing so promises us a tactical ­advantage. Prevarication corrupts the public realm, because it creates an atmosphere of distrust. Though it’s less obvious, the same goes for a persistent refusal to acknowledge the implications of one’s own positions. When we fight for policies that provide public benefits for illegal immigrants, we’re dishonest if we refuse to allow that such policies, however proper from a moral perspective, will encourage more illegal immigration.

City of Churches painting by Paul Klee Paul Klee, “City of Churches”
Contributed By R. R. Reno

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things magazine and the author of Fighting the Noonday Devil: And Other Essays Personal and Theological (Eerdmans, 2011).

How, for the sake of peace in our society, are we to wield sharp, sometimes flaming words of truth?

The Golden Rule and the principle that the ends do not justify the means have an obvious relevance for sustaining civility in public life. But perhaps more important is Jesus’ assertion that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).

The passions of our faith should be fiery and urgent. We cannot believe in Christ too much. We cannot be too committed to the community gathered in his name. However, this never-too-much principle does not apply to our judgments about the common good and our roles as neighbors and citizens. Christ’s lordship makes a difference in this world, which is why we rightly engage in public debate and seek to fulfill our responsibilities as both Christians and citizens. But it is not of this world. Our deepest convictions are at stake in debates about abortion, war-making, same-sex marriage, and many other controversial topics. But our souls are not. We rightly anguish over the moral destiny of our nation, yet always remember that America is an earthly city, not the heavenly city. Thus, our contributions to public debate should not be overloaded with feelings of final and ultimate urgency.

To know that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world should not be interpreted as a reason to be nonpartisan. His teachings had relevance in first-century Jerusalem, where he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and they have relevance here and now. As we seek to live and speak in accord with Christ’s words, we cannot control how the world responds to us. A generation ago, there was nothing partisan about a Christian view of marriage. Neither Democrats nor Republicans resisted no-fault divorce. It was an era of bipartisan negligence. Meanwhile, gay marriage was a non-starter. This has changed. Now marriage is a hot-button issue that political operatives use to agitate their bases. “Marriage equality” becomes a slogan on the left, “family values” on the right.

When biblical morality becomes a political football, we need to follow another of Jesus’ teachings: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). We should be aware of how our convictions are being manipulated in the political process. Still, we cannot let the cynicism of the world silence our witness, which is what happens when we shy away from issues in order to avoid being partisan. If our attempts to do justice to the Bible’s vision of the common good lead to us being labeled ­partisan, then so be it.

We will certainly need to be serpent-wise as we build alliances to achieve political effectiveness. It is not a violation of civility to make shrewd decisions about what to play down and what to play up as we enter into effective coalitions. The fact that the Democratic and Republican Parties are extremely imperfect political vehicles for any Christian vision of the common good does not disqualify them. It would be political pharisaism to refuse to pollute oneself with the realities of public life in a fallen world.

But we can’t only be wise as serpents. We also need to cultivate a degree of political innocence that’s willing to keep speaking the truth even when the pundits and politicians tell us it’s an electoral loser. We should by all means seek to make our Christian witness politically influential; however, we should do so knowing that this world is passing away. If we keep in mind that Christ reigns already, it takes some of the sting out of political debates. We should seek to attain a holy indifference to our political effectiveness. After all, we are debating first things, not final things.

The Bridge painting by Egon Schiele Egon Schiele, The Bridge

We should seek to attain a holy indifference to our political effectiveness.

We exhibit the virtue of civility in many ways. To be civil means showing hospitality, inviting others to join in our common life – even the stranger and sojourner. Civility at its best is capacious. It trusts that those with whom we share civil society are well intentioned, even when misguided. Civility encourages a spirit of fraternal correction, something we need in an age of denunciation and Twitter mobs that gather to celebrate cyber-lynchings. In these and other ways, civility foreshadows love’s vocation of peacemaking. A society is civil because we are united in a partial but real friendship, even as we joust over the direction of our culture.

Multifaceted though it may be, civility is primarily a discipline of the tongue, as the Letter of James makes clear. Faced with a church riven with divisions of wealth, status, and theological opinion (which is to say every church to some degree or another), in the third chapter James turns his attention to the community’s leaders and how they speak. Insofar as any of us write for journals and newspapers, or speak at podiums and in the media, we too are being addressed by James. His word of counsel: bridle your tongue, for though a little member, it is capable of guiding the body politic, steering the ship of state – and setting the public square ablaze with rancor, distrust, and ill will.

That James should emphasize the need for leaders to discipline their tongues is not surprising. The sins of the tongue are so troubling that they get double treatment in the Ten Commandments: Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Do not bear false witness. This double emphasis prefigures Jesus’ teaching that we should give special attention to what comes out of our mouths. As James points out, with our tongues we both bless God and curse our neighbors. We should seek to do the former, not the latter.

We inevitably speak with anger, derogate others, and speak falsehoods. We are political animals with political instincts. Like all of our instincts, the political ones that motivate us to engage in public life – and make us vulnerable to what others say and do in our shared civic culture – can become enflamed and unruly. Our devotion to truth and justice can become disordered, leading us to sin with our tongues, igniting destructive fires in our common life. Against this tendency, James urges us to seek to discipline our tongues so that we can bring in the harvest of righteousness. He who gains command over his tongue, James says in so many words, has in an important sense attained perfection.

We need some of that perfection right now. In the face of intensifying conflict over moral and cultural issues, our society strains to maintain the bonds of civic friendship, the positive peace of fraternal loyalty. What we have to say as Christians is important. Our society needs to hear from us. Yet many of our fellow citizens now see us as dangerous zealots committed to an antiquated, oppressive faith. As we engage them, we need to embody the virtue of civility. If our political passions are properly disciplined and our tongues bridled, then perhaps it will be possible to have fundamental debates of profound moral significance and public consequence – and do so while sustaining the bonds of loyalty and civic friendship that makes an aggregation of individuals into a nation.

This can be done, and our communities of faith have an important role to play. While living in Omaha, Nebraska, I was a member of a church recently formed by the merger of an all-black congregation and an all-white one. There were many conflicts, but we painfully, slowly grew together. At one point, with our interracial challenges in mind, one of the older black members, Richard, a congregational leader, arranged for the church council to view a movie about the Tuskeegee airmen. They were the black pilots and crew who, during World War II, suffered discrimination during their training. Their story was painfully ironic given that they were preparing to risk their lives to defend America.

After we watched the film, Richard was the first person to talk. It was evident that he was deeply moved by the film, and with tears in his eyes, he said, “How could we have treated those men so poorly?” I was taken aback. Richard was old enough to have grown up under Jim Crow, but he was saying we, not pointing to me.

I knew him well enough to recognize that it was patriotism that motivated him to say we. Too often progressives downplay this important emotion of loyalty, and Christians often join in, observing that patriotism makes an idol of the state. There are excesses to criticize. But patri­otism can also encourage a self-giving to the common good. It is more powerful than civility, which for the most part preserves and protects civic friendship rather than building and promoting it. Building such friendship was exactly what Richard was doing when his patriotism led him to identify with, rather than repudiate or denounce, those who had discriminated against the Tuskeegee airmen – and against him and his grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who were born as slaves. Given the bitter suffering endured by black Americans, it was a remarkable gesture of civic hospitality that exceeded the bounds of civility in the same way love transcends duty. He took the lead, inviting us all to repent together rather than re-litigate and re-fight old struggles. In that moment I had a glimpse of what it means to build a civilization of love.

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