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.