Civility in the Public Square

trumpBy Joe LaGuardia

Now that another presidential election season is upon us, we need to remember the importance of civility in the public square.  No matter where we stand on a political, social, or cultural issue, God calls us to be kind and respectful.

Civility is a rare commodity during an election year.  We who engage in and listen to political debates are not surprised at all of the mudslinging, vitriol, cliches, platitudes, exaggeration, fear-mongering, hate-speech, haughty speech, ignorance, arrogance, and (as always) proverbial bologna our politicians wield at their disposal.

Christians need not follow their example.  While politicians use polls and consultants to craft words, we must craft our words based on the Bible, the revelation of God’s Word.

There are several lessons in the Bible that relate to civility in the public square.

The first comes from the book of James.  Writing to a community of persecuted Christians, James instructed Christians to value perseverance in the face of hardship and watch their language.  He wasn’t referring to bad words or slang, but speech that was disrespectful and divisive.

A close reading of James posits that a Christian’s manner of speech can shape his or her character.  Like a bridle that guides a horse, a tongue can direct one’s walk with the Lord.  This echoes Jesus, who said that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out of a person that defiles.

This had something to do with the ancient understanding of biology: The “quality” of what emanates from one’s eyes, mouth, and even ears reflected the condition of one’s soul.  Why else would James start with the tongue in his diatribe on the importance of character in faith formation (see James 3:1-4:12), or Jesus’ references in the Sermon on the Mount to our speech and the affect that eyes have on the entire body  (Matthew 5:22; 6:22)?

For Christians who long to follow in Christ’s footsteps, words indeed matter.

Another lesson can be found in Proverbs:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those love it will eat its fruit” Proverbs 18:21.

We can bless or curse others depending on how we say something or express our opinions; but those who use tact and mercy not only bless others but receive a blessing of kindness in return.  Words can be as nourishing as fruit that is shared within community.

When we engage in politics in the public square, we speak as ambassadors of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Let us not try to keep one foot in God’s Kingdom and another foot in the world or we, as one theologian put it, will only stumble as a result.

Based on these lessons, here are a few tips to keep in mind this election season:

Keep your speech objective but compassionate.  I have had my share of political debates over the years, and there is nothing more frustrating than when a debate turns personal.  This is one way that the tongue can get out of hand.

Stay focused on issues.  If you find that you are talking about politics with someone, make sure that you speak fairly about issues that matter.  Do not simplify issues into absolutes.

Most, of not all, issues are complex and not as black and white as broadcast media makes them out to be.

Avoid speaking about serious topics on social media.  My general rule is to refrain from expressing divisive opinions on social media because it is hard to discern tone and intent over the internet.  Also, tit-for-tat harangues in status updates, Facebook posts, tweets, and “comment replies” can strain and, in some cases, damage friendships.

If you save your debates for when you are with someone in person, then there will be a greater chance of understanding, compromise, and a clear line of communication between the two of you.

Lastly, remember that you don’t need to express your opinion about everything.  Momma was right: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Another adage says, “Better for people to think you a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”  Sometimes expressing an opinion is not worth it.

During this election season, allow the Bible’s truths rather than the latest politician’s speech to guide your speech.  It may save a friendship or two, and keep you from the fires of conflict and judgment.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, legacy inspires pause during 2016 election season

MLKJ

By Joe LaGuardia.  This is a new take on an old blog post; reprinted with revisions from 2010.

With a new Congress taking office, political speeches becoming even more heated, and an 2016 election season already underway, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., this weekend should give Christians pause as to their place in modern society.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes of the faith.  For me, King’s heroism resulted from his ability to stand up against the tidal-wave of public opinion and divisive rhetoric in order to uphold the values and convictions he held so dear.

During King’s day, there were several major impediments to furthering the goals of the Civil Rights movement.  One impediment originated from the many local and national policies that upheld a “separate but equal” status quo.  The other impediment was the subtle, yet loud voice of public opinion opposing greater equality for minorities in society.

Public opinion, usually expressed in opinion polls, is a necessity in politics.  It measures public sentiment; however, what the Civil Rights era proved was that public opinion—especially of the majority—does not necessarily reflect a biblical worldview.

Politicians and pundits rely heavily on public opinion to shape national debates, and sometimes public opinion can change depending on the questions asked.  For instance, a survey may show that a majority of Americans are against “Obamacare,” but may favor the “Affordable Care Act.”  Not many people realize that they are the same thing.

When Dr. King faced majority opinion in opposition to the Civil Rights cause in the mid-1960s, he noted on more than one occasion that Christians rarely walk to the beat of the populist drum.  Nor are they to be fooled by rhetorical loop-d-loops.

One of King’s most moving sermons, “Transformed Nonconformist,” claimed that Christians are citizens of two worlds but ultimately answer to the heavenly realm. He said that conformity to public opinion can sometimes lead Christians away from Christ.

He opined, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”

For King, conformity to public opinion was simply another form of slavery: “Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.”

He also recognized that churches can also fall prey to conformity if they do not critically assess how God might be bringing about aspects of His Kingdom on earth through reflection and dialogue.  Sometimes God’s way of doing things looks very different than what a crowd might advocate.

Churches that simply fall in line with the rest of America without a sense of moral discernment and prayer can easily blur the line between prophetic engagement and partisanship.  The church that does not embody God’s reign looks no different than a political action committee.

King’s sermon rings with a certain poignancy: “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion…Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed the truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?”

Going against public opinion for its own stake was not what King was all about; rather, he challenged his audience to consider how convictions shape civil discourse. In other words, King never went rogue; his convictions were born out of a strong and consistent sense of righteousness.  In spite of public opinion, which changes from day to day, King kept in mind the bigger picture of God’s unfolding history.

I do not doubt that opinion polls are extremely useful in many situations; nevertheless, they are not necessarily designed to determine what Christians are to believe about public policy. Aside from making great strides in social justice for African Americans, this profound lesson is—in my mind—one of the greatest contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement as a whole made to American society.  Let us keep King’s vision ever before us as the next election season unfolds.

Enduring through persecution

Paul in prisonSt. Paul had his fair share of persecution.  The book of Acts records how Paul, persecutor–turned–evangelist, founded churches and suffered as a result.  The book concludes with Paul in jail, his fate hanging in the balance.

Founding a little church in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica was especially difficult.  Acts 17 states that he preached about Jesus in the synagogue and won only a few converts; the rest gathered an angry mob and accused him of treason.  He barely escaped to Athens.

The Bible contains two letters that Paul and his fellow ministers, Timothy and Silas, wrote to the new church in Thessalonica. In the letters, Paul expressed concern as well as praise for the church’s perseverance.

He sent Timothy back to the church in order to encourage them “so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions” (3:3a).

Paul, however, takes an odd turn after that.  Rather than encouraging them to rebel or retaliate against their foes, Paul reminded them that persecution was a part of what it meant to be a Christian.

“You yourselves know,” he wrote, “that this is what we are destined for…we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution” (3:3b-4).

The church needed reminding that when they chose to follow the crucified Lord, they too promised to follow him even unto death.

Even Jesus did not shy away from this truth: “Those who do pick up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:23).

Over the past year, I have heard many Christians claim they are being persecuted for their faith.  Some say that persecution comes from an over-extended government bent on imposing morally questionable legislation, while others argue that persecution is a result of the loss of Constitutional rights.

Yet, when compared with Christians in the rest of the world–many of whom face exile, death, torture, rape, and exploitation directly due to their faith in Christ–it seems like what we call persecution is merely an inconvenience more than anything else.

According to Halee Gray Scott writing for Christianity Today, nearly 100 Christians are martyred for their faith every month, and two-thirds of the world’s nations discriminate against Christianity as a general rule.

According to Scott, “We’re incensed when a millionaire is suspended from a reality television shows for expressing his faith in a coarse manner…But we turn our heads and avert our eyes when the blood of the martyrs, our fellow Christians, cry out to us from the ground.”

I agree with Scott, and I would add that we spend too much time trying to retaliate against those who seem hostile while neglecting to repent for some of the things we say and do in the public sphere.

In the midst of persecution Christians have the greatest opportunity to reflect the best of the Gospel: Even as recipients of hostility, we share the love of a non-violent Lord who declared that compassion, forgiveness, and inclusion–not exclusion or divisive speech–are holy actions that represent a holy, merciful God.

While rejoicing in spite of hardship, we bear testimony that God’s purposes for us will triumph even over death itself.  We bear witness to a heavenly call in which we are not commanded to fight back, but to forgive and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote that the Thessalonian church communicated “the gospel of faith and love” (3:6).  Theirs was not a campaign using worldly tactics, but of living out the Good News in which Jesus was King of kings and Lord of lords.

They exchanged protest signs for faith, letters to editors for planting seeds of mercy.  They included people in their fellowship rather than exclude others who did not share their particular vision of the world.

I’m still not convinced that Christians are persecuted for faith in this great country of ours.  The world is doing exactly what the world always has done, it cannot do any other.  But Christians who claim to follow Christ have the choice to do what is right, say what is wholesome, and advocate on behalf of the oppressed rather than the privileged few.