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.

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Bringing Reconciliation in a Divided World

113CongressSeveral weeks ago the results of a major mid-term election allowed Republicans to take the Senate, incumbents to get the boot or barely hold on to their seats, and pundits to have a field day diagnosing the issues related to campaigns and candidates alike.

While people surmised why votes went one way or another, nearly every local election made one fact clear: We are living in a divided nation.  Every winner can’t claim a total victory.  Sure, if you win by 51% of the vote, you win; but at the end of the day, it likely meant that you garnered only half of the voters at the ballot box.

This divide in American politics may strike fear in the hearts of people who simply want their representatives to govern.  Others find the results to be disheartening, hinting at continued gridlock in our nation’s capital.

But what if, from the point of view of the church, this division is an opportunity to help people find their way back to the Lord?

Think about it: The media enjoys divisive politics because it means attracting more viewers.  Politicians can rally their electoral base.  Even we viewers at home like a little drama in our politics as we tune out people who are either boring or non-confrontational (or have common-sense solutions, for that matter).

In all of this, there are few institutions that promote reconciliation and peacemaking.

Enter the church.  God’s purposes for the church not only transcend our society’s politics, they also seeks to bring reconciliation in places divided by all sorts of barriers.

This happened very early on: The day Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and starting speaking in a variety of languages.  To those gathered in Jerusalem at the time, it was a unifying moment: Each person heard the same gospel in their native tongue.  For once they had something in common.

As the church matured over time, the egalitarian nature of Christian community became a beacon of hope throughout the Roman Empire.  While citizens of the Empire thrived on inequality and hierarchy to manage power and prestige, the church gave everyone–regardless of socio-economic stature, race, ethnicity, or gender–a place at the table.

It was in his letters to the Corinthian churches, in particular, that Paul encouraged the church to spread the Gospel by bearing witness to the unity, harmony, and peace that Christ ushered into the world through the Holy Spirit.

The Bible says, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthains 5:16, 18-19).

In other words, when a person becomes a Christian, she is not a product of her culture or society any longer.  She is redeemed to Christ and brought into a relationship with God.  She is a new creation; and as a new creation, she becomes a citizen of the kingdom of God.

As citizens of the kingdom, Christians are called to be agents of reconciliation in a divided–and divisive–world.

Instead of taking sides, we are to stand on the side of Jesus.  Instead of touting our political victories or condemning the opposing team, we are to remind people that they are ultimately held accountable to God, who doesn’t claim any political party.

Christians are outsiders looking in, objective players who have a bigger vision than those who govern in the moment.

“So we are ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us” (v. 20).

An ambassador is one who goes to a foreign land to help people make peace with another nation.  In this context, Christians are to be peacemakers that help reconcile people to one another and, ultimately, to God.

Postscript:  I wrote about two weeks ago.  This week, I was disheartened to hear that the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown have escalated protests and violence in major cities, including here at the ATL.   The church needs to encourage local communities in reconciliation, foster conversations between neighborhoods and law-enforcement agencies, and promote honest conversations about responsibility, accountability, the threat of a sensational media, and race relations.  We will be in prayer for all the families involved in injustice and the on-going consequences of America’s love affair with guns and gun violence, which seems to be at the heart of most–if not all–of these conflicts of late.  –JVL

The Texas Textbook Massacre

At the beginning of every high school history class I ever taught, I did a lesson on the goals of learning history.  Some goals are obvious—to know our past, for instance; others are subtle, like the fact that learning history encourages critical thinking.

This past week, the Texas Board of Education voted on a controversial set of revisions to public-school history textbooks that seems to downplay student critical thinking.  Several revisions included minimizing the role of Civil Rights, feminist, and Latino movements; validating the claims of Joseph McCarthy; and debunking the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

The 9-to-5 vote was split along party lines.  Republicans were in the majority; Democrats decried the legislation as a conservative take-over of mainstream historical interpretation.

Oddly enough, it was a group of Christians who were the most vocal proponents of these revisions.   In an invocation during one of the Board meetings, law professor Cynthia Dunbar affirmed that solid, conservative history can help re-establish America as “a Christian land governed by Christian principals.”  No wonder there was such vehemence against the separation of church and state by the Board’s majority.

Politicians who favored the revisions argued that they were simply correcting a left-leaning bias in the textbooks to begin with, what they called “revisionist” history.  But at this point, it’s hard to tell who the true revisionists really are.

Writing history is difficult.  It is not as simple as listing a set of cold, hard facts for a reader.  History—good history—weaves events into a narrative quilt that reveals how facts relate to one another and influence humanity’s story.  This inspires critical thinking about the past, and it proposes how the past informs our present and future.

It is true that every writer of history decides what particular facts are relevant.  These decisions are motivated by a plethora of factors.  This was the bone of contention in the Texas Board of Education.

Over 400 amendments to the legislation were debated and voted on.   Results were telling: The first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, will not have any of his writings published in the curriculum; and any mention of hip hop’s influence in contemporary culture was nixed.

Lesson standards now require that students consider the “unintended consequences” of Affirmative Action and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda.

Fortunately, an amendment that would have excluded Deist Thomas Jefferson from a list of the most important American Founders did not pass.  On a positive note, Thomas Edison will be reinstated as an important figure in American industrialism.

What we can all learn from the Texas Board of Education’s debacle is that history is not entirely objective.  We all approach history from our own biases.  My only problem with the Board’s decision is that these textbook debates have erupted to the detriment of our children.

Emphasizing one’s interpretation of history over others–especially when it caters to one brand of religious ideology–is not good history; in fact, it disregards critical thinking.

When it intends to educate, the writing of history is not supposed to be politicized.  Textbooks should expose students to a variety of historical perspectives so that students can wrestle with the complex issues of yesteryear.

Christians, in particular, should champion this approach, for we believe that it is in one’s ability to think critically that faith in the one, true God becomes most profound.

Ultimately, taking away one’s ability to think critically about history dulls the very minds and imaginations of potential leaders of tomorrow.  And when it is a group of Christians robbing students of this ability in the public sphere, it also threatens the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith as a whole.

Sources:

“American History Preserved in Textbooks” (http://www.lc.org/index.cfm?PID=14100&PRID=943 )

http://www.wallbuilders.com

“Despite Protests, Texas Board Passes Conservative Textbook Curriculum” (http://www.blackvoicenews.com/news/news-wire/44491-despite-protests-texas-board-passes-conservative-textbook-curriculum.html)

“The Texas Textbook War in Historical Context” (http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/5192/9/)