Before You Post That…A Call for Civility

backspace ovalPoliticians around the country are declaring that they are officially candidates for the presidency of the United States. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton…and more are yet to come.

Already I see posts from people who are (or who claim to be) Christians expressing opinions on one candidate or another. Unfortunately, some of those statements are expressed in decidedly un-Christ-like ways, using unChrist-like language, or just being mean and ugly.

And it’s bugging me already, so I’ve decided on a response strategy.

First, I am a teacher, and teachers gotta teach. This blog reminds Christians that the Bible gives us pretty clear instructions on how to express ourselves, including in political matters.

Second, I am developing a series of memes to post on social media that reminds Christians expressing themselves in inappropriate ways of those instructions.

My intent is to elevate the way in which Christians talk about the candidates and about the future president of the nation. I can’t do anything about what non-Christians say or the way they act, but maybe I can improve the tone of the political conversations of the people of God.

This is an important ethical issued for our Christian witness and for politics generally. As Stephen Carter wrote in his book Civility,

“The key to reconstructing civility…is for all of us to learn anew the virtue of acting with love toward our neighbors. Love of neighbor has long been a tenet of Judaism and Christianity, and a revival of civility in America will require a revival of all that is best in religion as a force in our public life.” (1998, 18)

How are we supposed to speak?

Many scriptures directly address the way Christians are supposed to express themselves. Here are just a handful.

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Prov. 12:18)

Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity Than he who is perverse in speech and is a fool. (Prov. 19:1)

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor 13:1)

But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. (Col 3:8)

Let your speech always be with grace (Col 4:6)

in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. (1 Tim 4:12)

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but [e]giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, “The one who desires life, to love and see good days, Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” (1 Peter 3:8-10)

in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:7-8)

the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (James 3:6-10)

Finally, Christ himself is the “example for [us] to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return (1 Peter 2:21-23; see also Hebrews 12:1-3).

Here are the general conclusions: Christians are supposed to exercise self-control, speak with grace and gentleness, and setting aside ungracious, abusive, perverse, and cursing speech. Our speech is supposed to be beyond reproach so that we give our opponents nothing bad to say about us (even if they will anyway). And our behavior is to be excellent so that our true King—the Lord of Heaven and Earth—will be glorified even if we are slandered (1 Peter 2:12).

What about in politics?

There are many applications of these scriptural principles, but my focus here is on politics, so beyond those general scriptural exhortations, here are two considerations from the life of David.

First, David’s private expressions of anger at and despair about his political opponents and enemies were expressed to God, even though they are preserved for us in the Psalms. We see this in Psalms 3, 9, 27, 35, 41, 64 (among others) and in all of these David leaves the ultimate judgment of his enemies to God.

Second, after David was anointed King of Israel, the then-current king Saul sent armed squads out to hunt David down and kill him. In two separate situations, David had the opportunity to kill Saul, but resists (1 Sam 24, 1 Sam 26). Instead, he publicly challenges Saul in front of both of their armies, pointing out that he didn’t kill him when he could, because he (David) poses no threat to Saul’s reign. He even uses an absurd analogy, saying “After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog, a single flea?” In the second encounter, David again calls out to Saul, asserting his innocence, and expanding his humorous metaphor, “for the king of Israel has come out to search for a single flea, just as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”

It’s interesting to hear David shaming Saul for pursuing him, but without being humiliating or insulting. Both times, even though he is being unjustly pursued to death by an obsessed king who is abusing his political power for his own personal agenda of revenge, David does not insult Saul, nor does he does not ridicule him. Instead, he publicly honors the king, even while using some humor in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Returning to Stephen Carter, he observes that violence and nastiness in our public discourse is a self-inflicted wound.

“Nastiness devalues the speaker…because the unwillingness to restrain the urge marks the speaker as less civilized, more animal-like. Cleansing our language of violence is not simply a matter of politess–it is a matter of morality. Nasty language, whether vulgar or violent or simply bigoted, does nothing to encourage a thoughtful and reasoned response. It sparks anger or shame but not dialogue. So it makes it harder for us to talk to each other, and thus hurts democracy.” (1998, 149-150)

Conclusion

If we claim to be Christ-followers, our actions, including our speech and Facebook posts should reflect the character of our Lord. We are permitted to speak truth, but to do so in love (1 Cor 13:1; Eph 4:15). We are permitted to get angry, but not to sin in our anger (Eph 4:26). The ugliness and lies used by your political opponents, and the wrongheaded and even sin-endorsing policies they support, do not justify Christ-followers adapting their ways to the fallen and corrupt ways of this world (Rom 12:2).

My modest goal in my little corner of the universe is to elevate the political discussion by encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ to keep it clean and noble and truthful. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if somewhere, sometime, when you least expect it, I share a meme that links you back to this article. Let’s keep our behavior excellent among the nonbelievers, so that in the things about which they slander us, they will ultimately glorify our King, our Father in heaven.