By Ian DiOrio
Gone are the days in our society when Christians could hope to occupy a “moral majority.”
But two biblical qualities, modeled by Jesus and taught by the apostles, offer us strategies for relating to those unlike ourselves.
Divided over power. Who should have it and how should they wield it? Is the shape of society better molded by the masses, or does history show us it best moves forward if a select few wield tremendous influence?
Divided over ethics. Are moral truths merely personal restrictions of human activity, like self-directed diets that can be adjusted or altogether abandoned at whim? Or is morality more like gravity, with constant and true laws that are necessary conditions for life to flourish?
Divided over religion. Is religion at odds with progress or hostile to modernity? Is belief in God even rational any more?
These cultural disagreements are more than ideological ping-pong among power elites; they are ongoing conversations among real people who can easily be overcome by anger, sarcasm, indifference, and scapegoating in the name of defending their position.
Important issues today are discussed under the veil of technology and media, distancing commentators and making them feel less responsible for their words and for those they are attacking. I’ve wondered if bloggers and social media commentators would speak so harshly to their opponents if they were looking them in the eye while both of their mothers were present.
The uniqueness of today’s politics forces upon us many significant questions. Among the most pressing and personal is how each of us will decide to disagree with and yet still get along with others who hold different views of power, ethics, and religion.
The New Middle Earth
The days are passing in America where the “majority” holds any one view. For those who hung their hopes on being part of a religious “moral majority,” this change must be frightful.
Many have prophesied the slow decline of belief in God and religion in the Western world; yet decades later, religion and belief in God continue with vigor. No one has won the day; instead, the majority has been exchanged for a moral plurality, and in this space all dialogue and debate happens.
In the place of a Christian or secular majority—religious or secular, right wing or left wing, conservative or liberal, straight or gay—America is now a mixed bag of beliefs, opinions, devotions, allegiances, and traditions, all mingling and conversing together at coffee shops, online, and in every college classroom. The apostle Paul noted long ago that his age was a marketplace of ideas. Likewise today, our age is home to a range of beliefs, ideas, convictions, and opinions that will be the source of dialogue and debate for epochs to come. It’s unlikely human progress will climax to the sound of one hand clapping.
So the question becomes how each of us should commit to behave in everyday life in the radical middle as we encounter others who differ from us in every possible way.
In particular, how should Christians behave in a world of plurality and difference?
First, as Jesus followers, it is no longer possible or responsible to live in cloistered worlds where everyone believes exactly the same thing and no one influences or is influenced by those outside his group. Because of the Internet and the explosive exchange of information, those who desire to escape the bubbling diversity of America’s changing landscape will find themselves retreating into ghettos of thought and lifestyle.
On the other hand, how the church engages in the radical middle matters a great deal. Jesus’ call to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us still applies in a world of mass media and social fragmentation. That is why it is so important for Christians to lead the way in dialoguing and debating with those on the “other side,” whatever it may be.
A Christian’s most pressing demand today may simply be to hold onto the humanity of those with whom we deeply disagree. The gospel can become lost in the roused crowd of brawling bloggers. As a safeguard against this, I propose two virtues—civility and empathy—to guide our interactions with others.
In Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Richard Mouw defines civility as “public politeness.” In practice, this means “we display tact, moderation, refinement, and good manners toward people who are different from us.” Mouw argues that it goes beyond “an outward show of politeness.” In the past, he says, “civility was understood in much richer terms. To be civil was to genuinely care about the larger society. It required a heartfelt commitment to your fellow citizens. It was a willingness to promote the wellbeing of people who were very different, including people who seriously disagreed with you on important matters.”
For Christians, practicing civility should come naturally. The Bible calls for Christians to practice hospitality to the stranger and alien. And that is why it is all the more tragic when those who claim Jesus act in destructive ways toward those with whom they strongly differ.
Followers of Jesus wholeheartedly reject name-calling, maligning, condemning, and disrespecting any person as a tactic of debate in the public square. This means filtering every social media comment, post, update, or image through the lens of civility and the witness of Jesus, who calls us to love our enemies and to do good to our persecutors.
If someone feels his truth depends on aggressive, loud, dismissive, and offensive actions or speech, let him or her consider this: such methods of expressing opinion cause most listeners to doubt the very truth one is trying to express. Truth does not have to be loud to be effective. In fact, simple truth, spoken plainly, may be the most powerful tool of persuasion known to man.
One of the casualties in the war of worldviews is the loss of any real notion of the common good, the good that serves all of us regardless of personal disposition. Our debate culture scuttles the search for the common good, replacing it with partisanship and tribalism, certain groups fighting for what benefits their group. Where there is no language of the “common,” there is no language of the common good. And the loss of commonness deepens factions and fuels debates in our time.
Civility does not mean always agreeing, but it does mean respect and honor will be the highest guiding principles accompanying deep disagreement. When Paul commends the Roman Christians to “honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10), I don’t believe honoring each other implied agreement. Christians should take Paul to heart and commit to practice civility as a means of honoring others, even when stark disagreements remain.
Abrasive tactics are always counterproductive and harmful when communicating the message of Jesus. That doesn’t mean Christians should not reason in the public square or should refrain from expressing views. It just implies that while doing so they remain within the guardrails of civility.
The New Testament commends such a stance. In 1 Peter, for example, we have the foundational text of all apologists. Yet this defense is held in restraint by certain limits:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (1 Peter 3:15-17).
Notice that all dialogue for Christians starts with a reverence for Christ; reverence for his message, lifestyle, and impact. Yet this reverence is seasoned with “gentleness” and “respect.” Those who disagree may use slander and other rhetorical devices to bolster the strength of their view, but those are not responsible, biblically approved habits of offering Jesus to the culture. If the church became wholly devoted to practicing civility, it might soon discover itself becoming far more effective at wholly influencing culture.
While sitting in the solitude of a German prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these empathetic words: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
These words give us a means to understand what empathy is and how we achieve it. Empathy understands others not at the level of ideas alone, but at the level of lived experience. Instead of seeking to understand someone’s views, you seek to understand the person. People are more than their ideas on how the world should work. Empathy is seeking to understand people.
Empathy is not retreating into talk merely of feelings. One can be emphatically sure he is right on an issue and still use empathy as a tool to understand the opposite opinion. Empathy as a discussion strategy creates a space of safety between those on opposite sides of any topic. The goal ceases to be power grabbing or smear campaigns, but a genuine commitment to mutual understanding as a tool of political discourse.
It is the loss of this desire to understand that exacerbates division. All too easily our approach to others is prefiltered. Instead of allowing the time to investigate and discover who others are and how they came to be that way, we prefer quick snippets, factoids of information that allow us to easily identify and place people in a box of our culture’s making. They are conservative, liberal, Christian, humanist, secular, religious—or whatever other favorite qualifiers we deploy to prepackage others into nice categories.
Empathy slows us to the speed of listening.
Though we may view another person as clearly wrong, empathy offers a patient dialogue partner and invites the person to consider a better truth and way. The Bible says it is God’s mercy that leads to repentance. God’s compassion, empathy, and love turned most hearts toward Jesus in the first place. Why do we not think it will be the same for others? Empathy and civility will help the quest to share the gospel in our time. These are effective strategies for advancing change in positive ways.
Stephen Covey wrote, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
Ian DiOrio serves as lead pastor with Yucaipa (California) Christian Church.