Being a Map that Leads to Civility

Being a Map that Leads to Civility


Rudeness is like the common cold; it is contagious. Uncivil behavior in global culture has become highly transmissible. Whether it is a member of the United States Congress shouting “liar” at the President when he is making an address, or an actor climbing onstage and then slapping and cursing a comedian friend at an awards ceremony, or numerous social media platform videos that capture bad conduct, the vaccine that guards against incivility appears to be in short supply! The word civility simply means “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” One wonders what precisely indicates such “bad form,” as our UK friends might say.
Roots of a breakdown in courtesy
Some research on a practical level indicates that stress and social breakdowns play a role in incivility. Discourtesy includes “ignoring people, intentionally undermining them, or mocking, teasing and belittling them,” according to a Georgetown University research professor. [1]

Sadly, such behavior has grown during the last decade. The pandemic, failing economy, global conflicts, increasingly divisive politics, and the changing nature of work, all contribute to the problem. Underlying reasons for the growth in incivility include the breakdown of community and workplace relationships. However, stress alone cannot be the lone culprit. There are deeper moral roots.
Philosophical divides contribute to the lack of civility. Alasdair MacIntyre attributes the source of much dissension to the lack of a “common, full-blown framework for moral reasoning.” People are required to offer competing moral and social analyses by using “bits and pieces” of opposing and mismatched moral theories. Furthermore, Charles Mathewes writes that contemporary religious beliefs do not translate "immediately and easily" into our public (political) behavior. David Cook likens this phenomenon to a culture that uses moral language that is content-less. Words like "good," "right," "polite," and "courteous" have lost their moral meanings and impact in society.

Others add that too much moral discussion is framed by radical worldviews, which are not shared by the majority of people in society. Therefore, many Christians have engaged in a cultural retreat within the privacy of a few trusted relationships. There also is the opinion that a lack of fundamental respect, necessary to work with others, is in short supply.
However, most of us will know at least intuitively the importance of speaking and behaving politely, but we may not recognize readily the ethical concerns embedded in such circumstances. It will be helpful for Christians to isolate the ethical core in situations like these and to address it in a Christlike fashion.

An Ethical Intersection

Christians too often overlook how they shape their moral discussions. Even the way that I state the previous sentence may cause some to wonder what I mean. Many Christians wonder if there is such a way, any longer, to hold civil discourse in a pluralistic culture about deeply held beliefs! We would do well to formulate a plan for engaging in discussions about serious moral issues. Here are two thoughts.
First, when in doubt, hold your tongue. Frankly, we have grown accustomed to expressing our views on the surface as “particular judgments.” In common parlay, particular judgments may be illustrated as “moral mic drops” where we respond immediately and emotionally to ethical hot topics. We leave no full stop for the other person or group to pause, ponder, then respond.
We may have reasons, albeit unexpressed, for criticizing another person’s moral view, or we may simply just “feel” that a message or an action is wrong. Stanford Law School students, for example, recently shouted down a federal judge who was speaking at their school because they protested the political source of the magistrate’s appointment.

The public expresses its disagreement with statements like, “He’s a jerk!” or something to worse effect. In these cases, it is easy to articulate, or even simply “feel,” that some wrong has been done.

Secondly, recognize the ethical implications in public engagement. Each statement we make to others, whether supported with reasons, or not, reflects an ethical intersection between the character and actions of individuals and deeply held personal notions, like justice, fairness, truthfulness, or rightness. This quadruplet of values forms an essential family of public behaviors that are critical to meaningful discourse.
Contemporary Christians are humans who also often find it difficult to formulate and voice Christlike moral judgments that are grounded in the Scriptures. Thankfully, Christ shows us how to speak directly to injustice in a civil manner (Luke 13:32: e.g., “That fox.”). This holds implications for Christian moral judgments today, not to mention civility!  

A Key Biblical Example on a Hot-Button Moral Issue

The Bible contains an account of the powerful tension between Christian brotherhood and societal differences regarding human slavery. The dehumanization of human life by the institution of slavery, regardless of the era in which it is evident, needs to be corrected and the letter to Philemon shows us the pathway to eliminating this great curse. If ever there was a hot-button, politically- and economically-laden moral issue, this one was it. Here's the context.
The letter to Philemon is linked closely to the epistle to the Colossians and was carried to him by Onesimus, one of the principal characters in the letter, along with Tychicus (See Colossians 4:7-9; Ephesians 6:21-22). Philemon was a wealthy believer in Colossae, and some of the first readers of Paul’s letter were likely those who were members of the church that met in his home, which would include family members, slaves, business partners, and friends. The moral milieu inside that house church was a seedbed for a variety of worldviews about the value of human life! Here is the "hot spot." Onesimus, Philemon’s slave had stolen from his master and fled, only to be led to Christ by Paul and returned home to his former master!
Paul's approach to the encounter with Onesimus and Philemon does not indicate that he hoped to start a great social movement that would ultimately lead to the eradication of slavery from the Roman Empire. There was neither angry rhetoric nor iron-fisted authority on Paul's part (Cf. Acts 7:58-8:3). He simply became a map to chart the way to peace through Christian civility (Matthew 5:9).
The horror and the hope in the encounter over human slavery
The horror. Christianity would indeed become the moving force that would eliminate social evils, like slavery, throughout history. Slavery, the legal possession of one human life by another, was a key cog in the economic engine of the Roman Empire. All aspects of Roman society were influenced by this institution. It had become a form of punishment for crimes committed or used as a means of dealing with debtors to repay loans (HCBC).

Unwanted children were also often sold into slavery, a situation that remains prevalent to this day (Human trafficking). Some people even willfully entered slavery because of the “benevolent bondage” that is provided for them. Regardless, slavery dehumanizes people and is a serious assault on their God-given dignity. It should be put to an end.
The hope. Civil war, like that known in 19th century America, presents one way to resolve human slavery, but there is another one—civility. Onesimus needed an advocate and Paul stepped to the front of the line. Why would this be so? Paul’s chains around his own wrists and ankles created an opportunity to literally place himself in Onesimus’ situation.

The apostle also knew the deep brokenness that came from committing a great sin—persecuting the church (Romans 3:23; 1 Timothy 1:15). He identified with the runaway slave. We take a critical first step toward understanding lost humanity when we seek to identify with it! Paul would be able to plead, experientially and passionately, for the changed life of the former, wayward slave. He, himself, became the map that charted the way to moral change and fresh hope.

Implications for a Christian Ethic

Ways to approach others on challenging moral topics
Paul made five appeals to Philemon that helped to win the day and provide us a way to shape similar moral issues. First, he appealed to the man’s reputation as a man of blessing (v. 5). Secondly, he made his appeal on the ground of Christian love (v. 5, 9). Thirdly, he argued for the acceptance of Onesimus, based upon the former slave’s new life in Christ (v. 15). Fourthly, Onesimus, whose name meant “useful,” had literally begun to fulfill the meaning of his name in all that he had done for Paul (v.11) He was transformed in his nature. Finally, Paul issues an overarching appeal based upon God’s providence in the entire situation (vv. 15-16).

Christian Lives are a Map to Public Civility

Assessing the rightness or wrongness of character and actions requires great care. First, rather than responding in a fiery fashion to another viewpoint, we should search for Scriptural rules/principles to illuminate the situation and to guide our responses. Proverbs 12:18 instructs: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrust of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Then, we should look for a similar Biblical event, like Jesus’ refusal to insult others, or Paul's example with Philemon, to apply to our contemporary situations (1 Peter 2:21-25). Analyzing and applying Biblical norms & examples in this way will add moral content to our language, guide us toward making better moral judgments, and expressing them with greater civility. It has been said, "You don't need a compass when you yourself are a map." Let's map the way to a more civil society.
Larry C. Ashlock