“You’re a nasty woman!” “You’re a liar!” “Lock her up!” “Your followers are a bucket of deplorables!” What has happened to civility in political discourse? By the dictionary definition, civility means politeness or courtesy, being respectful or considerate. Words once found in PG-13 or R-rated movies are now featured in political speech.
Why should Christ-followers be concerned about civility? When does respectful speech enter into a disciplemaking curriculum? Our theology of the creation accounts should dictate our respect.
Civility began at the Creation. Men and women are marked by being made in the “image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).” We stand distinct from all the rest of the created order, possessing great dignity and worth because of the image we share with our Creator. We bear his image in such qualities as rationality, personality, and creativity. Living as God’s image-bearer means that I’m a “little lower than the heavenly beings” but “crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5).” Being made in God’s likeness is the theological foundation for respect.
In His covenant with Noah, God required a “reckoning,” a judgment against any man who slays his fellow man. Why? “For God made man in his own image (Genesis 9:6).” Murder wipes out the dignity of life, a dignity found in being an image-bearer. In James 3:8-10, the Apostle instructs us to control our tongues, calling our tongues a “restless evil.” With the tongue, we bless our Lord and curse people “who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:9).” Uncivil speech robs the dignity men and women hold as image-bearers.
Let me make one point of clarification. It’s common to repeat the slogan, “We are all God’s children,” but this is not biblically accurate. We are all made in the image of God and tied together in the human race but being a child of God comes through faith in Christ (John 1:12). Through Christ, we are adopted into the family of God (Romans 8:16), called to live new lives as “heirs” of our new Father (Romans 8:15-17). This raises the bar for the Christian to live in ways that extends dignity and respect because we bear the family resemblance to Christ.
The New Testament uses a variety of words for courtesy, respect, and dignity. Common meanings include politeness, courtesy, dignity, worthy of respect, and admiration. Being “civil” in our speech takes into account these qualities. The New Testament expects civility and respect to characterize all of our relationships, even the political ones.
In the political arena, we give “respect to whom respect is owed (Romans 13:7).” In the home, the wife is to respect her husband (Ephesians 5:33). Our daily lives should “win the respect of outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:12 NIV).” Slaves were to “respect” their masters (Ephesians 6:5). Our church leaders should be people “worthy of respect (1 Timothy 3:8).” Just in case we missed someone, the Apostle Peter exhorts us to “show proper respect to everyone (1 Peter 2:17).” In other words, respect is foundational to every human relationship.
Now here’s a bold assertion. Because we believe in the worth and dignity of people, Christians should embrace the principle of “political correctness.” At its heart, political correctness says that certain names and designations rob people of dignity. Phrases like “white trash,” racial slurs, being “retarded,” or called a “sissy” denigrates the one who bears God’s image. While the principle applied today can leave the world of common sense, the underlying assumption is a biblical one. Because people are made in the image of God, we should treat one another with respect and civility.
Now, what does this have to do with politics. In all discourse, particularly political discourse, we are called to treat others respectfully. Does that mean we should avoid political or other “hot-topic” discussions? No, after all we have opinions like everyone else. Here are some simple principles that helps me engage others in respectful ways.
- We can debate ideas without calling into account one’s character. The twentieth century writer and apologist Francis Schaeffer lived by this rule. He debated ideas but did not call into question the character or the worth of the other person.
- We are people who choose to live from biblical assumptions and not political positions. Therefore, we look for ways to address the assumptions behind positions. We raise questions on principles rather than only debate the policy or political stand.
- Disagreement does not mean disrespect but disagreement can be expressed in disrespectful ways. Just because I don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean I disrespect them. We can like and even love those with whom we disagree. Respect does not rule out anger. Sometimes righteousness is displayed in justifiable anger.
- Strong and hateful opinions often reflect a tortured soul. It is easy to make those we violently disagree with, particularly on moral issues, into the enemy. We forgot that people are “victims of the enemy.”
- Seek to understand and then to be understood. I love Stephen Covey’s principle in his classic book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” In political conversations, as with all conversations, we should seek first to understand and then to be understood. The goal is understanding of the other person through respectful listening.
Finally, I should be able to walk away from any discussion, debate, or disagreement with dignity and respect. The other person should walk away feeing respected and listened to. We may choose to agree to disagree but it is done with our respect in tact. Disciplemaking means building into the lives of others patterns of speech and actions that demonstrate respect for each person. Respect and civility brings a little bit of heaven into very contentious places.