Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Call to Civility

When the Americans emerged from a mid-term election, it was with few surprises, not only in terms of result but regarding campaign style and character. It seems Americans have reached a point in political life where they have become used to a quality of political discourse that has degenerated to new levels of shallowness and disrespect. The freak show of American cable ‘news’ and punditry, the ugliness of shrill, combative blogging and the substitution of personalities and polling for policy debate all sound alarm bells for the health of civil society and a functioning democracy. Undoubtedly, the U.S.A. is a different country to Australia with its own narrative and mythology concerning its imagined origins and destiny.

Yet many of the same worrying signs have appeared in Australia—and among Australian Christians. The ‘culture wars’ mentality of so-called Left and Right wings of politics increasingly hardens believers into inflexible progressive versus conservative camps who can only value a victory for their ‘godly’ agenda over that of their enemy. Their enemy. Not simply a political opponent. Not even a partisan adversary. Enemy.

The depth of this antipathy can be debated. But at least on the surface, at least at the level of public rhetoric, political discourse has taken a turn for the worse. Too many Christians and Christian organisations have tied themselves to predictable political party lines and anointed themselves as priests and prophets of God’s political will, ready to decry Christians who disagree as they would the prophets of Baal. The willingness of believers to sling mud at fellow believers disturbingly mirrors the media sound bites of political antagonism. Politics has been captured by cynical exercises in character assassination… but where is the counter-witness of the gospel among Christians?

This political situation exudes disrespect on three levels. First, it shows disrespect to the systems, principles and practices of governance that frame our attempts at democratic discourse. Rather than champion analysis and discussion of vision, ethos and policy, the politics of disrespect utilises ‘new media’ to drive singular pre-packaged messages through, frequently promoting suspicion and fear. This undermines the public square as a forum of debate and deliberation concerning the common good. Second, this politics is disrespectful of our leaders, our representatives in government. If Australians have been characterised as holding authority figures in relatively low esteem in the past, they now risk downgrading this to new depths of mockery and loathing. Whatever disappointments or failures we find in particular politicians, this is no excuse to undermine leadership or to discourage the more noble motivations for entering politics through excessive personal scrutiny, lampooning or character assassination. Third, this politics is disrespectful of those represented, the citizens of Australia. It reduces the body politic of citizens to a mob thought to be below serious thinking or incapable of mature cooperation in search of the common good. Is this a situation Christians want to see deteriorate further or can we move toward being part of the solution?

This requires a change in culture. But at the least it ought to begin among Christians. Jim Wallis of Sojourners in the United States has promoted a ‘civility covenant’ for American Christians to embrace, to move against the flow of their political culture. It is reproduced here below. We invite you, your church or Christian organisation to embrace it.

Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to "put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).

1) We commit that our dialogue with each other will reflect the spirit of the Scriptures, where our posture toward each other is to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19).

2) We believe that each of us, and our fellow human beings, are created in the image of God. The respect we owe to God should be reflected in the honour and respect we show to each other in our common humanity, particularly in how we speak to each other. "With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God....this ought not to be so" (James 3:9,10).

3) We pledge that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other's motives, attacking the other's character, or questioning the other's faith, and recognizing in humility that in our limited, human opinions, "we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will therefore "be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2).

4) We will ever be mindful of the language we use in expressing our disagreements, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs: "Before destruction one's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honour" (Proverbs 18:12).

5) We recognize that we cannot function together as citizens of the same community, whether local or national, unless we are mindful of how we treat each other in pursuit of the common good in the common life we share together. Each of us must therefore "put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body" (Ephesians 4:25).

6) We commit to pray for our political leaders - those with whom we may agree, as well as those with whom we may disagree. "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made - for kings and all who are in high positions" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

7) We believe that it is more difficult to hate others, even our adversaries and our enemies, when we are praying for them. We commit to pray for each other, those with whom we agree and those with whom we may disagree, so that together we may strive to be faithful witnesses to our Lord, who prayed "that they may be one" (John 17:22).

We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many faith communities, even across religious and political lines. We will strive to create in our congregations safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God's will for our nation and our world.

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