Christianity and Civility

The shooting in Arizona has sparked a debate on the use of rhetoric in political speeches. Even though nothing is known about the suspect and his motives, many have said that violent rhetoric has caused this problem. I am not one of those people. I ardently believe that this particular individual was simply crazy and acted on his insanity. However, I do believe there is quite a bit of worth in looking to the discussion of political rhetoric.

Sadly, I don’t see either side (conservative or liberal) changing their rhetoric in the months to come. For one, liberals think conservatives are far worse than themselves and conservatives think the opposite; neither side is willing to admit that both share an equal part of the problem. For every Tea Party sign that questioned Obama’s citizenship and compared him to a Nazi, we can point to the multiple anti-Bush protests with signs comparing Bush to a Nazi and calling for his death. For every Sarah Palin map targeting congressmen there’s a Daily Kos map doing the same thing. Republicans talked of bringing the fight to the Democrats while the Democrats said they were going to bring a gun to the knife fight. In short, both sides have been equally uncivil. Even for those who recognize this, their retort is “Well the other side started it!” I didn’t realize we were still children, justifying our wrong actions by pointing to the other side starting it. Who cares if the other side started it? Why not rise above their rhetoric?

In the end, however, a true solution will only come when those called by Christ begin to act as they were called. For the first time in years, the Church is ahead of the culture on one thing; incivility. Generally, Christians spend decades trying to keep up with the culture, whether it be technologically, musically, or philosophically. I believe it was Karl Barth who said if you wanted to see what the world was like twenty years ago, read a current issue of “Christianity Today.” But for the first time in centuries, the Church is finally ahead of the culture in the one issue we shouldn’t be, and that area is that we are extremely uncivil and lacking in love for one another.

Consider that Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:44-46 where He tells His followers to not only love their brothers, but to love their enemies as well. And this love isn’t abstract – He speaks of greeting and serving our enemies. Now, certainly Jesus didn’t mean for us to be non-confrontational. But He did serve as an example; while He condemned the Pharisees, never forget that He ate with them. While He warned people to avoid the teachings of the Pharisees, He was still around them and would dialogue with them.

But what is even more important to recognize is that we too have all been enemies of God. Romans 5:10 tells us that we were enemies of God, yet while we were enemies Christ still died for us. He put His life on the line as a sacrifice and died for us out of love even though we were against Him. This should speak volumes onto how we should treat those who disagree with us and those who are our enemies.

The question, however, is how can we love our enemies when we cannot even love each other? How can we possibly love the atheist when we would split a church over where we should place a light in the parking lot? How can we serve the pagan when we attempt to usurp the authority of those in our local church? How can we sacrifice for our persecutor when we won’t even sacrifice to our brother, whether it be in allowing his musical taste or helping him off his feet during troubled times? How can we me a demonstration of God’s love to a world in desperate need of it when we can’t even love those occupied by God?

John 13:34-35 has Jesus instructing us to love one another as He has loved us, that the world may know we belong to Him by our love for one another. Paul certainly had this command in mind when he penned both Romans 12:10 and Romans 13:8, imploring us to love one another and attempt to outdo each other in that love. In our churches there is quite a bit of competition – between soloists, teachers, or people fighting for spots on committees or groups – but hardly anyone competes in love. The reason for this is that to compete in love, to attempt to love more than anyone else, requires you to become lesser and lesser and make sure others are greater and greater. It requires a sacrifice. It’s much easier to fight and compete to be a soloist when everyone will see you, but who wants to compete when the prize is cleaning up an invalid who as defecated on himself or visiting a senile old woman in the hospital? Yet this is what Christ has called us to do within our own ranks.

And make no mistake, when we lack love we lack Christ. The holier we become, the closer to Christ we come, the more love we will show. This is because God is love and as we draw closer to God we are filled with God. If we are filled with God then we are inevitably filled with His attributes (for we cannot separate His attributes from Him), one of those attributes being love. When we fail to show love, we fail to show God is within us, which means that God is not within us.

Certainly all of us will fail. We are imperfect and what we view as a display of love could be taken in a different way. There may be times where we simply do not feel loving. I can think to a trip to Mexico where I had a laptop stolen from me. I can assure you in that moment I did not thank God; instead I cursed the people who stole it and displayed a distinct lack of love in that instance. That is not my only failure either. I point these out to show that we are going to fail in displaying love, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying, especially with each other.

My plea also doesn’t mean that we affirm wrong decisions or capitulate in evil. We should not affirm a person’s adherence to a heretical doctrine nor should we allow abortions to continue just because we want to appear loving. Love requires us to be sacrificial, tender, but also firm in standing up for the truth (for we are called to love God first, meaning we must adhere in our fidelity to Him in our loving humanity; but in order to love our fellow humans, we must love God). At the same time, it does mean we refrain from condemning the heretic to Hell and lambasting him as a person and it forbids us from shouting “murderer” to a woman walking out of an abortion clinic.

If we are to have any hope of loving our enemies, if we are to have any hope that the public will begin to mimic Christian love for enemies in their own rhetoric, we must first love each other. And this love spreads across denominational boundaries, even when we disagree with each other. This means we must serve one another, even if on Sunday morning one of us speaks in tongues while the other bows to Divine liturgy. We must serve one another (and serve with one another) even if one of us has a Pope and the other is his own Pope. While there are limits to this – most notably that one must be a Christian and believe in the true Christ as taught to us by the Scriptures – we should add to those limits to suit our own denominational pursuits.

If we cannot love one another, how can we hope for the world to display love? If we cannot love one another, how can we hope for the world to see Christ? The best proof for God’s existence is when Christians engage in supernatural love for one another, a love that transcends anything this world is capable of producing. If we cannot work towards achieving that love, then why claim the name of Christ?