I have written a great deal about civility in the public discourse. I have to confess that I am losing heart. Internet forums make cowards courageous. You can write things to me from the cave of anonimity that you would never say to my face. The rules at my site have been consistent. This is not an open forum. We have one basic rule at “Bad Christian” World Headquarters.
Verily, verily, all words that proceedeth out of thy posts and thy comments shall be civil…thus saith the one who payeth the server bills. Thy vile words shall be cast forever into the sea of delete and I will blocketh thee forever.
King James style rules just sound more authoritative.
Recently Rick Warren had a conversational debate with Sam Harris. The discourse between the two of them was civil. But the reaction to the debate from those opposed to faith has been disturbing and ugly. Warren has been called all kinds of names and his intellect, character and even appearance defamed. I can count on being called names anytime that I write about intelligent design or scientific studies that may point toward faith. In almost every case the poster is anonymous and they make me think of Brave Sir Robin from the Monty Python skits. This inflammatory rhetoric has debate in America on life support. I wish I could be more optimistic about its recovery. Hopefully the majority of the readers of these humble ramblings can actually define civility. But just in case, here is the definition of civility listed at dictionary.com.
1. Courteous behavior; politeness.
2. A courteous act or utterance.
Such a simple concept. Just common sense. Yet it seems like we are tilting at windmills and warbling the “Impossible Dream” when you hope that two people on opposite ends of an argument can have an intelligent and civil debate. Guests on talk shows yell over one another. Hosts interrupt. Debaters mug with condescending smirks in the other TV box while a guest makes his or her case. Tragically, this ugly level of discourse has made its way into the debate within the body of Christ. Paul wrote this to the church at Colosse.
Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don't miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out. Colossians 4 The Message
In Ephesians we find this exhortation.
Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift….Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
How often do we hear someone defending their ungracious attitude with the disclaimer that they were just proclaiming the truth? We have a higher standard as followers of Christ. We are called to proclaim truth and we must not water down the truth. But we also called to be imitators of Jesus. He was tough on sin while being gentle with sinners. He was amazingly gracious to anyone who sought truth but he recognized that some only wish to sow discord. He gave these instructions as He sent out the Twelve.
“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don't welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don't make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”
Jesus knew He could not force His message into a man or woman’s heart. Why do we feel the need to attack those who deny Jesus and God? Sam Harris reports that he has received thousands of hate filled letters from people identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. I believe him because I hear from his team about my faith. Here is a heartbreaking comment from Harris.
Many who claim to have been transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While you may ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that the hatred these people feel comes directly from the Bible. How do I know this? Because the most deranged of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.
His most devastating point is that those who claim to be transformed are incapable of speaking the truth with that transforming love. I do not need to persuade Sam Harris that I am right. In fact, I cannot persuade him that I am. I would like to tell him that I don’t hate him or anyone else for their views. I don’t fear Sam Harris. If I am wrong about God then Sam Harris is harmless and perhaps helpful. If I am right about God then Sam Harris can neither damage nor thwart His plan for mankind. God does not need me to defend Him from attack. If I believe in the Creator of the universe I suspect He is quite capable of dealing with an author. Every generation has a Sam Harris and somehow faith has survived. What I believe God does expect and desire from me is that I reflect His love. Harris often makes comments like this.
If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell.
I do not wish ill on Sam Harris. I do not take delight or satisfaction in thinking about his eternal fate. I am simply sad that he has such a low view of adherents of faith. Here is my bottom line. I have called myself a Christian for over 30 years. I have wrestled with doubt. I have read the views of all sides. I have absorbed the arguments of the best thinkers on every side. I have decided that Jesus is the Son of God. That is my decision. His presence and reality in my life have only been amplified in our recent trials. I guess I don’t have the energy to spend on indignation. There is so much more to be accomplished by reflecting the love and grace of Jesus. That is the way we will make a difference to a suspicious and skeptical world.
As for me, what is happening in the cultural debate climate does not change my responsibility. As a follower of Jesus I have pretty clear marching orders. Jesus was addressing the “religious” guys when he said this.
"If you grow a healthy tree, you'll pick healthy fruit. If you grow a diseased tree, you'll pick worm-eaten fruit. The fruit tells you about the tree. You have minds like a snake pit! How do you suppose what you say is worth anything when you are so foul-minded? It's your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words. A good person produces good deeds and words season after season. An evil person is a blight on the orchard. Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation."
The bottom line is that I can only be responsible for me. I want to produce good words and deeds. Part of that is being graceful in communication. Even if it sometimes feels like a losing battle. It does matter which words we say. Examples do matter. Even though I am not rich nor famous nor powerful I am still an example to others. I take it seriously. And so should you.
Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com