A word to civility advocates: Practice what you preach

January 12, 2011

Ethics, Uncategorized

The current cries for civility are paradoxically relevant — and President Obama showed wisdom when he drove to the heart of the matter in his eloquent speech in Tuscon.

Mounting evidence suggests Jared Loughner heard only voices from his tortured soul before he allegedly launched the recent Arizona killing spree.   He followed no political party or movement or recognizable political philosophy.  His phantoms dictated his “politics,” if that term can be used.  That’s strangely disappointing.  Devastating assassinations and assassination attempts beg for more:  Part of us wants an international conspiracy behind Lee Harvey Oswald; please, give us a complex syndicate supporting James Earl Ray.  It’s so disproportionate otherwise: A single, mentally-besieged individual changing the course of history?  No.  Can’t be. 

Alas, it can.  John Hinckley, Jr., was trying to impress actress Jodi Foster when he shot President Reagan and wounded several others.  He was making no policy statement.

And we know that.  We’ve read the books.  We’ve seen the PBS specials.  Assassins almost always wander Hinckley’s world, which is why the sudden blame-game was uncivil and tasteless in itself: such-and-such a leader “may” have fed Jared Loughner’s psyche through his or her incivility.  “May,” however common-sensical it seems, often does not correspond to “is.”   Civil argumentation resists the supposedly “natural” urge to vent and waits for genuine facts.  Indeed, civility in itself is a restraint on what we call “the natural.”   Perhaps the uncivil atmosphere contributed to another crime — the vandalizing of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ office a few months — but, apparently, not to this one. 

President Obama rose to the occasion and said it well: “The truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”  These words should be underscored: “Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence…. But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

So, awkwardly, the issue of civil dialogue is germane to all of us, including those who raced to the microphones and implicitly accused others of complicity in a terrible crime because of their incivility. 

Everyone should re-read the Peace and Civility Pledge, which Church leaders drew up last year.  Everyone should apply it.

I quote it in full and provide a link at the end for those who want to sign it:

The church can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is hurting and deeply divided. We 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).

We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse and peacemaking are rare. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many communities, across religious and political lines. We will strive to create 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.

1.) We believe Jesus’ teaching that “Blessed are those who make peace” (Matthew 5:9). We acknowledge that most of us have been guilty of violence in our hearts and with our tongues. We hold ourselves to the higher standard to which Christ called us: to refrain from not only physical violence but violence of the heart and tongue. “Do not commit murder. Anyone who murders will be judged for it,” and “Do not be angry with your brother or sister” (Mathew 5:22-23).

2.) We commit that our dialogue with each other will reflect the spirit of the Scriptures, which tell us, in relating to each other, to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

3.) We believe that each of us, and our fellow human beings, are created in the image of God. This belief should be reflected in the honor and respect we show to each other, particularly in how we speak. “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).

4.) 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. We will be mindful of our language, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs as we strive to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

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. Each of us must therefore “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

6.) We commit to pray for our political leaders – those with whom we agree or 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 adversaries and 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 we may be faithful witnesses to our Lord, who prayed “that they may be one” (John 17:22).

Follow this link if you want to sign the pledge.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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