Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Call to Civility

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Civility is on many of our minds in the midst of Congressional quagmire and election year politics. Too many politicians resort to throwing red meat to their constituencies (chum to their chums, I call it), whether that of their opponents or of easy scapegoats. An election year is not the time, it seems, to give thoughtful, nuanced, even tolerant responses to another’s position; but in our 24/7/12 news cycle, every year has become an election year. Nietzsche’s Myth of Eternal Return translated into today’s politics means that every thoughtful, nuanced, even tolerant response is up for eternal review and rebuttal.

The fault lies not only in our political stars, but in our selves. I too can grow harsh and dismissive and ridiculing when I know I’m right. I’ve just learned, on my better days, to keep it to myself.  The proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” comes to mind.

I’ve recently read two books urging civil discourse. Both are gifts from people I respect. The first was written by an orthodox rabbi leaning toward the left, You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by Brad Hirschfield. The other was written by an evangelical Christian leaning toward the right, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers: Why Is the Gospel of Love Dividing America? by Dan Merchant. The first contains many quotable quotes, the latter includes interviews with such disparate characters as Al Franken and Rick Santorum. Each author made comments that made me wince as well as offering challenging insights.

Hirschfield quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, “Fanatic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt; it is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.” Then Hirschfield explains how he grew out of his youthful fanatic Zionism to pray alongside Muslims, even lead Havdalah (prayers at the close of Sabbath that welcome the new week) on top of the Reichstag (the onetime seat of Nazi power) in Berlin, as well as attend a Catholic mass at Auschwitz after opening a synagogue there. He says faith traditions should “help us imagine a better world and nurture our ability to get there.” He explains compassion “is about noticing the person in front of you before the ideology inside of you.” Ultimately, he says, “I have come to believe that religious traditions exist not to serve the faithful, but to help the faithful serve the world.”

A similar insight about religious traditions helping us serve the world occurred to Dan Merchant a year before he decided to address the “divisive rhetoric” of “bumper sticker theology” and “culture wars” in his documentary and book, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers. He personally witnessed Christians who preferred to be called “followers of Jesus” simply helping people in Ethiopia, observing, “these Followers of Jesus are here to meet a need and not win an argument.” He writes, “Our tendency to reduce the gospel of Jesus to a couple of isolated issues, our willingness to oversimplify this complex life just so we can be right and win an argument is, as a smart person would say, antithetical to Jesus’ teachings.”

He says, for example, that when evangelicals say they “want to preserve the traditional institution of marriage,” it comes across as “I hate gay people.” Merchant writes, “I can’t accept this communication breakdown. Should the burden be on my lips or their ears? I guess it depends on whether I really want to have a conversation or I simply want to be right.”

I was both challenged by and proud of the gay Washington state legislator who recently said it was important that those who voted against that state’s same-gender marriage bill not be called bigots, just as those who voted for it not be accused of undermining family values.

Though we may resist turning the other cheek, we might at least turn another ear.


  1. A very powerful blog; thanks for sharing these insights!

  2. Helpful for me today, Chris. Thanks, & blessings on your ongoing ministry!

  3. Nice blog; glad I had some influence on it; thanks for sharing.