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Concerns for Civility: What Do The Scriptures Teach Us?

January 18, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk about “civility” in the news. Unfortunately it is all wrapped up in politics and is currently being batted about as a thinly veiled political provocation. That is of course paradoxical to say the least (civility used as a kind of club)!  My hope is to avoid all the politics  here and try to focus on the biblical data related to civility. In the end, the scriptural texts strike a certain balance that may be helpful for us to consider, as we shall see.

The word “civility” dates back to about the mid 16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed  the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate, at least historically, was governed by a tendency to be highly nuanced, careful, cautious, formal and trained in rhetorical skill. It’s rules were also prone to refer to one’s opponents by honorary titles (Doctor, professor etc.)  and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence, as the word enters into ordinary usage it comes to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variances in what is considered to be civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data of what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st century America. The scriptures, to include the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus  for example, really mixes it up with his opponents and even calls them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end a balance of the Scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charity and a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. (Eccl 10:12)
  2. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. (Eccles 9:17)
  3. Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  (Matt 5:22)
  4. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph 4:29)
  5. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Col 3:21)
  6. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10)
  7. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19)
  8. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, (Col 4:6)
  9. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11)
  10. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips (Col 3:8)
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19)
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness ( Gal 6:1)
  13. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thess 3:15).
  14. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

So, all these texts counsel a measured, charitable and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Biblical data as well. And, a lot of it from an unlikely source, Jesus.  Paul too who wrote many of the counsels above often manifests strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34).
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides!…..You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. ….You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean….And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23 varia).
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me….You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire…..He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:42-47)
  4. Jesus said, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Mark 7:6)
  5. And Jesus  answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you!?  (Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. (Jn 5:41-42)
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15)
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth,….As for those circumcisers , I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles: And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (2 Cor 11:11-14)
  12. Paul on the Cretans: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13)
  13. [Peter Against Dissenters:] Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings….these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish…..They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done….They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood!….Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.” (2 Peter 2, varia)
  14. [Jude against dissenters] These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain;….These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever…..These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. (Jude 1:varia)

Now, most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse. Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet, they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21 Century mind

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way to illustrate the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures  there is a greater tolerance for anger. I remember dating an Italian girl for a brief time back in college. I remember being at her house and how she and her mother could really go at it with a heated debate (usually in Italian – Mama Mia!). But no sooner had they very intensely argued over some particular point, say  of preparing the meal,  than they were just fine, as if nothing had happened. Angry discourse was more “normal” for them.Even in this country there are regional differences about civility. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive  debate are common.  But in the upper Midwest and parts of the Deep South conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus angry discourse was apparently quite “normal” for, as we see,  Jesus himself engages in a lot of it, even calling them names like, “Hypocrites.” “Brood of Vipers,” “Liars,” “Wicked” etc.  Yet, the same scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also  teach that he never sinned. Hence, at that time such terms were not considered sinful to utter.

Jesus also engaged in prophetic actions like overturning the tables in the temple courts. No one said he’d done wrong,  they just wondered where he got the authority to do this (cf Mark 11:28). In that culture prophets did things like this. No one liked it,  but just like our culture tolerates some degree of civil disobedience, even reveres it, Jesus’ culture  expected things like this from prophets.

Careful –Now be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then, we live now, and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard to define things is “I know when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly, we tend today, to prefer a gentler discourse.

On the other hand we also tend to be a little thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are so easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we easily presume that the very act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further and charges of hate and intolerance go back and forth where there is simply sincere disagreement.

Balance – The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First  that we should speak the truth in love,  and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less hyper-sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. Perhaps an old saying comes to mind: Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.

Here are two videos that display the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger. The Passages depicted are John 6 and John 8.

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Comments (11)

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  1. Bender says:

    Here is another quote.

    I had heard the quote many times for many years, never realizing just how backwards most people were using it. Then I read it for myself.

    “Peace, peace!” they say, though there is no peace. Jer. 6:14, 8:11.

    In these rather curious passages, God is none too pleased with those who are advocating for “peace” and civility. In fact, God is downright angry at those crying out “Peace.” Why? Because such “peace” is a lie, contrary to truth and justice and true charity. It is a false peace because it is merely a tool used by those who would do or allow evil.

    They would repair, as though it were nought, the injury to the daughter of my people: “Peace, peace!” they say, though there is no peace. They are odious; they have done abominable things, yet they are not at all ashamed, they know not how to blush. Hence they shall be among those who fall; in their time of punishment they shall go down, says the LORD. I will gather them all in, says the LORD: no grapes on the vine, No figs on the fig trees, foliage withered! Why do we remain here? Let us form ranks and enter the walled cities, to perish there; For the LORD has wrought our destruction, he has given us poison to drink, because we have sinned against the LORD. We wait for peace to no avail; for a time of healing, but terror comes instead. Jer. 8:11-15

    God calls us to charity, to loving not merely neighbor, but enemy as well. But in Jeremiah, God clearly indicates that with such charity and works of mercy (bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving those who injure us, “turning the other cheek”) and engaging in dialogue (from the Greek for “an exchange of reason”) and the beatitude of working for peace, one must be honest with oneself, one must recognize the truth or untruth of the other person, and not foolishly cry out “peace” when there is none, that one must remain on guard when that enemy you are supposed to love is still bent on your destruction, and one has an obligation to truth, to continue to fight for what is good and true, and not let the scandal of falsehood lead others away from it.

  2. jj says:

    Thank you my friend. I needed these words of counsel.

  3. Beth says:

    I agree that we have the right to recognize Truth when and where we see it. However, there is a sense to really meaning ‘peace’ in all situations. It is the whole idea of hating the sin, yet loving the sinner. Even if what someone is saying is not true according to the teachings of Christ, we are still required to love the person… no matter what they may be acting or doing. Peace does not mean condoning actions, but approaching them as Christ would approach them — from a peaceful standpoint as opposed to an antagonistic.

    I think the examples above help to illustrate that Christ was fully human, as prone to many emotions as we all are. He knew people on a different level than any of us can ever hope to — so he actually, I think, had the right to have truly righteous indignation at the actions of those around us. I am not so sure that any of us can claim the same.

  4. Ricky Vines says:

    I thought you were carrying water for the Democrats who started this appeal to sanity and civility. But after reading the entire post, I saw it as ruminating on the concept – in general albeit abstract sense of the word.
    It is amazing how Democrats whose followers have been the most violent and vile specially when Bush was in-charge has somehow turned the tables around to blame the Conservatives for the Tucson massacre. And some people are going along with their travesty. Anyway, on my way home I was listening to WTOP where the news kept harping on the symbolic nature of the repeal because it won’t go anywhere even if it passes the House. Just think about that. The people have repudiated Obamacare last November and still the Senate ignores the people’s will. I can’t understand that and it infuriates me how they continue to defy the people and then shamelessly talk about civility. Who is being uncivil when they block the will of the people?

  5. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Civility got us Roe vs. Wade and government funded right to life taxpayer funded abortions. I’ll take truth over civility (political correctness) of speech any day. I particularly feel numbers 13 and 14 get to the fallacy of those who rhetorically claim to have the answer for civility.

    • Robertlifelongcatholic says:

      excuse my misuse of rhetorical civility – “not right to life but rather planned parenthood taxpayer funded abortion on demand.”

  6. Bender says:

    I’m sorry that I had forgotten this (especially given the date). But on the matter of “civility” in the civil arena, Martin Luther King had some wise and appropriate words,

    “For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” . . . There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. . . .

    I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. . . . Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
    –Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963

  7. Nick O'dEmmus says:

    Might I suggest that part of the “culture” of civility in certain Western countries derives more from pagan Stoicism than from Christian conviction? Furthermore, there is an element of Stoicism in much of Protestant Christianity – think of the classic “stiff upper lip” of the British (Anglican) gentleman being lauded as a virtue. Notably the European countries in which “emotion” is more acceptable tend to be Mediterranean i.e. Catholic ones. This influence perhaps has survived into the US with people such as the Italian family you referred to. Just a thought, welcome to any suggestions and debate.

  8. Nick O'dEmmus says:

    I am also reminded of the Old Testament prophets. They were very fond of expressing themselves in terms which would be considered harsh or “uncivil” by contemporary standards: Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah to name but a few. And, of course, John the Baptist’s ministry always conjures up the image of a pretty fierce rebuker in my mind, someone who certainly did not take any prisoners. It would appear that one of the hallmarks of being a prophet was even this “lack of civility” and clarion call to turn the people of God around. After all, no-one who is fast asleep (spiritual) can wake up without a loud alarm clock!