I’ve been not publishing a number of comments these past few days, as they violate the little rule I keep here at the blog. It’s a simple rule based on a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians,
No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to follow. Many folks who stumble in here, even those who may indeed be exemplary Christians (I can’t tell, having no ability to read souls), seem to relish another simple rule instead of the one the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to share with us. It’s a creed Friedrich Nietzsche would approve of, though, and it goes something like this,
Ah, Conan the Barbarian, Philosopher-King. What a way to spend your days, eh?
And we put Conan’s rule into effect whenever we seek to crush someone who doesn’t hold with our beliefs. We cease being civil with them in the process, and dehumanize them to boot. We paint that person, our adversary, a shade of crimson, put horns and a tail on them, and call them the personification of the Devil himself.
Or we paint ourselves as Jesus smashing tables in the Temple, whipcord flailing, and spittle flying as zeal for the House of the Lord consumes us.
Aside from that one time though, how many times did Jesus choose that approach?
Right. Besides, what with the poles sticking out of our eyes and all, we tend to do more damage just walking around and turning our heads to and fro. Bulls going through china shops leave smaller trails compared to this “motes in our eyes” approach.
Thought experiment. See if you can read the following op-ed piece that was published in the Wall Street Journal yesterday and not turn into Alexander Hamilton, or Aaron Burr, challenging each other to a deadly duel and firing at one another after walking off 12 paces.
It’s written by a fellow who happens to be a priest with the unfortunate notion that being civil with someone might actually be more productive when interacting with them. Even when interacting with the President of the United States.
Yep. It’s written by Fr. John I. Jenkins, that fellow from Notre Dame.
As a country, we seem to have become the factions James Madison warned against in 1787, when he wrote: “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points . . . have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” A more earnest effort to persuade one another could help remedy many of the problems we face.
I confess that I am deeply biased. I am a university president with a strong belief in the power and importance of a liberal arts education. I believe that deep and candid dialogue, marked by many acts of courtesy and gestures of respect, is a discipline that brings us nearer the truth about ourselves, about our opponents, about human nature, and about the subject under debate. To shut down this source of wisdom because we are too angry to hear the other side is a tragic setback in our quest for knowledge and our hope for a healthy society.
What if, instead of dealing with opponents by demonizing them and distorting their views, we were to take some steps to persuade them? I don’t mean to suggest that one could persuade a stalwart partisan to switch parties, but perhaps one could persuade another that a particular policy or a position is “not as bad as you think.”
If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can’t insult them.
If we earnestly try to persuade, civility takes care of itself.
Civility is sometimes derided in the modern world, where bluntness and even coarseness have somehow come to be celebrated in many quarters. But civility is not a minor virtue. It is not an attempt to impose someone’s notion of courtesy, and it is certainly not an attempt to suppress speech. Civility is what allows speech to be heard. It is an appeal to citizens never to express or incite hatred, which is more dangerous to the country than any external enemy.
A more sincere effort to persuade one another would remind us why the Founders believed this country could improve on history: We were the first society in many centuries with the chance to use free speech and sound argument to debate our way toward a better future.
That path is still open, and as promising as ever.
How about that? Father Jenkins counsels us to be civil on the same day Cardinal Dolan wrote a corrective letter to Gov. Cuomo that was the model of civility. What are these guys thinking? Where did they go to school? Don’t they know how the world works?
Ahem. Yeah. Maybe they took another page from the Holy Spirit’s playbook.
To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.
Oh. Now I remember. There is Good News to share.
My blog neighbor Mark Shea just posted something along similar lines. If you feel the need to vituperate, pontificate, and perambulate, take a look at this,
For people in the Normal American community (that is, the majority of Americans who do not eat, breathe, and sleep political infighting), what this creates is a mindset rather like those of the villagers in the Boy Who Cried Wolf. When the TTUTBC (Thing That Used To Be Conservatism) community now erupts in “OBAMA IS HITLER AND STALIN, PUT TOGETHER” because Joe Biden spouted one of the random things he spouts, the Normal American community tends to respond, not by saying, “Your ideas intrigue me and I want to subscribe to your newsletter” but by tuning out this latest fulmination from a community known for fulminating and having hysterics (they did it with the Bushitler Shriekers too–for the very sound reason that Bush was not Hitler either, even though he also led the country toward tyranny and signed his share of Executive Orders too.)
I think the Hysteria Strategy is bad, not because I don’t think we are edging toward tyranny (see “HHS Mandate” and “unilateral Executive murder authorizations”, not to mention “torture” and “Patriot Act”) but because, well, in the *real* world Obama is obviously not Hitler or Stalin any more than Bush was. Amazingly, one can do tyrannical and dangerous things without being Hitler. People interested in treating with reality need to acknowledge this piece of common sense and live accordingly. People merely interested in self-medicating their hatred of Obama, carry on. You will be excellent consumers of the Conservative Infotainment Complex. You will not, however persuade anybody outside the bubble of your chosen unreality of anything other than the fact that you are panicky.
Which leads up to a letter he received from a reader and the opportunity for you to voice your own opinion on this subject over in Mark’s combox. But be advised, he’s laid some ground rules.
Frank, get a grip man. If we don’t fight, and fight to the death, we will LOSE!
Lose what? Our place at the LORD’s table in eternity? Or did you mean lose our lives? You know, like folks in countries where being a Christian is actually hazardous to one’s health and well being? Like during a barbarian invasion, you mean?
Get this. St. Augustine lived during just such a time. In the year 429 AD, see, the Vandals (led by a fellow named Genseric) crossed from Spain into North Africa to extend their gains as the Roman Empire fell. And what did Augustine do? Did he fiddle while Rome burned? Nope. He kept on writing books, is what he did. Refuting heretics here, and busting out theological and philosophical books there, right up until the day he died. Heck, between 426 and 430 AD, Augustine cranked out some great stuff,
The closing years of his life, after the completion of the Retractationes in 426-427, were busy ones. Besides works already named, he wrote four others in these years: three against heresies, and the Speculum de scriptura sacra, a collection of the ethical teaching of the Scripture for popular use. We can not now tell whether the last paragraph of the Opus imperfeclum or the latest of the letters were the last words he wrote; but the close of the letter is eminently characteristic of him: “That we may have a quiet and tranquil life in all piety and love, let this be your prayer for us (as it is ours for you), wherever you are; for, wherever we are, there is no place where he is not whose we are.”
And while the Doctor of Grace lay on his deathbed, reciting the penitential Psalms, the Vandals sacked Hippo.
Monsignor Charles Pope: With Two Wings and One Heart, the Church Flies.