Letting Truth and Civility Meet

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Moving Past Hatred. Read other perspectives here.

During my Christian pilgrimage, I have often sought to forge a viable middle ground between unacceptable extremes; seeking both/and positions rather than embracing either/or thinking. (For an example that seeks such "balance" relative to a number of public policy issues, see my Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation, 2014.) In contemporary culture, two unacceptable extremes are flourishing because many have created a false choice between the quest for "truth" in public discourse and the ideal of "civil" engagement among those who disagree about that truth.

On the one hand, many of those who are convinced that they have complete understanding as to the truth relative to a given contentious issue too easily gravitate toward expression of incivility, such as calling motives into question, demonizing, and even hating those who disagree with them. What is admirable is their unswerving desire to embrace the truth. What is deplorable is their disdain and animosity toward those whose understanding of the truth differs from theirs. I do not need to recite examples. They are rampant on the evening news.

The unacceptable extreme at the other end of the spectrum doesn't get as much press and can be even more insidious because it masquerades as "keeping the peace." It is characterized by such a tepid view of the meaning of civility as to completely negate the quest for truth.

At this extreme, which is characterized by a thin negative view of peace as the "absence of conflict," expressions of disagreement and dissent are all too often not talked about within organizations or other groups, except during coffee breaks when various cliques gather, for fear that any community-wide conversation about contentious issues could "disturb the peace." One casualty is the truth that we could better approximate if we had a community-wide safe space to respectfully engage one another about our disagreements. Another casualty is a genuine sense of community (more about that later).

A middle ground that embraces both the quest for truth and civility is easy to state, albeit hard to implement in our current climate of polarization. What is desperately needed is a "welcoming space" for public discourse that is conducive to listening to all perspectives as to the truth about the issues at hand, after which those who have expressed their views engage one another about their agreements and disagreements in gracious and respectful conversation toward the goal of learning from one another and collectively gaining a better approximation to that truth.

As utopian as that dream sounds there are resources within the Christian faith that speak to the importance of that vision, especially in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Peter.

As recorded in John 18:37, Jesus said "… for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth." As a follower of Jesus, I take this teaching as a mandate for me to seek after the truth, recognizing that as a finite, fallible human being I have only a partial glimpse of that truth that only God fully understands. I therefore need to listen empathetically to the partial glimpses of those who disagree with me.

As recorded in 1 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter gave the following exhortation:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV)

This exhortation weds truth and civility. The first portion of calls me to courageously speak the truth, as I understand it. The oft-neglected second portion calls me to engage with others who disagree with me with gentleness and respect.

A marvelous by-product of this vision is that in settings where it is implemented it will foster a true sense of community, something that is sadly lacking in our culture. Getting back to the unacceptable extreme where a tepid view of the meaning of "civility" relegates dissenters to the corners of snack shops, there is little sense of community within that setting; sticking with your clique of like-minded individuals is the comfortable norm. As suggested by Parker Palmer, you only have true community (which Palmer suggests Jesus models) when those in leadership "make space for other people to act," thereby opening up the possibility of experiencing an "abundance that people … can generate together." This is a clear call for those in positions of leadership and influence within Christian communities to model and create safe spaces for both the quest for truth and the ideal of civil engagement among those who disagree about that truth.