Why Can’t Christians Play Nice?
By alastair bryan sterne
December 13, 2011
I was recently in a conversation with an acquaintance who had the audacity to claim that he is a Christian Anarchist—an impossible merger of worldviews in my opinion. (I still don’t understand how one can reconcile the constant employment of kingship metaphors throughout both testaments with the concepts of anarchy? ... But I digress.) Throughout our conversation, something happened that I am sure every believer has experienced at some point when confronted with opposing views: I felt myself beginning to question this person’s integrity, character and motives. All of a sudden their value as a human being was compromised in my eyes, and all because we were disagreeing over theological concepts that are important to me. I desperately wanted to cry anathema, the Greek word employed by Paul and various Catholic Canon’s for expelling someone from the community of faith—OK, I get nerdy and self-righteously orthodox when I’m frustrated. But this inaccessible posture of superiority seeped into my tone and the arguments I used in our disagreement. I was full of conviction. I lacked civility.
In retrospect, this is greatly disconcerting—and indicative of conversations many Christians have every day in the workplace, in the church or on comment boards. If we can’t be civil with someone who Jesus claims as family, how can we be expected to engage in any other discourse civilly?
"I Know I am Right!"
I am still convinced my acquaintance was very wrong in his convictions. That is the challenge: I know I am right. As Christians, we are a people with convictions, and this is particularly perplexing for us when dialoguing with others. Our convictions can lead to hot tempers infused with aggressive and careless words—but all in the name of righteous indignation, right? Lutheran scholar Martin Marty has observed that people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, and people who have strong convictions often lack civility. We face a dilemma: falling into either category compromises truth. You can compromise truth for the sake of being civil, or you can compromise truth by your lack of civility—by being right in all the wrong ways. I’ve seen and held both postures and neither are admirable or Christ-like.
In his book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw suggests that the real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility. Jesus demonstrates such a posture time and time again.
Or does He? Isn’t He the one who flips over tables because of His convictions? Yes. Isn’t He the one who resorts to calling those He disagrees with a “brood of vipers”? Again, yes. Yet I would suggest that this is not normative behavior for Jesus, nor is it prescriptive behavior for us. In the gospels, Jesus more often than not responds to those He disagrees with in grace, tact and truth. In his epistle, St. James writes “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-21). Jesus is the only person whose anger truly can produce the righteousness of God, while generally our anger is compromised because of our brokenness and finitude.
The Posture of Convicted Civility
Jesus’ convicted civility is most clearly on display in His radical inclusiveness and exclusiveness. Jesus is radically inclusive. He is willing to dialogue with people and engage with them where they are, and as they are. He will dine with sinners and the outcasts without condemning them—He lived freely in the tension that their convictions and lifestyle are in contrast to His own. Yet He maintained truth and standards that demanded total loyalty. His inclusivity never compromised His convictions as He called for trust in Him exclusively. He invited all into repentance out of their sin. But Jesus also affirmed their value while not condoning the aspects of their lives that did not align with the ethical dimension of the Kingdom of God. This seems so gray and messy, right? Yet Jesus is capable of living in these fuzzy areas. So we must ask, how can we adopt such a posture?
Mouw suggests a basic rule of thumb for the posture of civility: “Concentrate on your own sinfulness and on the other person’s humanness.” This posture is cruciform. The cross brings us to an awareness of our own corruption, rebellion, brokenness and misplaced convictions. It knocks us off any pedestals we might want to prop ourselves up on and we fall onto level ground at the foot of the cross. The cross is radically inclusive, all are welcome and nobody is so foregone as to have excluded themselves from the offer of God’s saving love. The cross also tells us of our immeasurable worth to God. It is because of love that Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself for us all. The cross is the extent to which God is willing to show us that His love has no bounds.
Convicted civility is birthed when we focus on the humiliation of the cross for ourselves and the exaltation of the cross for others. It takes root in us when we focus on what the cross tells us about our brokenness, and the value of the person sitting across from us. Christ on the cross is where we must always begin when engaging other people.
Finding Beauty in Disagreement
The beauty of a convicted civility is that it helps us to hold on to truth in a way that doesn’t preemptively end conversations, while also opening us up to the possibility that we may not have it all figured out.
Convicted civility is a helpful corrective for those of us who tend to be right in all the wrong ways. Truth matters, but so does our posture and the way we communicate it. We can maintain our convictions and learn how to disagree in ways that do not resort to ad hominem tactics. When someone is "wrong," it doesn’t change their intrinsic value to God. Simultaneously, their value to God does not justify anybody’s erroneous ways or opinions. Remembering one’s worth as a person who Jesus gave His life for should challenge the way we disagree with them. Yes, they are broken. But if we focus solely on their ‘wrongness’ we will likely be condescending, and whatever truth we may have to impart will be lost. Rather, focusing on how much Jesus values them helps us engage their brokenness with the grace, patience and tact that Jesus has offered us.
In our civility and willingness to engage in humble, loving dialogue we might actually learn a thing or two. The posture of civility will open us up to correction. Focusing on the worth of the person sitting across from us opens us up to listen to them and their message. Civility allows dialogue to remain loving and gentle even in disagreement.
The openness of a convicted civility is beautiful because it is ultimately the posture of our Savior. It should change the way we engage with fellow believers—and it should ultimately transform how we engage with every single person. We need to be willing to be humiliated for the sake and worth of others, because Jesus was the one who was humiliated for our sake. This isn’t an easy posture to take, but the One who has the only true and just convictions also has the humility to be patient with us—even the Christian Anarchists.
Alastair Bryan Sterne has a master's in Biblical Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside, a church plant in Vancouver, B.C. He is still waiting to say something original on Twitter.