Are There Limits to Civility?

A Serious Question in Our Time

I believe in civility in word and in action. I believe that civility should be the norm, the default context in which we human beings deal with each other; and that should be the case above all in the church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul states,

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (13:4-7)

The reason that civility is the default position in all of our dealings is because love is the context of our relationships with others. The Apostle states specifically in reference to our conversations that civility is to be embraced. "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6). And in Ephesians, "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear" (4:29).

And if Paul is not convincing, Jesus warns us about the words we use. "I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter" (Matthew 12:36). Our words reveal who we are; they reveal our character. Once again, hear the words of Jesus:

...for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:44-45).

There are plenty of additional Scriptures I can cite, but what I have listed is more than sufficient. That civility is the norm should not be controversial.

I also do not think it is controversial to observe that in our general discourse in the United States and in the church in America, civility is lacking. It seems that when it comes to politics, religion, and now even as medicine has been politicized, it appears difficult to have a civil and reasonable discussion. The ever-present reality of 24/7 cable news, the continued onslaught of the talking heads on TV and radio, and the ability for people to comment on internet posts insulting responses to well-crafted and intelligent arguments just make matters worse.

But is there a limit to civility? Is there a time to no longer speak respectfully, but clearly and directly in a prophetic way that will indeed offend certain people? The Old Testament prophets were not always kind giving the word of the Lord. At times they were downright insulting. The prophet Amos refers to the wealthy women in the north of Galilee as cows of Bashan (Amos 4:1-4). Jesus himself gets angry with the religious leaders in Matthew chapter 23 referring to them as a whitewashed tombs, all beautiful on the outside, but inside filled with the bones of the dead. He calls them hypocrites and blind guides. Saint Paul who counsels us to civil conversation also at times is extremely angry. He is so incensed that the churches in Galatia have reverted to one form or another of Torah observance, that he refers to them as foolish or stupid depending on the translations. Conceptually, Paul calls hem empty-headed. "You brainless Galatians!" He is also so angry at the prospect of the Gentile Galatian converts, picking up the practice of circumcision that he says to them in stark fashion, "I wish you would go the whole way and emasculate yourselves! I wish you would cut it all off! (Galatians 5:12) These are not civil words.

So when is civility no longer in order? I want to emphasize again that civility should be the norm; but when is the time to take off the gloves, metaphorically speaking, and declare truth in a righteous angered tough love? When is it time to say enough is enough? When is it time to reflect the image of God in our anger at injustice, greed, exploitation, and the outright embrace of conspiracy theories and falsehoods that get people hurt and killed?

If there is one thing I have learned from my African-American sisters and brothers who experience systemic and embedded racism on a regular basis, it's that the insistence on civility is often used as a way to keep things as they are, to maintain the status quo, and to keep those on the receiving end of injustice in their place. Those on the receiving end of lawful injustice are not permitted to be righteously angry. For those in power, righteous anger is always "justified," disguised in support of unjust laws while taking Romans 13 out of context to encourage blind loyalty to the state. Many years ago, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr rightly observed that often those with power use it in such a way to get what they want while keeping those without such power from getting what they need. Civility is employed in the process.

So I am raising this question without providing an answer: What are the limits of Civility. When is the norm of Civility an excuse to reject the cries of those who hurt and bleed and die? When is civility most uncivil in dismissing the cries of injustice? When is civility appealed to so that those with privilege do not have to face the harsh reality of the kind of violent injustice they themselves do not experience? Not everyone in American culture gets to experience the kind of privilege that affords them the privilege to be civil if there is to be real change.

Let me be clear. I'm not promoting violence. I believe that nonviolence is at the heart of the Gospel. That is not only true for those who protest. It is true for those who use civility as a way to continue the violence perpetrated upon those who experience the embedded prejudices in our culture.

We must remember, however, the same Jesus who commanded his followers to turn the other cheek and who did not resist his own death at the hands of those in power, also seethed with anger at injustice and had harsh words for the perpetrators. Would any of us have dared to say to Jesus in such moments, "Lord, please calm down. People will be turned off and reject what you're saying if you're so mean."

One more thought: Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for people of faith. You would be hard-pressed to find a place where Jesus is so harshly critical of those on the outside. His righteous anger was reserved for the covenant people because he believed they should know better. Jesus said on the cross "Father forgive them for they do not know what they're doing." I believe Jesus could say the same words today directed at the people of God in the 21st century church in America, and they would be just as relevant today as two thousand years ago.

As I said, I do not know how to resolve the tensions here, but I know this: the Jesus who offered gentle counsel, comforting words, and deeds of compassion to those who suffered, is the same Jesus who at times was most uncivil. Jesus was not strung upon a cross because he said to the masses, "Hey I got this really radical idea. What do you say we just love one another?" (Luke 23:34) Jesus was crucified because he dared to challenge those religious folks in power, those synagogue-attending (church-going) folks who were members of the society's status quo, and had the most to gain by everything staying the same. And he challenged them with deeds they themselves could and would not do, and with direct and clear words they could not ignore.

And while I reject violence in all its forms whether it be bodily violence or the destruction of property, there may come a time when calling people names and turning over tables are indeed righteous options.

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Check out more of my writings at http://www.allanbevere.com.