Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Covenant for Civility

Over a hundred professing Christian leaders have signed a document called A Covenant for Civility in which they pledge to speak to each other with respect and humility.

The signers include some people for whom I have great respect. The document cites Scripture passages such as Ephesians, 4:31-32, “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” and James 1:19, be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

I’m hesitant to be critical of the document because I agree completely that generally speaking, Christians should almost always be kind, compassionate, respectful and gracious not only towards other Christians, but toward almost all people.

But there are exceptions to this rule.

Judging from the document alone one might get the impression that the word “Christian” is almost synonymous with being “nice” and that the Bible prohibits all overheated rhetoric.

Such an impression would be false.

While we should strive to disagree agreeably, there are times when people advocate such damnable views that overheated rhetoric may not be out of line. For example, if someone were to advocate the sexual abuse of children does anyone think that calm, reasonable discussion is always in order? Then why should overheated rhetoric always be considered out of order when discussing the killing of unborn children or the normalizing of behaviors that the Bible calls abomination?

Why should heated rhetoric always be out of line when politicians take actions that restrict or remove our Constitutional guarantees to freedom of religion or speech? Why would genuine Christians think overheated rhetoric is always out of order when some who claim to be Christian deceive people with a view of Christianity that is no more Christian than the religion of Islam?

It is significant that neither Moses, nor the Old Testament prophets, nor many of the New Testament writers and not even Jesus himself, could not have signed the Covenant for Civility. Take, for example:

1) “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…son of hell…blind fools…blind guides…whitewashed tombs…snakes…brood of vipers (Jesus in Mt 23:13-33)

2) “You belong to your father, the Devil…He was a murderer from the beginning…he is a liar and the father of lies,” (Jesus in John 8:44)

3) “Though you do not know him [God], I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you!” (Jesus in John 8:55)

4) “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness (Paul in Acts 13:10)

5) “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned (i.e. let him go to hell, Paul in Galatians 1:9)

6) “You foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1)

7) “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12)

8) “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God,” (James 4:4)

9) “…these dreamers…like unreasoning animals…Woe to them!...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 the blackest darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 8-12)

10) “Bold and arrogant…They are like brute beasts…They are blots and blemishes…an accursed brood…of them the proverbs are true, ‘A dog returns to its vomit…”(2 Peter 2:10b-22)

11) “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15).

This post is not an argument for uncivil speech. Far from it! But it is a recognition that there is a time for anger (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). If Christians lose the ability to express anger at injustice, oppression, or bald-faced evil, we will have become like salt that loses its saltiness and is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matthew 5:13).