May 7, 2010 Volume 24, Number 04
Come let us reason together
Civility covenant takes a beating
By Doug Koop | Editorial Director
Call me na´ve. I should have realized civil war is not an oxymoron. Apparently it's a way of life that really works. Confrontational actions seem to be the most effective way to make a point and generate action. Based on practical considerations, it's the way things get donerealpolitik. Wedge issues and attack ads are the order of the day. It's enough to make you weep.
Nonetheless, I was tremendously encouraged earlier this spring when a group of more than 100 prominent Christians in the United States released a documenta "civility covenant"calling on the body of Christ to model healthy discourse in public life. "The church can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is deeply divided by political and cultural differences. Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in Christ."
Indeed, committed Christians ought to be leading exemplars of respectful speaking and listening. The core of the civility covenant is a seven-point outline that provides a biblical basis for more reconciling patterns of public communication. It obliges signatories to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 3:9,10). It calls on them to pray for political leadersincluding those they disagree with. "We believe that it is more difficult to hate others, even our adversaries and our enemies, when we are praying for them," it states.
Sounds Christian to me. And apparently it did to a wide swath of Christian leaders from across the political and ideological spectrum who took the opportunity to sign on just as the Obama health care plan was winding its way to beleaguered approval. The political atmosphere was tense; the air rife with vitriol and misrepresentation. How welcome the leadership of Christians willing to realize some issues transcend ideology and politics.
And sign they did. People like JimWallis of Sojourners on the left, who championed the covenant, and evangelical statesmen like Charles Colson on the right. And many more. Controversial emerging church author Brian McLaren signed. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, was on board. So were the president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the head of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference. Also affixing his name to the document was George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination.
Oops. Wait a minute. About a week after signing, Wood wanted to remove his name from the document. A spokesperson for the Assemblies of God explained: "The problem is the tent has grown so large on the signatures of this that are including people who are supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights."
Who knows how much pressure Wood was facing for the fact of his signature? I guess it was too much to bear. He told conservative Christian blogger John Lanagan that he did "not want my name or the Assemblies of God associated with persons who claim to be in the body of Christ yet reject the moral teachings of Scripture." And Lanagan says others were also considering removing their names.
Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the point of the document to provide a better way of discussing differences and dealing with them in a civil way? Apparently not. Rather, it seems to okay to be civile.g. "mindful of the language we use in disagreements;" "without falsely impugning the other's motives, attacking the other's character, or questioning the other's faith," etc.as long as everyone agrees. But to be publicly aligned in any way with people on the other side of a controversial issue is anathema. At least in certain church circles.
Meanwhile, the civility covenant has slipped off the news media's radar and divisive approaches still govern public discourse. Not that anyone expected things to change overnight, but a good opportunity to move things in the right direction has been squandered. Christians who have a platform to model a better way are choosing to perpetuate the discord of our culture.
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