Civility in Discordant Time
James Calvin Davis
I would like to thank Caroline Kelly, John Senior, and Jeffery Tribble for taking the time to respond to my essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness.” I read it as a very good sign that none of them rejected the plea for civility as the naïve hope of an overly idealistic academic! Each of them raises important challenges to the task, but each takes the project of civility seriously, reassuring me that the call is indeed realistic and important in the political moment in which we Americans find ourselves.
While we all seem to share a desire for more civility in American public life, each of the responders presses the issue in ways that complicate and enrich our consideration of the idea. Caroline Kelly’s essay begins on a rather pessimistic chord, when she wonders, on the basis of her pastoral experience, “whether anyone will hear” the call to reconciliation. She notes with disappointment the perpetual discord in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over the ordination of LGBT candidates for ministry, which continues despite the attempt from our Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity to forge a way for Presbyterians to embody Christ’s reconciliation, even in the midst of their most entrenched disagreements.
At the same time, Kelly’s essay manages to move past the disappointment to articulate a hopeful call for mutual respect based in the idea of friendship. Her choice of the language of friendship is inspired, as biblical as my reliance on the imago Dei, and arguably more evocative and accessible. Friendship is a model for respect that makes sense to anyone who calls herself a disciple of Jesus, who displayed friendship as a way of embodying God’s loving regard for all persons. But friendship is a human experience that resonates with citizens outside the Christian community, too, and thus it serves across traditions as a vivid image for describing the kind of mutual humanization—getting to know one another as persons—that promises the best path for navigating differences. Kelly’s story of friendship between the Jewish rabbi and the Muslim woman in her travel group wonderfully illustrates the power that friendship holds for building bridges. I thank her for this notion of politics-as-friendship that I can explore in my own future work.
Similarly, Jeffrey Tribble’s emphasis on civility as virtue that must be cultivated is a perspective that warmly resonates with my own. Tribble has given two examples of articulating civility (specifically respect) as a set of discrete practices that, to be successful, must be internalized as habits. Both Eric Law’s “respectful communication guidelines” and the Civility and Etiquette Initiative of The Girlz Rule! rightly suggest that civility should be understood as a set of moral habits that, when practiced consistently, are internalized to the degree that they become a fundamental orientation of the person, a matter of character. Tribble is right to suggest that the success of this character formation depends on the degree to which institutions (e.g., churches and schools) and teachers commit to modeling this behavior for those who look to us for moral instruction. Civility is not solely a rational exercise, then, but a cultivation of virtue as well.
John Senior probably welcomes the affective implications of this understanding of civility as virtue. In his essay, he wonders whether theological commentaries on politics like mine take insufficient account of the complexities of political engagement. He rightly argues that much of the theological literature on political engagement—and much of the philosophical literature, for that matter—seems preoccupied with rational discursive practices, but he is also right to observe that political engagement takes other forms besides debate. He offers a hypothesis for why theologians and philosophers focus on discourse, however, arguing that the Enlightenment’s priority on reason has translated into western fixation on political activity as “talking, in some form or other.” I suspect he is correct that the Enlightenment is partially to blame for this preoccupation, but at least with respect to Christianity, I think Senior does not adequately acknowledge the theological foundations for the importance of discursive relationships. Christian political theology is built on the conviction that proper human relationships take their cue from how God relates to us, and we know what we know about God’s relationship with us through the incarnation of that relationship in Jesus Christ. And from our origins, we Christians have understood that divine-human relationship to be importantly discursive in nature: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
A theological worldview built on the metaphor of the word shapes how we think about the divine-human relationship, our expectations for authority (hence our preoccupation with Scripture and law), and at least some of our norms for interpersonal relationships. Our commitment to that metaphor need not be hyper-rational, for words and dialogue often feature the interplay of passions, affections, and reason. The metaphor also need not ignore that our relationships involve more than dialogue and deliberation. In my own larger work on civility, for instance, I use the idea of “public discourse” as shorthand not only for public discussion but also for other kinds of political engagement, like voting and service. For both logical and theological reasons, I think it useful to see other kinds of political engagement as a living out of the passions, affections, and reasons we articulate in our more deliberative and discursive activity together. Senior is right, however, to warn that too exclusive a definition of political engagement as discourse renders a political theology ill equipped to deal with moral issues particular to the non-discursive elements to our political obligations. I am grateful for his invitation to explore the risks to excessive reliance on the discursive metaphor, even if it is (as I am arguing here) theologically justified.
Related to his reminder that not all political activity is talk, Senior raises questions about the relationship between conflict, coercion, and civility. He suggests that the idea of civility, if too closely tied to cooperative discourse, may find itself at odds with the coercive dimensions to politics. In my book on civility, I agree wholeheartedly that politics is conflict, and that no commitment to civility can ignore or repudiate the inherently coercive dimensions to political power. To do so would render our notion of civility naïve, unrealistic, and unhelpful to moral leadership in political community. But Senior is correct when he argues that the coercive dimensions to political coexistence complicate the demands of civility. As he puts it, “when the talk is over and the debate ends, and a decision is made for one side and not another…. civility becomes a much more challenging endeavor.”
It becomes even more challenging when we are faced with dialogue, decisions, actions, authorities, or policies that not only transgress our wishes, but strike us as unjust. How do we respond civilly to perceived injustices? Is civility even appropriate in the face of injustice, or are calls to mutual respect and patient deliberation nothing more than the gradualism Dr. King rejected in his own response to racial injustice? (To be honest, I was surprised when Tribble’s essay did not take up these kinds of questions, given that he began with his memories of moral indoctrination in the context of the racially and socially volatile 1960s.) These questions are tough, and I have to admit I haven’t resolved them in my own mind. I’m inclined to say that civility sets the ground rules for our public interactions with each other, so it also disqualifies from public consideration those who refuse to abide by its principles. Contributions to public discourse that fail to show respect, patience, humility, and integrity to fellow participants should be ignored in the public square. Policies that embody injustice and disrespect are rightly combated with zeal.
But figuring out where the boundary line is between respect for ideological difference and perpetuation of injustice is a very difficult task. When is a call for respectful dialogue in reality an invitation to capitulation or cowardice in the presence of injustice? What makes our expressions of disagreement prophetic impatience in one moment but ideological intolerance in another? One of the things that makes an investment in civility so difficult is that it is often very hard to discern when tolerance for difference contributes positively to our common life together and when it keeps us from living up to our responsibility to promote fairness and respect in our politics. Negotiating the relationship between respectful discourse and a desire for justice is one of the greatest challenges for those committed to civility in a largely uncivil world.