the inconsistency for the call of civility

In light of an unsuccessful campaign to become the president of my middle school as an 8th grader, I have no plans on entering politics and running for political office. But, I have been learning so much about civic engagement, policy making, advocacy, and the larger realm of politics. Several days ago, I spent 2 days in Washington DC to continue that education. And while I wasn’t able to play hoops with President Obama and throw him a couple elbows, I even had the opportunity to attend a briefing in the White House. While it wasn’t as surreal as I expected, it was a neat experience nevertheless.

While I’m not able to disclose too much of this gathering, we had a conversation that I feel like I’m hearing and reading quite often:

The topic of civility.

…And particularly around the discourse of politics.

Ahhh, the conversation of politics.

As I shared with my church recently, I’m not looking forward to the next election season in two years. If folks thought that the most recent presidential election were intense, heated, and vicious…wait till the 2012.

As an independent voter with

an interest in politics not because I love politics but because politics impact policies which ultimately, impact people…

I don’t see a way around it:

Christians need to be engaged with our civic responsibilities.

The unfortunate thing is that I’ve seen people feel isolated, offended, and upset because they think I’m espousing a certain view. I even had couple people leave the church simply because my face appeared on this cover of the “ultra liberal left-wing” Sojourners Magazine.

When people ask if I am a Democrat or Republican, I often respond:

On what issue?

But going back to the question and conversation of civility, I wholehearted agree that we – as a larger society (and as a Christian  community) need to learn how to be civil:

  • We need to learn how to listen.
  • We need to speak without shouting and screaming.
  • We need to not to accuse and attack.
  • We need to stop demonizing one another or prominent leaders.
  • We need to be better informed.
  • We need to agree to give space to disagree. It’s ok.
  • We need to learn where we agree and see how we can work together.

I have my thoughts and views and I’ve shared some of them like my thoughts on Glenn Beck, or Arizona, Immigration, and Xenophobia, and while I’ve received my share of disagreements and criticism, I’ve appreciated the freedom to be able to both convey and communicate – and – listen and learn.

But as Christians, we need to agree that the most significant aspects of our relationship are not our politics, our political views, or our political affiliations but that we are connected together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Politics has its role. But Christ is the most significant aspect of our community.

It does seem true that the our larger society seems to be fueled and propelled by disagreement, tension, and vitriolic banter rather than harmony, cooperation, and unity.

But as I hear so many folks speak up, write, blog, teach, and preach about the necessity of civility in public and political discourse – all while citing numerous examples and stories of the lack 0f civility and mean-spiritedness against President Obama,  I honestly have a hard time being fully engaged with their voices.


It’s not that I dislike Obama…it’s just that I wonder:

Why weren’t the same folks speaking up for President Bush? And when I say “folks,” I’m also referring to some Christians who – in my opinion – were absolutely cruel, vicious, and mean-spirited.

I agree. Let’s discuss and engage the commitment to civility but let’s make sure we apply that – even to those on “the other side.”

34 Replies to “the inconsistency for the call of civility”

  1. I would suspect that the reason people weren’t speaking up on behalf of President Bush, is that attacks against President Obama are seen as racially motivated, subtle as those attacks may be. People probably feel the need to rush to the defense as they see it as an attack on him as a person. That’s unfortunate though they we weren’t motivated to speak up before now. Incivility is incivility, although as an African-American, I can tell you there is a sting behind verbal jabs that assault one’s person based on their race. If we’re going to learn to be civil, we need to start with each and every person we encounter, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Until we do that, we won’t be able to have sensitivity to those who have been unfairly treated in our culture.

  2. Eugene- would you write this same post if you were living during the time of slavery or before the civil rights act? I don’t think you would. You, as a Christian leader, would probably say (despite the risks) “get on board, everyone. Right is right and good is good.” Did Bonhoeffer write “we can agree to disagree” when his country was being overtaken by the Nazi party and the church was largely silent?

    I like most of your article and hold similar views to much of it, but I feel like this quest to be respectful and moderate really trivializes some current issues that have had devastating consequences: war crimes, invasion, surveillance, torture, and more. These should not be in the same category of discourse as say, which tax rate for the rich is best for economic recovery, or election drama. You follow me?

    I don’t want civility to replace our calling to speak and act clearly about the injustices of the day- and some of those injustices stem from political policy in the US, and moreso from one prominent political party. I will agree with you that we are to be respectful and acknowledge the power structures, and we certainly don’t need to be personally cutting towards elected officials.

    Let me say this- as a fellow independant voter who (mistakenly) voted twice for Bush and voted third party in 08 and has no “dog in this fight,” the difference between obama and Bush at this point is that Bush and many in his administration have likely committed war crimes. The evidence is overwhelming, as is the global “cost.” This is no trivial matter. This country is approaching a threshold where nothing will be seriously examined because people are either 1) too insane and crazy about “the sky is falling” and so their political concerns get dismissed or 2) too detached and unwilling to stand up and speak clearly IF the issue is divisive along party lines. Meanwhile, real people suffer. Where is the church?

    1. Thanks Ian for the comment (and for the CD).

      You wrote:

      I don’t want civility to replace our calling to speak and act clearly about the injustices of the day- and some of those injustices stem from political policy in the US, and moreso from one prominent political party.

      I completely agree.

      My call to civility isn’t to discourage the conviction and courage to speak and act clearly. Far from it. It’s just that we can do these things w/o being jackarses.

      I read your post about Bush, his administration, and the possibility of war crimes. Powerful…

      1. “My call to civility isn’t to discourage the conviction and courage to speak and act clearly. Far from it. It’s just that we can do these things w/o being jackarses.”

        You’re right (and you’re welcome- hope you enjoy the disc).

  3. Civility is good.

    With regards to Obama, he seems to have similar policies as Bush though.
    –Still in Iraq, more troops in Afghanistan, no public option, stimulus packages for Wall street, the poorer get poorer with this new extension of the Bush tax cuts where people earning less than 40,000 lose out.

    The difference between Bush and Obama is the persona that they give off, with their different mannerisms and how they speak. That’s why it’s easier to take shots at Bush. However, Bush said he won’t take shots at Obama, and even Bono and Obama have praised Bush on how much he gave to Africa.

    In terms of policies though, they’re overall very similar with Bush maybe being a bit more on the right like having implemented that law against partial birth abortion. Even regards to same sex marriage though, Obama believes in the traditional definition that has angered many gay advocates.

    Has anyone seen Bush on Jay Leno or Oprah? It was pretty funny.

  4. I think this issue of attacking one another based on politics, is basically because people have formed their identity and loyalties around being “left and liberal” or “conservative and right-wing.”

    Once, you put yourself in either camp and committed yourself, you become biased no matter how much we think we’re independent thinkers.

    It’s the same thing with Christians. We align ourselves as being part of this ‘tribe,’ and anyone else outside of it, we’re biased against them, and don’t tend to see the good that comes from other ‘tribes.’ We naturally want to point out and attack.

    Sometimes, the basis of being in one tribe is out of a mutual dislike of the other tribe. I think that’s why Obama was so popular when he got elected, he was the anti-Bush. But once there’s no demon to be united against, the unity falls apart. That’s what we’re seeing in the democratic party now.

  5. Yes. Thank you, Eugene. All voices, all issues, speaking truth in love without dishonoring & obstructing one another. Would the media cover such boring campaigns? I pray so!!

    Then, the hard part is voting for/against candidates when the issues of their platform don’t line up with ours. Not to mention, I do steer toward ethics & integrity in character, as much as can be discerned, along with the issues.

  6. The church needs to wake up. There is a war being waged by the rich against the rest of us. As Warren Buffett confirms the rich “are winning”. Forget about democrat vs republican what is happening is rich vs the rest with the poor bearing the brunt. I know which side God is on, it time church leaders pulled their finger out and start fighting.

        1. simply because some one is not as poor as a different person in another country (as i assume you are referencing), does not negate their struggle.

          similarly, someone who is sexually harrassed or touched, but is not raped, still has pain, confusion, hurt, betrayal, trauma etc to recover from.

          Because there is a “worse” does not make “bad” any more “good.”

  7. That’s exactly what I’ve noticed. For eight years, I saw protesters in downtown Kansas City with hateful rubbish on posters every day. Photos of Bush with a Hitler mustache and whatnot – not even comments that can be debated, just personal insults. I never heard anyone standing up for Bush, asking people to take it easy on him.

  8. Great post. I especially likes this part: I agree. Let’s discuss and engage the commitment to civility but let’s make sure we apply that – even to those on “the other side.”

  9. Timely, Eugene. Thanks.

    I don’t know why it is so hard for people to understand the difference between disagreeing with someone (anyone!) and speaking out intelligently about why one disagrees … and just attacking the person, well, personally.

    The minute someone attacks personally, they have lost the debate … disqualifying themselves — especially those who claim to follow Jesus.

    Whatever happened to “love your enemies”? Sheesh!

    Peace to you … and thanks for your voice in the insanity.

  10. Eugene – I’d like to introduce you to my 22 year old daughter, Kathryn Melheim. She’s politically aware, passionate for the rights of the poor, and graduating with a double major in social work and spanish in six months, thinking about her future. I think she’ll enjoy reading you.

  11. “We need to learn how to listen.”

    I think in the west we do not know how to listen, but do an excellent job at talking over each other. As a college educator I work really hard at trying to get students to learn how to listen. I think if they are able to learn this skill they will be better at whatever vocation they are called to.

  12. Well first, I think there were plenty of people defending Bush during his presidency. For example, how many times did you hear people claim that it was unpatriotic to question a president’s war strategies during war time, or that his tax cuts (then and now) are necessary? Heck, if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone defend the Bush Administration’s policies on water boarding, I’d be a wealthy man.

    Personally, I think that, regardless of your political affiliation, you always hear the criticism of your beliefs louder than you hear the defense, and right now the volume on the criticism is turned up so high, that it’s practically all you hear. I think when people ask for civility, they’re really asking for a quieter form of criticism that’s less emotional, and more rational.

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