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Civility in the Midst of Incivility: Where Are Our Prophetic Voices?

Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist.
Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist. | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

We live in a time of frightful, appalling incivility. As you know, there are loving families and cherished friends who can hardly talk together civilly now – especially about crucial social and political concerns. What a shame! On the positive side, perhaps voter apathy is shrinking, and more people will engage in their civic duty and privilege to vote. However, on the negative side, it is safe to predict that even a fair election will not be enough to repress the raw hatred or to reconcile the dysfunction in our public speech and action.

It is quite telling that even among friends and professional colleagues – all brilliant and loving people – it is difficult to have a civil conversation even on the topic of civility! Instead of the urgent topic of civility, very good people want to start by blaming the leaders of just one political party (President Donald J. Trump or others) or just the other (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or Rep. Maxine Waters, or others). Since such leaders are not likely partners in our conversations, bringing them up is not a step to reconciliation. Also, blaming is always an unfruitful way to resolve conflict.

Thankfully, we have in the treasury of the Bible the precious resources to bring reconciliation and also to move our conversations toward true civility. Please let me introduce three of these precious resources by means of three fundamental questions.

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What is the basis for our now having any hope?

Many people in our communities have lost any connection with a narrative greater than their individual stories. This is a tragic part of the present "post-modern" condition of much of our culture. Leaders of post-modern thinking who shape the dominate values in secular universities completely reject the powerful ideas of "Progress" or "Hope." These inspiring terms are literally rejected because they require (a) objective higher standards of what is better to which we can progress and (b) guarantees that there are ultimate positive purposes running the universe. Shapers of post-modernism – including Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin, Thomas Wolfe, and others – reject such talk of objective higher standards and transcending positive purposes because these beliefs would require a God! Tragically, they summarily reject God. As a consequence, post-modern leaders are honestly and openly compelled to kill talk of real "progress" and true "hope." R.I.P., Progress and Hope!

The problem is that we need Hope to seriously commit to civil conversation – the Hope that the process of respectful listening and honest speaking can produce some good results. And we need to believe in the possibility of real Progress, because there are ways to recognize true improvements in policies and to move together to incorporate them.

Unlike post-modern gurus, most Americans still believe that there is a God whose sovereign purposes for people and for the universe are revealed through the Bible and through the Spirit. This basic belief was necessary for the success of the Civil Rights Movement, for example. More importantly, God's own inspiring presence and dramatic work were necessary, beyond millions of people's true beliefs. And for the numerous international, national, state, and local challenges ahead – we need objective standards of Progress and a well-grounded Hope that success is possible. The Bible gives us objective eternal principles for the measure of real progress [See:], and the Living Lord gives us deep Hope.

Above our individual stories, we have the over-arching Biblical Story of God's sovereign purposes, the Messianic Promises, and the amazing Gospel Story. When people have only their own stories, with no greater meaning or purpose from God as the Higher Authority, basic civility loses its role. With only their own individual stories, people live selfishly, with no hope. Prophetic voices are needed now to awaken people, to deepen their awareness, and to restore commitment to the divine purposes, promises, and grace. Since each person's life has a great purpose in God's Story, it truly matters that we are civil to each person now.

How do we define our enemies – by people or by principles?

On the one hand, if our enemies are simply people we do not like, incivility becomes acceptable or even required. Are our enemies some groups of people whom we hate or distrust based upon some bias or bad history? Are there dehumanizing names that come to mind – or come out of our mouths – that tarnish or even deny the God-given humanity of a political or social opponent?

On the other hand, if our focus is on the eternal principles, then the true enemy is the other person's misunderstandings or bad principles and policies. Consequently we should be civil and caring to the badly guided people who misunderstand or are misguided or even ignorant in their weak awareness and flawed applications of the eternal principles. With our focus on principles, our goals will be civil persuasion, conviction, or at least tolerance and some engagement of the Biblical civic principles we heartily endorse.

We need a prophetic voice for loving all people while drawing them to the eternal, Biblical principles. Of course, all truth is confrontational, in some sense. However, when truth is affirmed in love and grace, our principled confrontations will still be civil – and often fruitful, too!

To whom or what is our chief loyalty – to the Living Lord and the Bible, or to a political party and its platform?

When many of our American "spiritual leaders" are more faithful to their favorite political party's platform than they are to God or to the Biblical principles, then they have lost their way. When a party spirit guides a "spiritual leader" more than the eternal Spirit, then his or her divine authority is tragically lost. All that is left is to defeat or trounce representatives of other parties – and to win for the political party by whatever means possible.

It would be far better for spiritual leaders consistently to affirm the eternal LORD and the everlasting Biblical principles – including those principles that their own party ignores or violates. When they dominate, the partisan principles will continue to feed incivility. However, the eternal, Prophetic Biblical principles of civic engagement we have described will restore civility and community.

When you look carefully at the ten eternal, Biblical principles, it is easy to see that in our present time the Democrat Party does some good on half of them, but is weak on the other half. Similarly, the Republican Party now does some good on that other half, and is weak on the half on which the Democrat Party does some good. How tragic! While half a loaf of bread may be better than no food at all, having only half of God's principles will breed and inspire distorted perceptions, dysfunctional communication, and unending, uncivil squabbles.

The three questions presented in this essay matter. The Biblical resources they reference are free and abundant. The three questions uncover sources of incivility and also reveal prescriptions for civic healing.

May the Living Lord give us prophetic voices to speak clearly and boldly for all the eternal, Biblical principles. And may our prophetic voices also help lead each of us to a timely, transforming spiritual awakening and to the much needed divine civic healing in America.

Paul de Vries,, is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, author, and speaker. He is a specialist in Biblical hermeneutics and ethics and a life-long advocate for Biblical Activism.

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