In 2017, a group of about forty Christian communication scholars convened at Spring Arbor University to participate in a dialogical mini-conference on “Civility and Virtue in a Multicultural Public Sphere.” A year and a half into the presidency of Donald Trump, our conversations kept turning to the plague of incivility in our national discourse and the apparent indifference of many American Christians to the profusion of uncivil discourse being spouted in their name. While things may have quieted down a bit since that time, the problem remains.
Confronted by unapologetic crassness, clamor, baiting, bullying, denigrating, and demonizing on social media and the political stage, we are tempted to respond by chiding offenders and prescribing communicative rules for playing nice. However, in a keynote presentation during the 2017 conference, Calvin Troup suggested that approaching civility with a “just do it” mentality is bound to fail because it ignores the roots of civility in virtues that have waned in our time. Troup argued that we need to begin by inquiring about the conditions that make for civility in a world where differing ethnicities, cultures, and customs inevitably collide and mingle.
Drawing on St. Augustine’s work City of God (in which the venerable theologian assumed a pluralistic civic sphere), Troup suggested that incivility springs from the spirit of empire (the City of Man), rooted in desire for honor, glory, and mastery over others. Animated by this spirit, communities and nations build up hierarchies that control and oppress, while individuals view neighbors, friends, and family members as rivals. If power and mastery are primary values, there is little to check incivility, except perhaps a desire to mask one’s ambition and envy.
In contrast to the imperialistic City of Man, Augustine highlighted two virtues characterizing the City of God: humility and hospitality. Humility is indifference to personal status or recognition, being concerned instead with how one’s gifts may benefit others. Hospitality puts other-centeredness into practice, “welcoming neighbors in and going out of our way for our neighbors.”1 Together, they constitute the conditions for civility in a multicultural civic sphere.
These virtues do not arise in a vacuum. They are nurtured, Augustine said, in households governed by Divine Law. A good household exhibits well-ordered loves, and it contributes to God’s vision of commonwealth (biblical shalom) in the wider community. As such, it partakes in local culture and honors local laws, as long as they do not conflict with the divine law of love. What Troup found especially noteworthy was Augustine’s exhortation to Christ-followers when they cannot conform to a rule or law: he urged us to remain humble and hospitable, acknowledging the difficulty we cause for those who feel compelled to enforce human laws.
Troup’s address spurred vigorous conversation during the conference. If humility and hospitality are the conditions of civility, in what ways and contexts have our nation(s) and the church failed to develop these conditions? Where and when have we succumbed to the ways of empire? What sins must we confess, and what damage must we repair, in order to regain genuine humility and hospitality? What would meaningful Christian humility and hospitality look like in our time and place?
Such questions are addressed in a newly published book, Humility and Hospitality: Changing the Christian Conversation on Civility (Integratio Press, 2022).2 Written primarily by scholars who attended the 2017 conference, the chapters in Humility and Hospitality offer a diversity of perspectives on the conditions for practicing true civility. As a contributor myself, and now having read the others’ essays, here are some conclusions I offer for further consideration.
Troup’s focus on the character of commonwealth versus empire expands the locus of civility from the individual to the community.
A robustly Christian understanding of civility recognizes that Christ came to transform persons-in-community, bringing forth the Kingdom of God. As such, working on one’s individual psychology and character is necessary but not sufficient to addressing the problem of incivility. CSR’s Summer 2022 special issue on civility insightfully (though not exclusively) addresses the individual level: moral and intellectual virtues that undergird civility, psychological processes that work against these virtues, and practices for overcoming that inertia.3 Humility and Hospitality complements this focus by especially delving into historically rooted cultural patterns that work against civility.
As heirs of colonialism and racial oppression, North American Christians are freighted with the fruit of past incivility and seeds of new incivilities.
If we are honest, there is no golden age of civility to which we might return. Past generations, in which Euro-Americans perhaps acted more civilly toward one another, were also marked by the enslavement of African Americans and theft of indigenous lands, followed by policies and practices of cultural genocide, lynching, segregation, convict leasing, redlining, and so forth—often in the name of Christianity. Unless this damaging legacy of empire is fully faced, confessed, repudiated, and repaired, Christians’ claims to represent God’s commonwealth (under the banner of “family values” or “Christian America,” etc.) will ring hollow, and our attempts at civility will prove shallow at best. What’s more, we’ll likely misperceive our recent loss of cultural preeminence as “persecution,” and fear will fuel our worst tendencies as social creatures.
Sociological, anthropological, and biblical insights into the nature of group identity shed essential light on incivility.
Does a Christian community aspire to increase member commitment? Let them portray themselves as a beleaguered minority under attack from diabolical outsiders, and commitment will likely go up. And by all means find a scapegoat—a time-tested mechanism for solidifying group unity and establishing “divine” order.4 The problem is, of course, that this goes against the way of Christ. As cultural theorist René Girard shows, Scripture progressively dispels the religious aura of scapegoating and sets sacrifice on a new footing at the cross: self-emptying love.5 Unless Christians recognize this socio-theological thread, they are vulnerable to the seductive power of the scapegoat and the impulse to demonize.
To practice robust civility, we must prioritize integrity, justice, and love of neighbor.
If we ignore injustice or stop short of sacrificial love merely to “get along,” civility will prove hollow. If we compromise our convictions, our civility will be for naught. Lacking a secure ethical core, we’ll easily succumb to incivility when times get tough.
Hospitality cannot be imposed; it can only be humbly offered and received, recognizing that we are as much guests as hosts in our dealings with diverse Others.
When engaging in Christian charity or Christian mission, we must beware of a cultural paternalism that fails to recognize the full humanity and gifts of others. Genuine humility feels no need to be seen as a savior, and genuine hospitality recognizes our need for others’ generosity.
In a world of sin, conflict, and loss, the only sure foundation upon which Christians can build robust civility is Christ himself, who said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The Lord of the universe entered our world as a helpless baby and lived through hunger, thirst, and pain; his followers shouldn’t expect to be any less vulnerable. As Jesus of Nazareth suffered opposition, so we are called to be his witnesses in word, deed, and body at whatever cost. Christ knew that pious religiosity can work hand-in-glove with unprincipled politics; we too should be leery of this unholy alliance. Jesus lamented his co-religionists’ blindness to God’s larger purposes; we must learn to join Him in godly lament. Instead of seeking cultural centrality, Christ identifies with those on the margins of society; we are called to “go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Hebrews 13:13, NIV). Christ loved and forgave his enemies; we are to recognize our opponents’ humanity and empathize with their weakness. Though we fall short of this high calling, he remains faithful and forgiving. In him we have an unshakeable civility.
These are some key conclusions to be drawn from Humility and Hospitality. The chapters unpack such ideas with nuance and depth. Taken together, they show that Christians do not need to compromise integrity or become relativists to practice civility in a diverse and sometimes hostile public sphere.
We are, however, called to do something more challenging, and freeing: repent of the pursuit of worldly power, be transformed by the mind of Christ, and live as witnesses of His loving Lordship.
In what other soil could genuine Christian civility thrive, or even survive?
- Calvin L. Troup, “Humility and Hospitality: Two Conditions Necessary for the Possibility of Civility,” in Humility and Hospitality: Changing the Christian Conversation on Civility, ed. Naaman Wood and Sean Connable (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2022), 27.
- Naaman Wood and Sean Connable, eds., Humility and Hospitality: Changing the Christian Conversation on Civility (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2022).
- See especially M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, Jason McMartin, and Timothy Pickavance, “Speaking the Truth in Love: The Challenge of Public Engagement,” Christian Scholars Review LI, no. 3 (Summer 2022), 271-84; Nathan King, “How Intellectual Virtues Can Help Us Build Better Discourse,” Christian Scholars Review LI, no. 3 (Summer 2022), 315-30; Kristin N. Garrett, “Navigating the Double-Edged Sword of Moral Conviction in Politics,” Christian Scholars Review LI, no. 3 (Summer 2022), 333-51.
- See René Girard, “Mimesis and Violence,” in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 9–19.
- René Girard, “The Bible’s Distinctiveness and the Gospel,” in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 145–76. See also pp. 187–88.