The Virtue of Civility

I am heading down to Canberra for this weekend to attend the conference, Voices for Justice 2012. its purpose is to remind politicians of their commitment to the millennium development goals, and to challenge them with the fact that they have not lived up to their promised foreign aid spending.

the voices for justice website states the following about the participants:

At Voices for Justice 2010 gathering, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referred to Micah Challenge supporters as “nagging prophets” for our persistent effort lobbying politicians to care about global poverty, and he urged us to continue.

the conference is an exercise in what is sometimes called public theology. We are attempting to outwork the values of our faith in the realm of politics and culture. the term “nagging” started me thinking about the lost virtue of civility, and the difference between firmly and respectfully communicating an argument and rudeness. A person who embodies the virtue of civility is respectful to everyone, and treats even those with whom she disagrees with respect and dignity. Civility is a social virtue, contributing to the health of relationships, to the progress of ideas and to wise decision making. Civility goes hand-in-hand with some other virtues. the civil person is:
• humble, recognising that they have something to learn from others;
• curious, open to fresh insight
• respectful, recognising the dignity of others, especially those with whom you disagree

Now, the truth is that civility is hard. I have studied 16 years after finishing my HSC, published books and articles and I am absolutely certain that my theological opinions are better than yours. Or so the arrogant, close minded, rude and untamed part of my character presumes. some of my recent dealings with the issue of Christians who support the submission of women to men evidence my own tendency to the vice of rudeness.

I was reading an article by Anne Summers during the week entitled “her rights at work” (see here), which explored the obnoxious and sexist way in which the Australian media, the opposition and the general public have attacked Australia’s first female prime minister; terms like “Juliar”; “Bob Brown’s bitch”; “ditch the witch.” And that is only the start. In his book, Hope (see here), Tim Costello, describes an address he once gave to parliamentarians (including Kevin Rudd) noting that good people, enmeshed in an increasingly rude environment, have lost the public virtue of civility. the consequence is that Parliament is no longer a forum for rational discussion and wise decision making. Instead it is an ongoing brawl. the tendency to attack political opponents ends up undermining the very purpose of Parliamentary discussion.

like politicians, protest its can also be horribly uncivil. And because that is so they undermine their own message, abrogating the right to be heard. Our challenge, in the face of parliamentarians whose politics we might fundamentally oppose, is to embody a different spirit. Costello notes that “Civility has to be cultivated; it is a learned art. Australians can do a lot better at it in all contexts.” If the theological virtues of faith, hope and love really do colour our moral life, then the virtue of civility must be part of the habits of our character.

Christianity and Islam, the theses of Miroslav Volf

I found myself recently reading the website of the Christian Democratic party and was appalled to come across a policy statement that called for “a moratorium on Islamic immigration into Australia.” Such policies are the equivalent of asserting that we need a moratorium on African-American immigration or Jewish immigration. It is a policy of hate and it does nothing to foster peace and reconciliation. It is one thing for Christians to abhor the violence of Islamic fundamentalism. But we don’t diminish that violence by responding in kind – by perpetuating negative stereotypes of Islamic people and publicly asserting our hate – attempting even to establish that hate in political policies.

In our recent book, Globalisation and the Mission of the Church (co-authored with Neil Ormerod), we argue that it is long past time for the church to “make friends” with those of another faith. If the mission of the Church entails the proclamation, in word and deed, of the values of the Kingdom of God, then the church needs to be an agent of peace. It needs to form friendships with other faiths. This is not to compromise our commitment to Christ. In fact, we betray Christ when we perpetuate the cycle of religious violence and hate that has come to frame Christian/Islamic relationships. In contrast, Inter-religious friendship are motivated by the exclusive claim of Christ upon the Christian to give of oneself in love and service to one’s neighbor – to be an agent of peace and reconciliation in the world.

In this light, I found myself recently reading Miroslav Volf’s Allah: a Christian Response. He commences the text with 10 controversial theses. You’ll have to read his book to determine whether or not you think his argument can be sustained, but to stimulate your interest, these include the following (pg 14-15):

  1. Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God. They understand God’s character partly differently, but the object of their worship is the same. I reject the idea that Muslims worship a different God then do Jews and Christians.
  2. What the Qur’an denies about God as the holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today. I reject the idea that Moslem monotheism is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. Both Muslims and Christians, in their normative traditions, described God as loving and just, even if there are differences in how they understand God’s love and justice. I reject the idea that the God of the Quran stands as a fierce and violent deity in opposition to the God of Jesus Christ, who is sheer love.
  4. The God Muslims worship and the God Christians worship – the one and only God – commands that we love our neighbours, even though it is true that the meaning of love of neighbour differs partly in Christianity and Islam. I reject the idea that Islam is a religion of life constricting laws, as Christianity is a religion of life affirming love.
  5. Because they worship the same and similarly understood God, Christians and Muslims have a sufficiently robust moral framework to pursue the common good together. I reject the idea that Moslem and Christian civilisations are bound to clash.

There are five more theses, but that is enough now. Volf notes that “the issues are hot on the claim spicy, but this is how I see things.” He invites the question, what about you? How do you see things?