Self-expression or self-control? Given which one our society prefers, it’s no wonder civility is in short supply.
A week or so after the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis told reporters several things that the postmodern Western mind has trouble holding together.
He condemned the attack and said that such killing in the name of God was an “aberration.”
He also pointed out, “There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions. . . who make a game out of the religions of others . . . They are provocateurs.”
Turning to his friend, Alberto Gaspari, he half-jokingly said, “If my good friend Dr. Gaspari says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” and then he threw a mock punch.
What followed was, of course, predictable, as well as sad. The Pope had to issue a “clarification” in which he made it clear that he wasn’t justifying violence in response to offensive speech. It’s predictable because to the Western mind, “freedom” includes being able to say and do just about anything you want without regard to legal and social consequences.
And it’s sad because this is no way to build or maintain a society worth living in.
What Francis was referring to wasn’t only avoiding needless offense—he was also invoking the virtue of civility. Now, words like “virtue” and “civility” sound anachronistic and even quaint to modern ears.
But the alternative to civility is not “freedom;” it is perpetual conflict. This, as Matthew Carey Jordan of Auburn University has written, is especially true of “pluralistic democratic societies” such as ours.
In these kinds of societies, disagreements can be taken for granted. What cannot be taken for granted is the ability or even the willingness, “to treat our fellow citizens with respect, to seek to understand their perspectives . . . and to desire to engage with others in pursuit of the common good.”
There are several reasons for the lack of civility. The first is that civility, like all virtues, requires a measure of self-control and even self-denial. Thus it runs against the grain of modern notions of freedom. If we’re going to get along with people we disagree with, we can’t just say or write whatever occurs to us.
If that sounds like work, well, it is! Which brings me to the second reason why civility is in short supply. As Jordan writes, “virtues do not exist in isolation from one another. Often, the cultivation of one virtue requires the cultivation of another.”
For instance, civility requires cultivating humility and charity towards others. Most of all it requires believing that virtue matters—and that pursuing the good life means not satisfying our own desires, but cultivating our “intellectual, physical, and moral skills and [employing] them wisely.”
And that may be the biggest hurdle. The dominant worldviews have, as Jordan chronicles, undermined the idea of virtue and, with it, civility. All that’s left are desiccated husks that the culture labels “freedom,” “authenticity,” and “self-expression.”
It’s no wonder that treating people with respect and seeking after the common good is so rare these days. But these are the traits we Christians should be known for—must be known for.
Shortly before he died, Chuck Colson said on this very program: “We need to engage the culture, engage those who disagree with us. And engaging others means, first of all, listening patiently to what they have to say.
“And then when we speak our turn, we must respect them as men and women made in the image of God, realizing that because they are made in God’s image, they are always susceptible to the in-breaking of Truth.”
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries