Wallis & Colson: Conviction and Civility

Source: Christianity Today | By Jim Wallis and Chuck Colson

We should not lose this moment for moral reflection and renewal.

We are both evangelical Christians who believe that our treatment of the poor, weak, and most vulnerable is how a society is best biblically measured. Yet we usually find ourselves at opposite poles politically and often differ with each other. We believe these political differences are normal and even to be expected among citizens expressing their faith in the public arena, for God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.

In the aftermath of the horrible and senseless shooting in Arizona and some of the troubling responses to it, we, as leaders in the faith community, affirm with one voice our principled commitment to civil discourse in our nation’s public life. The President rightly said that no act of incivility can be blamed for the profoundly evil shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the tragic killing and wounding of 19 of her constituents. Nonetheless, we should not lose this moment for moral reflection and renewal. We must re-examine the tone and character of our public debate, because solving the enormous problems we face as a nation will require that we work for a more civil public square.

We live in a world where evil is very real and, in Arizona, we have just witnessed a brutal example of human depravity that has broken our hearts. Yet, at the same time, the nation has been inspired by the heroism of so many ordinary people who rose to that terrible occasion and demonstrated our most noble human virtues. This tragedy reminds us that we always have a choice to appeal to our “better angels” or our worst. We believe that the faith community should lead by example and model the behavior that is informed by our biblical teachings—behavior that also essential to the survival of democracy.

First we affirm the politics of conviction. Conviction is not inconsistent with civility, which is far deeper than political niceness, indifference, or weakness. We recall the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who could never be accused of a lack of passion; yet he persisted in the non-violent treatment of his adversaries, hoping to win them over rather than to win over them.

Where moral concerns lie beneath our political debates, we should be firm in conviction yet also open to genuine dialogue (as Dr. King always was), and be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

The obligation to show respect for others does not come from a soft sentimentalism but is rooted in the theological truth that we are all created in the image of God. How we speak to each other should reflect the honor and respect we owe each other as fellow human beings.

That means that when we disagree, especially when we strongly disagree, we should have robust debate but not resort to personal attack, falsely impugning others’ motives, assaulting their character, questioning their faith, or doubting their patriotism. It also means recognizing in humility that “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, when it comes to policies and politics, we could be wrong.

We must be ever mindful of the language we use and the spirit of our communication. Arrogance and boasting are indeed sins, and violent language can create a poisonous and dangerous public atmosphere. We must take care to not paint our political adversaries as our mortal enemies.

The working of democracy depends upon these virtues of civility. Standing for principle is crucial to moral politics, but demonizing our opponents poisons the public square. Therefore we must strive for both truth and civility. To be able to pursue the common good and to preserve the peaceful transition of political power means a commitment to both moral and civil discourse.

The scriptural admonition to pray for those in political authority is more than a religious duty, it promotes good civic behavior. It is more difficult to hate someone when you are praying for them. Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies, including those with whom we politically disagree, is even more challenging and defies the ideologies of both left and right.

These commitments are as demanding as they are necessary to the integrity of the faith community’s witness but also, in their secular forms, to the working of democracy. Therefore we call on all citizens to model better behavior in the public square—in word and deed.

This could, and should, become a moment of reflection for the nation. The only redemption that might come from the horror we have seen in Arizona, and some of our worst partisan reactions to it, would be a renewed civil character in public discourse, and more restraint and respect in the halls of government and our media channels, moving us toward a kinder and gentler public square. That would be a fitting tribute to those whose lives have been lost or forever changed by this tragedy.

Jim Wallis is president and CEO of Sojourners and author of Rediscovering Values.

Chuck Colson is a former aide to President Nixon and the founder of Prison Fellowship and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.


  1. George Patsourakos :

    To prevent deadly tragedies — like the one that recently took place in Arizona — from occurring in the United States, Americans must “keep their cool;” that is, they must have much patience and listen attentively to others’ views in a meaningful dialogue. Moreover, there must be no finger-pointing to other people or to their ideological preferences — such as Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal — but rather an objective dialogue of each situation, and the best way to rectify it with a harmonious and reasonable solution.

    • Michael Bauman :

      George, American political dialog has never been civil. It has always been full of direct character assaination against rival candidates and their families; acts of violence even among elected officials against each other (Preston Brooks clubbing Charles Sumner almost to death on the floor of the House for instance), lies and half-truths heaped on with laddles. Thomas Jefferson was one of the most viscious.

      A case could easily be made that political discourse today is more civil than it has ever been. The shooting in Arizona has nothing to do with political ideology. It is the act of one man who is deranged. If not Rep Giffords, someone else would have set him off.

      Politics is an inherently emotional business that will always evoke strong feelings in a good part of the population. To expect political discourse to be reduced to some rationalistic grayness is a fantasy. Only totalitarian states present that type of facade and, as we see in Egypt, it is only a facade.

      The facade promotes institutional violence and suppressed anger in the general population. The utilitarian/totalitarian state is no place to live.

      The solution of the early American politicians to the problem: Christian virtue. Even if they were not Christian in anything but name, the ideal of Christian virtue was important to maintaining a civil society. I wonder how far that idea would get with the political elite today?

  2. I fully support civility and reasoned debate on substantive issues. However, I don’t quite understand how normal people “keeping their cool” will be able to prevent murderous insane individuals from acting violently and going on senseless rampages?

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    George, what your propose is possible only if differing parties (often more than just two) all hold to the principle you outline: truth has an objective character and can be discerned through reasoned discourse. The problem is that for some people this doesn’t hold true. In those cases discourse never rises above persuasion at best, coercion at worst. It happens when people no longer believe that truth has an objective character, that the conflicts in culture are nothing more than an expression of competing wills.

    Calls for civility are good for no other reason that they remind people that civility is a virtue. But if this precondition for civility continues to erode, more contentious name-calling is the inevitable result. You can’t for example, reason with a committed Marxist or Muslim Jihadist. You can talk, but you have to understand that all your reasons, as compelling and reasonable as they might be, fall on deaf ears for the simple reason that to be persuaded to your point of view would require an abandonment of Marxist principles or Islam. That usually does not happen outside of a religious conversion.

    Civil discourse, then, happens as long as the reasonable person has authority in the larger culture. It is not an accident for example, that Jim Wallis joined with Chuck Colson only after the stinging Progressive defeat in the last election. I’m not convinced at Wallis is at all tolerant of viewpoints that differ from his own, at least not as tolerant as Colson might be of Wallis’ position. Nonetheless, the burden falls on Colson simply because he understands better than Wallis does that civility functions as a necessary precondition for truth to enter the larger culture. The strong have to bear the burden of the weak.

  4. Geo Michalopulos :

    Civility has now become the last refuge of the Progressive. For too long these people have let the Alinskyites among them drive the debate (or more acurately, shut down the debate). You know the drill: whenever a Conservative begins to win an argument he’s immediately labelled a “racist/bigot/sexist/homophobe.”

    • George, don’t forget to add the catch-all ‘bully’. To disagree with a self-assessed reasonable ‘I know better what to do with your labor than you’ is to be a bully.

  5. Arizona shooting had zero to do with civil discourse and everything to do with insanity. To accept this premise is laughable on it’s face. The bottom line is that the progressives were roundly defeated in November and they wanted to salvage political points against their victors. The call for civil discourse from the left is nothing more than a call for censorship. This is the whole story….nothing more.

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