Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World by Richard Mouw

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil WorldTakeaway: Start with your own sinfulness and the other’s humanness

Next week I am going to talk to a small group of college students about how to disagree with others as Christians.  I think this is a particularly important topic.  Luckily I found this book just in time.  Coincidentally, Mouw was on Krista Tippet’s NPR show On Being last week.  The interview has a good overview of the book (although focused more on civility between Christians and non-Christians.)

Mouw quotes Martin Marty’s observation, “One of the real problems in modern life is that people who are good at being civil often lack strong conviction and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.”  This book is his attempt at trying to encourage a “convicted civility”.  Mouw’s civility is not ‘niceness’.  Civility has the root purpose of acknowledging the other person’s Imageo Dei (Image of God).

Mouw wants us to start with ourselves. “Christians are a people who are in the process of being ‘made right’ by the grace of God…This means our message to the larger society will be credible only if we can invite others to become more like us.  I know that sounds arrogant,  But if we are not able to point to our own communal life to illustrate the righteousness we want for everyone, our message is not credible.”

Civility goes beyond looking at ourselves.  Mouw identifies one of the problems of our pluralistic world is that we settle for pragmatic or transactional interactions.  I want A, another group wants B, so the other group supports me to get A and I support them to get B.  This is not bad, but it is limited.  Instead Mouw advocates for interaction that transforms both groups.  “We cannot hope to bring about effective change unless we are willing to be changed.  This is profoundly biblical idea.  But it is also a risky one to pursue.”  He has a long discussion about why discussions cannot be primarily about evangelism.  Yes, if we are real with people, then we will talk to them about our faith, if appropriate to the situation.  But having a discussion in order to evangelize is not being real with the other.  Our interest has to be about them, not about what we can share with them.

One of the most important things I read was Mouw’s quote of Chesterton, “We risk engaging in idolatry, not only when we worship false gods but also when we set up false devils!  God is not honored when we are unfair to people with whom we disagree.”  If for no other reason than not ‘not bearing false witness’, we need to be sure that our representation of those that disagree with us is accurate.  Can you state the position of the person that you disagree with and have them agree that you understand?  Without listening enough to understand the other, we cannot have a conversation.  We can speak at one another.  But a conversation is more about the listening than the speaking.

Mouw lays out some rules for disagreement that are based on Just War Theory.  1) Is my cause just? (Is my heart right about why I am having the disagreement?) 2) Am I sustained in my commitments by the wisdom of competent authorities? (This is mostly about not being a lone ranger and insuring that you have someone trusted that believes that the disagreement is just.)  3) Is my move beyond mere civility a choice of last resort? (Can the conversation be continued civilly in any format?)  4) Is success likely? (This does not mean, will you win the discussion?  There are times when you will be a ‘hopeless resistant’ but you should not use ‘irrational use of force’.  5) Are the means I am employing proportionate to the goals I want to promote? (Physically fighting with someone over the right to be a pacifist destroys the content of the argument.)  Mouw goes on to discuss why kindness in warfare is important.  “…we can never forget that they are indeed person who are created in God’s image and who are still within the reach of divine mercy.”

Mouw reflects repeatedly in this book on conflicts that are lost.  He is not sure all conflicts are worth it in the end.  I think that acknowledgement is important before we attempt to take on the world.

Purchase Links: PaperbackKindle Edition


FWIW, it appears that _Uncommon Decency_ is now available in a Kindle edition.

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