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A Call to Civility

Monday, 8 November 2010  | Ian Packer

The Americans have just emerged from a mid-term election and with few surprises, not only in terms of result but regarding campaign style and character. It seems Americans have reached a point in political life where they have become used to a quality of political discourse that has degenerated to new levels of shallowness and disrespect. The freak show of American cable ‘news’ and punditry, the ugliness of shrill, combative blogging and the substitution of personalities and polling for policy debate all sound alarm bells for the health of civil society and a functioning democracy. Undoubtedly, the U.S.A. is a different country to Australia with its own narrative and mythology concerning its imagined origins and destiny. Yet many of the same worrying signs have appeared in Australia—and among Australian Christians. The ‘culture wars’ mentality of so-called Left and Right wings of politics increasingly hardens believers into inflexible progressive versus conservative camps who can only value a victory for their ‘godly’ agenda over that of their enemy. Their enemy. Not simply a political opponent. Not even a partisan adversary. Enemy.


The depth of this antipathy can be debated. But at least on the surface, at least at the level of public rhetoric, political discourse has taken a turn for the worse. Too many Christians and Christian organisations have tied themselves to predictable political party lines and anointed themselves as priests and prophets of God’s political will, ready to decry Christians who disagree as they would the prophets of Baal. The willingness of believers to sling mud at fellow believers disturbingly mirrors the media sound bites of political antagonism. Politics has been captured by cynical exercises in character assassination… but where is the counter-witness of the gospel among Christians?


This political situation exudes disrespect on three levels. First, it shows disrespect to the systems, principles and practices of governance that frame our attempts at democratic discourse. Rather than champion analysis and discussion of vision, ethos and policy, the politics of disrespect utilises ‘new media’ to drive singular pre-packaged messages through, frequently promoting suspicion and fear. This undermines the public square as a forum of debate and deliberation concerning the common good. Second, this politics is disrespectful of our leaders, our representatives in government. If Australians have been characterised as holding authority figures in relatively low esteem in the past, they now risk downgrading this to new depths of mockery and loathing. Whatever disappointments or failures we find in particular politicians, this is no excuse to undermine leadership or to discourage the more noble motivations for entering politics through excessive personal scrutiny, lampooning or character assassination. Third, this politics is disrespectful of those represented, the citizens of Australia. It reduces the body politic of citizens to a mob thought to be below serious thinking or incapable of mature cooperation in search of the common good. Is this a situation Christians want to see deteriorate further or can we move toward being part of the solution?


This requires a change in culture. But at the least it ought to begin among Christians. Jim Wallis of Sojourners in the United States has promoted a ‘civility covenant’ for American Christians to embrace, to move against the flow of their political culture. It is reproduced here below. We invite you, your church or Christian organisation to embrace it.




Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to "put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).

1) We commit that our dialogue with each other will reflect the spirit of the Scriptures, where our posture toward each other is to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19).

2) We believe that each of us, and our fellow human beings, are created in the image of God. The respect we owe to God should be reflected in the honour and respect we show to each other in our common humanity, particularly in how we speak to each other. "With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God....this ought not to be so" (James 3:9,10).

3) We pledge that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without falsely impugning the other's motives, attacking the other's character, or questioning the other's faith, and recognizing in humility that in our limited, human opinions, "we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will therefore "be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2).

4) We will ever be mindful of the language we use in expressing our disagreements, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs: "Before destruction one's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honour" (Proverbs 18:12).

5) We recognize that we cannot function together as citizens of the same community, whether local or national, unless we are mindful of how we treat each other in pursuit of the common good in the common life we share together. Each of us must therefore "put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body" (Ephesians 4:25).

6) We commit to pray for our political leaders - those with whom we may agree, as well as those with whom we may disagree. "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made - for kings and all who are in high positions" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

7) We believe that it is more difficult to hate others, even our adversaries and our enemies, when we are praying for them. We commit to pray for each other, those with whom we agree and those with whom we may disagree, so that together we may strive to be faithful witnesses to our Lord, who prayed "that they may be one" (John 17:22).

We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many faith communities, even across religious and political lines. We will strive to create in our congregations safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God's will for our nation and our world.




Glenda Weldon
November 9, 2010, 10:21AM
Thanks Ian for an excellent article. I am too often ashamed at the lack of respect and good manners in the attitudes and remarks that are made by my fellow followers of Jesus in regards to our political leaders. I keep coming back to the primacy of the greatest commandment and the test of the love and respect with which we treat one another... Our failure to live and love like Jesus has resulted in the rapid decline of our influence on our fellow Australians and our culture. I once read "people turn away from the caricature of Jesus they see in us - not the real Jesus". I trust that the civility covenant will be adopted by the followers of Jesus across this country and begin to infiltrate our society at large!! God bless you Ian! Glenda
Jamie Boland
November 9, 2010, 11:11PM
Thanks Ian! As a former student of yours this article is most timely. I'll be looking at the use of prophecy tomorrow in a class on Pneumatology, with one example being the "prophetic" anointing of the Howard / Costello Liberal government and subsequent "prophecy" made by Danny Nalliah prior to the 2007 election. I've noted Gordon Preece's response prior to the last election (which sadly came at a time when members of the body - not members of parliament - were distributing emails explaining how Christians couldn't voted for the ALP) and the general ignorance when it comes to issues of faith and politics. A civility covenant reminds us of a far greater primary allegiance.
Ian Packer
November 11, 2010, 11:02PM
Glenda and Jamie - thanks for the affirmations!
Andrew Kulikovsky
December 18, 2011, 3:55PM
Ian, I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. There is too much ad hominem in Christian debate particular in regard to controversial and political issues. We must stay focused on the arguments and 'play the ball, not the man'.

But here lies the problem: many people cannot distinguish between the ball and the man! In my experience, too many people think that any criticism of their beliefs, arguments or practices, is in fact a direct criticism of them personally! They cannot or will not distinguish between criticism of their views and criticism of them as a person.

I think point (3) is particularly important since it is regularly transgressed by many Christians.

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