The Common Good
March 2011

Civility is Only a Beginning

by Joel C. Hunter | March 2011

Society's challenges won't be resolved just by being civil in our public discourse.

He is a long-time part of our church. He has been married for 22 years to a woman with a severe disability. He is sitting in front of me wearing make-up and a dress.

I have asked to talk with him because he has decided to go "full time" with an identity that has been kept private for years. He has made this decision on the advice of counselors. I am more concerned with his wife's vulnerability than I am with his sexual identity, but I am faced with a steep learning curve. I am 62 years old, and in 40 years of ministry have not had to deal with sexual identity challenges.

As a conservative, I am clear in my convictions about the biblical boundaries of sexual activity. But I also know each person is made in the image of God, and is to be treated with respect. How will I observe my understanding of scripture and treat this person? How will I guide my congregation in both the grace and the structures of God?

Sometimes the admonishment "Let's be civil" is a necessary beginning; but it is only a bare minimum.

Our society is facing challenges it has never had to face before, and they won't be resolved just by being civil in our public discourse. In fact, we will not have enough moral credibility to make a difference until we can see the world from the other’s perspective. God becoming human taught us that. G.K. Chesterton once observed, "It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem."

I want to be able to state the opinion or experience of someone who is different than I am with such comprehension that they would say, "At least you understand!" That perspective will not change my understanding of biblical standards, but it will fulfill another important one: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Community can only be built when empathy for each person is part of framing the problem.

The major issues in our country will continue to prompt the politics of personal destruction if we do not strive to understand life from the other person's point of view. We do not need to agree with each other, but we need to listen and love and admit they have reason to believe what they do.

We will make no progress by holding to traditional sides on whether our government is too intrusive or not helpful enough, on whether national security or education and those in need get an increased share of the national budget, or on whether a particular piece of legislation is a benefit or an boondoggle. Republicans will not dominate or be defeated by Democrats for long. Conservatives will not win over progressives without an equal and opposite reaction. And the new "No Labels" movement will only begin an escape from the prison of partisanship.

The struggle for a country dedicated to the common good does not demand that we be less passionate in our advocacy, but it will not come without each side feeling respected and valued. So let's listen so well that we can state others' cases in the way they would state them, with due sympathy and clarity.

Dr. Joel C. Hunter is senior pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Florida.

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