The Common Good

7 Steps to Civility this Election Season

Sojomail - October 7, 2010


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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

7 Steps to Civility this Election Season

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Last week, I asked you all to tell FOX News that when it comes to truth and civility, they can do better. Thousands of you did. You aren't the only ones who see things getting worse than ever before. This week, a group of more than 130 former legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, released a letter urging for civility and encouraging candidates, once elected, to focus on cooperation to face our country's greatest challenges.The letter said:

None of us shrank from partisan debates while in Congress or from the partisan contests getting there. During our time in Congress, partisans on the other side may have been our opponents on some bills and our adversaries on some issues. They were not, however, the enemy.

They point the finger at both parties for this breakdown; how legislators hold on to "wedge issues" to run on, as opposed to finding common-ground solutions. The letter also recognized the outside forces at work:

The divisive and mean-spirited way debate often occurs inside Congress is encouraged and repeated outside: on cable news shows, in blogs, and in rallies. Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers.

These public servants are no longer in office but do us all a great public service. They are sounding the alarm about the direction of our public discourse.

This past spring, a diverse group of more than 100 religious leaders signed their names and committed to a "Civility Covenant." We joined together recognizing that too often we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We came 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, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).

We made seven biblically based commitments that I believe are seven steps we all need to take for truth and civility today. These are seven commitments that Christians should carry with them as a reminder for themselves and a challenge to others. Candidates need to know that voters do not just care about who wins, but how they win. The Civility Covenant states:

  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 honor 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 [God], 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 honor" (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 neighbor, 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 need to push back against the fear-mongering and name-calling and lead with our values.

Here are some ideas:

Send this covenant to all the candidates running for Congress, Senate, and governorship in your districts and states. Submit the covenant to their websites. Take it to their forums, debates, and rallies and publicly challenge candidates to sign it.

Send letters to the editors of your local newspapers calling for civility and lifting up this covenant. Contact your TV and radio stations to tell them you expect more from them.

Finally, take the covenant to church. Give it to the members of your congregation. Give it to your pastor. Ask your pastor to preach on the need for civility in this election season. It's up to us now.

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