We live in a generally uncivil world (because we are fallen creatures) and we are in the midst of an uncivil season (Campaign 2012). I don’t buy the idea that this is the “most negative campaign we’ve ever had.” One only needs to read biographies of the American founders (unless written by David Barton) to realize the human capacity to savage one another was alive and well in the golden years of America’s founding. Still, technologies, the proliferation of campaign spending, and the insidious, but effective tool of dishonest 30-second TV ads all add to a very uncivil culture.
For Christians, it can be difficult to know how to engage in an uncivil culture and in an uncivil season. On the one hand we want to stand boldly for truth, speaking prophetically to our culture and wisely steward our rare gift of shaping our government. On the other, we’re commanded by Scripture to comport ourselves differently. So how do we do this? Here are five principles from the Scripture that helps us adopt grace-filled attitudes toward those with whom we vehemently disagree:
1) Love Your Neighbor As Yourself (Mark 12:31). At the very least your political opponent, whether it’s the President, someone in the other party, your opinionated relative, or the blogger who has it all wrong–that person is your neighbor. And we are to love our neighbors, not with a sort of grudging foot-dragging love, but “as yourself.” In other words, you are to treat them with the same respect you would want to be treated. How does this play out in the public square? Well I think it means we argue principles without making it personal. It means we give them the benefit of the doubt. 1 Corinthians 13 says that one of the definitions of love is that it “believes all things and hopes all things.” In other words, we can oppose someone politically without thinking they are part of some evil, Machiavellian scheme to make our lives miserable.
2) Love Your Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). I think viewing a political opponent as an “enemy” might be too strong, but let’s just assume that for a moment, on the issues about which you care, he or she is your enemy. For instance, I think it could be honestly said that most liberals are adversaries of the pro-life position that I hold. So how does Jesus’ words to love them apply? Well, I’m suppose to love them with the fullest definition of love. I can oppose what they stand for without ridiculing the person or mocking them or their families. I love my political adversaries by speaking only what I know to be true about them. I means I see any good and redeeming values in them and pray for them.
3) Honor the King (1 Peter 2:17). Peter wrote these words to a church about to endure four decades of brutal persecution at the hands of Roman oppressors. And yet Peter writes, “Show proper respect to everyone, Fear God, Honor the King.” If this seems difficult to do under leaders who might oppose biblical values, imagine how difficult it was for Christian citizens of Rome. But it’s made easier with the middle words of that phrase, “Fear God.” Romans 13 reminds us that nobody is in power except those God anoints and puts in power. So, you can show proper respect to a political adversary because you acknowledge the sovereignty of God and you affirm that even your enemy was created in God’s image. And therefore you can honor a political leader because in doing so you’re honoring the God who put him or her there. I think the words, “respect” and “honor” give us a good grid for how we should make political arguments. We can forcefully oppose unjust, unwise, or unbiblical policies without resorting to name-calling, mockery, and slander. In doing this, I think Christians set themselves apart. Think of men like Nehemiah, Daniel, and Joseph who served wicked monarchs and still always showed proper respect to the office.
4) Pray for Your Leaders (1 Timothy 2:2). There are not many specifics in the New Testament about Christian political activism. I might point to Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus prayer in John 17 and Paul’s appeal in Romans 10 for the necessity of Christians to shape culture at all levels (including political and governmental). But the one very specific instruction regarding Christians and their leaders is the command to pray for them. We Christians (myself the most guilty) seem to have it backward. We treat activism as a necessity and prayer for our leaders as an option. We should do both. We should pray and watch, pray and build, pray and act. But we must never diminish prayer. We must pray for our President, our Congress, our Governors, our statehouses, our mayors, our local leaders. Public service is a difficult calling. I like what Max Lucado is doing this year to gather Christians to pray during this election season.
5) Speak with Grace (Colossians 4:6). Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “Let your conversation be always full of grace.” This verse really convicts me, because I now that my speech is not always marked by grace. Especially in election season. Especially when I’m all wound up with an opinion or idea about someone with whom I disagree. But followers of Jesus should be marked by grace. This means that what we post, what we say, what we discuss should run through the prism of grace. How is graceful speech different than ordinary speech? It flows from a heart humbled by God’s forgiveness. It considers the human behind the argument. It tries not to divide, but to unite. It grounds every argument in the gospel story. Graceful speech doesn’t post angry, half-truth, slanderous opinions on Facebook. Graceful speech doesn’t support distorted 30 second TV ads. Graceful speech is open to new arguments, admits wrongs, and doesn’t assume that it’s right all the time.
Summary: This is not a complete or exhaustive list, just a few ideas about living out the gospel during political season and beyond. Christians can be both civil and engaged, full of grace and yet firm in support of truth.