Keeping civil discourse civil

Today’s contributor explores the idea that more harmonious and productive discourse results when we take to heart the counsel of Jesus to love even those who seem like enemies.

I once heard Stephen Carter, an eminent scholar of United States constitutional law, tell a thought-provoking story about the first African-American who served on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. When Marshall was a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he would sit down respectfully with white segregationists and talk with them, listening to their points of view. Marshall, who spent his life working for racial equality, strongly disagreed with them. But that didn’t prevent him from talking to them civilly.

Truth be told, words and tone matter. I’ve found inspiration in this regard in the Bible Gospels, which indicate that Jesus emphasized this point. He often took the teachings in the Hebrew scriptures and explained them in such a way as to raise the bar, lifting his listeners to a more spiritual understanding of the concepts in what we now know as the Old Testament. With specific regard to the violence of words, Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21, 22, New Revised Standard Version).

Jesus understood that God is a loving God, so this doesn’t point to a God-inflicted punishment but rather to the idea that we lose sight of goodness when our motives aren’t loving because we’re not living consistently with our true nature as God’s spiritual offspring. Beyond condemnatory words, insults, and the attitudes that spawn them stands a beautiful truth: We all shine as children of God. And those who don’t share our views, political or otherwise, are still our spiritual sisters and brothers.

This doesn’t mean that we abandon critical thinking or avoid speaking out when there is a need. Jesus’ own example showed that taking a stand with a well-intentioned rebuke is exactly what’s needed sometimes. But it does mean that we don’t needlessly antagonize others through harsh language or a strident tone.

Jesus urged his followers to pray for their enemies and to seek to do good to those who spitefully used them. When someone expresses a view opposed to ours and maybe in a particularly vociferous way, is this not an opportunity to do this? In an article titled “Love Your Enemies,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, writes: “Who is thine enemy that thou shouldst love him? ...

“... Can height, or depth, or any other creature separate you from the Love that is omnipresent good, – that blesses infinitely one and all?

“Simply count your enemy to be that which defiles, defaces, and dethrones the Christ-image that you should reflect” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 8).

That “Christ-image” which we should reflect brings out our true spiritual nature as children of God, that nature being loving and intelligent. Keeping this true sense of ourselves and others in thought guides us in productive conversation and behavior. On the other hand, if we feel impatience, disgust, or worse rising in our thought, we can immediately stop thinking those thoughts by recognizing that they are not from God, infinite Love.

I’ve also found it helpful to cherish that “Christ-image” in others, including those who may have views that differ from our own. Even if from our human standpoint there may be little good to see in another, that limited view need not hold us back. God sees each and every one of His children as created in His likeness, spiritual and good. Relinquishing self-will and what may be our own hardened opinions frees our thought and makes us open to seeing divine qualities in others, to seeing and expressing more of God’s love in our interactions.

God by His very nature blesses one and all infinitely. Sometimes the most fundamental need is to quietly and trustingly know this. Divine Love, nurturing the human heart, has the capacity to take off rough edges, to unite those with disparate views in gracefully settling questions and disputes. We best allow that to happen by giving in to God’s grace in our own hearts, allowing God to soften our attitudes and tone – leading to more harmonious and productive discourse that benefits all.

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