The Seeker: Ethic of Civility Found in Scripture

The recent tragedy in Arizona, in which Jared Lee Loughner attempted to kill Representative Gabrielle Giffords, leaving six dead and 14 wounded, has led to a national conversation about the place of civility in our nation’s public discourse. Much discussion has centered on attempts to implicate our toxic political environment as a cause, balanced by reciprocal attempts to exonerate those who have used violent language and imagery in the public square. At this point it seems clear that Loughner suffers from mental illness; whether political ranting served as a trigger for his actions is simply not known at this time. But quite apart from questions of causation, having this conversation at all is, I think, a very worthwhile thing.

There has always been a measure of incivility in our nation’s public discourse. (If you doubt it, take a tour of the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield sometime.) But a widely held, and I believe correct, perception is that the problem is getting substantially worse, not better.

Stephen Carter, a professor at Yale Law School, writes that our actions toward others are a “signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God. Rules of civility are thus also rules of morality; it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of civility is part of a larger crisis of morality.”

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been concerned about this issue for some time, and on Oct. 16, 2009, they issued a statement titled “The Mormon Ethic of Civility” outlining those concerns and urging greater care in our discourse.

Probably the first step we need to take is to avoid the classic fallacy of argumentum ad hominem by separating people from the problem. We need to recognize that there are thoughtful people of goodwill who have very different views than we do as to how best to resolve a complex problem. We may disagree, and do so even vigorously, but a sense of empathy will help us to focus our disagreement on the issue and not the person.

For “People of the Book,” this sense of respect for our ideological opponents is fostered by scripture. Various forms of the Golden Rule are found throughout ancient literature; a biblical version is reflected in Matthew 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

A corollary is the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39).

Philippians 2:3 reads “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humiilty of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.” And as Paul adds in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

There are other relevant scriptures, such as Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath,” and the warning in James 3:5-8 that we learn to school our tongues.

But my favorite scripture along these lines is to be found in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

We as a people need to return to these lessons we may once have learned at our mother’s knee or perhaps sitting in the pews of a church, but have since forgotten.

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