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Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World Paperback – July 31, 1992
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"This book is right on target and just in time--when Christians in the same churches and denominations have trouble talking to one another. Spiritual leaders in these churches and denominations need to embody and practice it."
"A convincing case . . . . We can think of so many people who need to read this book, even as we suspect most of them think it would do us a heap of good. They're probably right."
"Mouw convincingly argues that the need for civility is pressing. The virtue is nearly extinct. Civility is a Christian virtue whereby we enter public discussions with a strong conviction of Christian truth, a willingness to learn from those with whom we disagree, and a desire to honor the humanity of even our fiercest foe. Civility is not a passive politeness that defers to everyone and stands for nothing. Neither is it relativistic. It is a mannerly demeanor in which an inner intensity never overpowers self-restraint or rational discourse. . . . The book articulates an urgent message Christians should take to heart."
About the Author
Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Before coming to Fuller in 1985 as professor of Christian philosophy and ethics, he was for seventeen years professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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Rodney King’s 1992 question: “Can we all get along?” remains a serious question for everyone, but especially Christians who are supposed to model the love of Christ to those around them.
In his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Christian ethicist Richard Mouw attempts to address Rodney King’s question. Mouw defines civility as: “public politeness” where “we display tact, moderation, refinement and good manners towards people who are different from us” (14). He further observes: “being civil is a way of becoming more like what God intends for us to be.” (15) Importantly, he stresses that we do not have to approve of other people’s views (22) or to like them (24), but only to recognize their inherent right to express their views and to listen to them.
Mouw tells the story about a “crusty old Irish Catholic judge” whose days were filled with judging inner-city criminals. One day this judge had a what-would-Jesus-do (WWJD) moment just as he was about to give a tough sentence another street tough kid. He started to see this kid as a divine image bearer and in terms of his potential, not the person who he currently appeared to be (24-25). Suddenly, this judge had a completely new attitude about his job and started having good conversation with these street kids. In Mouw’s words, the judge starting seeing “every human being a work of divine art” (26).
The story of the judge is essentially our story as we live day by day under the gaze of our ever-present God. Mouw reminds us that: “God is always watching listening, some words are so offensive to God that they should never be uttered.” (46) Two examples that Mouw offers are racist language (46) and a crusading mentality. Racist language is offensive to God because each of us in our diversity reflect the divine image. A crusading mentality forgets God's enduring love of the people whom he created. Mouw defines a crusader as: “people who think the cause they are fighting for is so important that they must use all means at their disposal to win.” (50). Using all or nothing rhetoric feeds this crusading attitude (53).
The term, divine gaze, is both novel and familiar. Mouw cites a familiar passage in Psalm 139 as an example of the divine gaze:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps 139:23-24)
This example of the divine gaze follows what appears to be the psalmist's reminder to himself to hedge his own crusading spirit:
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Ps 139:21-22)
Would that we were all so self-aware and God-aware!
Having had to confront the question of the Vietnam as a young man, I was intrigued by Mouw’s use of “just war” theory to develop guidelines for public discourse without incivility. These guidelines take the form of questions to consider in sorting through such discourse, including:
1. Is my cause a just one?
2. Am I sustained in my commitments by the wisdom of competent authorities?
3. Are my motives proper?
4. Is my move beyond mere civility a choice of last resort?
5. Is success likely?
6. Are the means I am employing proportionate to the good goals I want to promote? (142-46)
Mouw notes that Martin Luther’s stand against the Catholic church during the early days of the reformation was not an example of a lone crusade. As a scholar and theologian, Luther was well-informed of short-comings of the church and sought advice from many mentors (143). He further noted that Augustine, in arguing the case for a just war, was concerned that prisoners be treated humanely and that the rights of civilians be respected (146). Augustine certainly was not just another apologist for a Roman war policy.
At the time of publication, Richard J. Mouw was president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, professor of Christian Philosophy, and the author of many books. He is currently a Professor of Faith and Public Life at the seminary . He writes in 14 chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue and notes.
In view of the wide range of topics covered, a brief review is inadequate to survey all the topics covered. Nevertheless, Mouw’s Uncommon Decency is both accessible and a good read. I suspect, however, that more than one read is needed to absorb all that he has to offer. While I believe that most Christians would benefit from studying this book and would hope that journalists would take an interest, I suspect that seminary students and pastors are the intended audience.
Mouw wants us to start with ourselves. "Christians are a people who are in the process of being `made right' by the grace of God...This means our message to the larger society will be credible only if we can invite others to become more like us. I know that sounds arrogant, But if we are not able to point to our own comunal life to illustrate the righteousness we want for everyone, our message is not credible."
Civility goes beyond looking at ourselves. Mouw identifies one of the problems of our pluralistic world is that we settle for pragmatic or transactional interactions. I want A, another group wants B, so the other group supports me to get A and I support them to get B. This is not bad, but it is limited. Instead Mouw advocates for interaction that transforms both groups. "We cannot hope to bring about effective change unless we are willing to be changed. This is profoundly biblical idea. But it is also a risky one to pursue." He has a long discussion about why discussions cannot be primarily about evangelism. Yes, if we are real with people, then we will talk to them about our faith if appropriate to the situation. But having a discussion in order to evangelize is not being real with the other. Our interest has to be about them, not about what we can share with them.
One of the most important things I read was Mouw's quote of Chesterton, "We risk engaging in idolatry, not only when we worship false gods but also when we set up false devils! God is not honored when we are unfair to people with whom we disagree." If for no other reason than not `not bearing false witness', we need to be sure that our representation of those that disagree with us is accurate. Can you state the position of the person that you disagree with and have them agree that you understand? Without listening enough to understand the other, we cannot have a conversation. We can speak at one another. But a conversation is more about the listening than the speaking.
Mouw lays out some rules for disagreement that are based on Just War Theory. 1) Is my cause just? (Is my heart right about why I am having the disagreement?) 2) Am I sustained in my commitments by the wisdom of competent authorities? (This is mostly about not being a lone ranger and insuring that you have someone trusted that believes that the disagreement is just. 3) Is my move beyond mere civility a choice of last resort? (Can the conversation be continued civilly in any format? 4) Is success likely? (This does not mean, will you win the discussion? There are times when you will be a `hopeless resistant' but you should not use `irrational use of force'. 5) Are the means I am employing proportionate to the goals I want to promote? (Physically fighting with someone over the right to be a pacifist destroys the content of the argument. Mouw goes on to discuss why kindness in warfare is important. "...we can never forget that they are indeed person who are created in God's image and who are still within the reach of divine mercy."
Mouw reflects repeatedly in this book on conflicts that are lost. He is not sure all conflicts are worth it in the end. I think that acknowledgement is important before we attempt to take on the world.
Originally published on my blog Bookwi.se