A Civil Tongue
I think that was the working title for the book—A Civil Tongue—or at any rate it was a strong contender in our titling committee meeting. Anyway, it has stuck with me and it was the first thing that came to mind as I began to scour my shelves for Richard Mouw’s book the other day. “What did we call it?,” I asked myself. “That’s right, Uncommon Decency.” Probably just as well. We didn’t need a cover evocative of Gene Simmons.
And the subtitle is Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I can scarcely believe that it’s been seventeen years since we published it—in 1992. And it’s still in print for such a time as this.
I haven’t been watching much television of late. And our cable service is of the most basic variety that denies us access to the ranting class, whose names shall not be named. But even from my cheap seat, the amped-up rhetoric of incivility is audible as it is bounces off the rafters.
Not that I personally have mastered civility. I believe I’m just as capable of being uncivil as anyone else. I recollect some instances that appall me now. So I need to heed the wisdom of this book as much as anyone.
The great thing about this book is that it’s not just a plea for Christians to “be nice.” It’s a realistic (Chapter 10 is “When There Is No ‘On the Other Hand’: The Limits of Civility”) and theologically grounded (the chapter on hell is alone worth the price of the book) argument for Christian civility in an uncivil world. Here are just a few passages I rediscovered:
Civility is not enough in some situations. But I must repeat: its basic requirements are never canceled. Christians never have a right simply to cast aside kindness and gentleness. We are never justified in engaging in a no-holds-barred crusade against our opponents. Going beyond mere civility does not mean that we can become less than civil. (p. 132)
Christian civility takes human freedom seriously. I may want people to believe as I do about some basic matters—but what I want is for them to choose to see things that way. This means that I must rely on testimony and persuasion in presenting my views to them. Civil Christians will be very reluctant to endorse moral and religious programs that rely on coercion.
And Christian civility will display the patience that comes from knowing that the final accounting belongs to God. (p. 143)
This is what civility comes to, finally: an openness to God’s surprises. When that openness marks our lives, we have learned patience—along with the flexibility and tentativeness and humility and awe and modesty that will inevitably come to the patient heart. And since none of this is possible without a clear sense of who we are, and to whom we belong, the patient heart will also be a place where convictedness has found its home. (p. 169)
Do we need to be reminded that Mouw’s counsel applies to incivility on both the political left and the right—as well as to those in between?
Posted by Dan Reid
at October 1, 2009 2:35 PM
Ten points for Dan! The working title of the book was "A Civil Tongue". I remember it from the editorial committee meeting.
I sent a copy of the book to my local congressman when I lived in Chicago, as well as to one of the congressmen who was leading a bi-partisan effort at the time. They didn't even acknowledge receipt of the book. Pretty uncivilized.
It's an excellent book, and one I've been reflecting on during the past few months.
When Uncommon Decency was first published, I was a campus minister in my early 30s, and I had just been asked to draft--following some on-campus hate crimes--a statement, to be issued by all the various religious groups, on tolerance and civility. Rich Mouw's book was a Godsend! I have recommended it often, and turned to it again and again. Thanks for this reminder of its importance, not only in my life, but in the lives of many.