Some words are not to be used in “polite company,” our parents told us. But Christians know we are always in Polite Company.

All that I ever really needed to know about uncivil language I learned in the fifth grade.

At a small, Dutch Calvinist school in a New Jersey city, I was playing with other students just before classes started. Some black kids came by on their way to the public school. One thing led to another, and soon our two groups were yelling insults at each other. One of the black students tossed a rock, and it grazed my head. I was livid. I spat out the “N” word and ran back to school.

This was the early 1950s, and we weren’t thinking much about civil rights in those days. But the young stone thrower must have sensed that he had a case to make: He marched straight to my school and reported my verbal behavior to the principal.

Soon the principal and I were facing each other alone in his office. Mr. Dykstra told me how disappointed he was with me. I began to cry: “But he threw a stone at me! He hit me with it.”

Mr. Dykstra’s response was kind but firm. “Yes, he shouldn’t have done that. But Richard, you have done something much worse. He tried to harm your body. You responded by trying to harm his soul. God is much more saddened by what you did to that young man than by what he did to you.”

Mr. Dykstra’s preferred means of punishment was to assign “lines”—writing a prescribed resolution such as “Never again will I chew bubble gum in class” 50 or 100 times. In the more serious cases, the miscreant had to have the final product signed by a parent.

My punishment for saying the “N” word established a new record for “lines” writing at school. I had to copy the Ten Commandments 100 times—with parental signature required.

As a chastised fifth grader, I was not happy about my dubious status as the “lines” record holder. But I think that even then I had a vague notion that Mr. Dykstra was on firm theological footing when he gave me that assignment. Over the years, I have come to appreciate his spiritual insight more and more.

In hurling my rude epithet at the young black man, I really was violating God’s Law. I was bearing false witness against my neighbor. I was not being a truthful person. And God takes truthfulness very seriously.

The Listening God

Civil people watch their language. We must hold ourselves responsible for what we say.

Parents tell their children that some words are not to be used in “polite company.” But we Christians know that we are always in Polite Company. We live our lives in the divine presence. No word escapes God’s notice. It is never a legitimate excuse for a Christian to say, “I didn’t realize that anyone was listening.” God is always listening, and some words are so offensive to God that they should never be uttered.

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Racist language falls into that category. Each human being is a precious work of divine art. To make light of an artist’s work within the artist’s earshot is cruel. To demean one of God’s most precious artworks when God is listening—and he always is—crudely dishonors the divine artist.

I did more than bear false witness against my neighbor by lashing out with the “N” word at the African-American student. Mr. Dykstra knew what he was doing when he assigned all ten of the commandments to me. A good Calvinist, he knew the Heidelberg Catechism, which says that the commandment “You shall not kill” means that it is wrong to “dishonor, hate, wound, or kill my neighbor” even when I do so only “in thought” or “in word or gesture.” And I broke at least one other commandment: the one against theft. When I used that terrible word, I was attempting to steal some God-given dignity from another human being.

Habits Of The Tongue

To say God is always listening can be an intimidating thought. It might seem that the best policy is not to say much at all, rather than run the risk of saying the wrong thing.

But that is not what I am recommending. God does not want us to live in constant anxiety about our speech. It is a good thing, however, to spend some time nurturing good speech habits.

Consider this: People who are skilled at dinner-party etiquette do not nervously worry about every move they make. They have nurtured the appropriate sensitivities. Having done that, they are free to enjoy their meals.

We people of conviction need a similar kind of nurturing. Through the centuries of church history, many Christians have been reckless speakers. Sometimes we have even thought of our uncivil speech as an exercise in Christian virtue. So some of us have some unlearning to do if we are going to enter the public square with confidence, as persons of good manners. The key is to form good habits. And in this case at least, our habits are closely connected to our way of viewing things.

I would not have solved my problem with racist epithets if I had only gotten nervous about using the “N” word. My language problem was rooted in a deeper problem that I had to work through: how I viewed members of other groups. It is clear from the punishment he imposed on me that Mr. Dykstra had a good grasp of the basic problem.

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We need to think about how we view other people, about how we live with the fact that there are people around who strongly disagree with us about important matters. Our children’s friends come from families that worship strange gods. We work alongside people whose convictions about abortion and sex and wealth are very different from our own. In restaurants and airports we encounter lifestyles that shock our deepest sensibilities. To think carefully about how we ought to handle all of this is an important part of nurturing good speech habits.

Angry Rhetoric

The visit of Yasir Arafat to the United Nations in the mid-1970s was the occasion for some very angry talk in the UN General Assembly. The Israelis denounced the Palestine Liberation Organization as “murderers” and “gangsters.” Arafat’s defenders charged that Israel’s “Zionist ideology” reveals “a new facet of Nazism.”

In an article published shortly after Arafat’s visit, two seasoned UN watchers observed that this rhetorical exchange constituted a low point in UN debate. Indeed, the words that were used were so harmful, they argued, that one can only wonder how the harm could ever really be undone:

Even if, by some unknown chance, the PLO and the Israelis eventually reach the point of talking to one another, the suspicions and hatreds engendered by the vicious insults will be difficult to overcome. Will the PLO be capable of forgiving those who described them as cowardly murderers of children, and will the descendants of Hitler’s victims be able to talk peace with those who described them as Nazis?

It would not be a bad idea if the UN General Assembly turned into a massive sensitivity group for a while. If talk about “what I think I hear you saying” or how “I’m feeling threatened right now” could become the officially required language for international discussion, some deeply felt grievances might actually be aired in a way that could promote healing rather than further alienation.

I wish the Christian churches could offer some guidance for this kind of organizational therapy. After all, we are supposed to be a model community in which other people can see how God intends diverse individuals and groups to get along.

Unfortunately, that is not very often how it works. The accusatory rhetoric at the United Nations is not all that different in tone from the way Christians argue with each other. Here is an example from the seventeenth century, when Puritans and Quakers were engaged in angry debates: The Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a pamphlet in which he lumped the Quakers with “drunkards, swearers, whoremongers, and sensual wretches” and other “miserable creatures.” And then—just in case he had not yet insulted them enough—he insisted that Quakers are no better than “Papists.”

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The Quaker leader James Naylor announced that he was compelled “by the Spirit of Jesus Christ” to respond to these harsh accusations. He proceeded to characterize his Puritan opponent as a “Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog.”

This is strong stuff. What makes it especially sad is that the angry talk often makes it difficult to get to the real issues. The debate between the Puritans and the Quakers was actually an interesting and helpful one. Both parties engaged in some serious biblical exposition; if the heavy rhetoric were removed, the discussion could have been a friendly argument between Christians who had some important things to talk about. But I doubt that either group heard the helpful things the other side was saying. Too much angry rhetoric was in the air.

In the Israeli-PLO debates, both sides raise significant issues, ones that are not easily resolved—questions about ethnicity and nationhood, religious pluralism, national borders, and so on. But they have set up the conversation in such a way that these important matters are extremely difficult to discuss.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating the naïve optimism that says all our problems would go away if only we could learn to communicate better. Taking strong convictions seriously means refusing to romanticize away our serious disagreements. In some cases, when we come to understand better what the other side really means to say, we will find out that their viewpoint is even worse than we thought.

But that is no reason for refusing to make the effort. If we end up disagreeing after all is said and done, then at least our disagreement will be an honest one.

The Crusading Mentality

Still, some Christians seem to be unmoved by a plea for honest understanding. They do not appear to care whether they are fair in characterizing the views of their opponents.

This attitude is often closely tied to a crusading mentality. Crusaders are people who think the cause they are fighting for is so important that they must use all means at their disposal to win. For many of us who subscribe to the “just war” perspective on military questions, the crusader is the most difficult opponent to reason with.

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That may come as a surprise. You might assume that the classic moral argument about warfare is between those who think it is never right to use violence (pacifists) and those who think violence is sometimes a permissible means for solving problems (just-war advocates). To be sure, that is an important argument. But as Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder has pointed out, the argument between pacifists and just-war advocates is at least between people who believe the use of violence is subject to some kind of moral limits. These people end up on the same side when they encounter the crusading perspective, which says that anything goes in a military conflict.

The crusading mentality is not limited to military campaigns. Many Christians are spiritual crusaders. They take a no-holds-barred approach to theological or moral arguments. They are not about to listen carefully to their opponents, and anything goes when it comes to the choice of tactics.

Christians with passionate convictions will often be tempted by the crusading spirit. So a rule of thumb is necessary: Concentrate on your own sinfulness and on the other person’s humanness. We become more civil by gaining a more honest picture of ourselves and others.

The abortion debate provides a good example of how this can work. A friend who is active in the right-to-life movement told me a poignant story about a Christian woman who was outspoken in opposing abortion: no compromises, no exceptions. Eventually, however, people noticed that she was no longer showing up at right-to-life events. She had quietly dropped out, with no explanations given.

Later her friends found out that her 15-year-old daughter had become pregnant as a result of an especially brutal rape, and after much agonizing, the family had opted for abortion.

I sympathize with that family’s decision. I can understand why these people felt abortion was their best available—or least horrible—choice.

This Christian woman and mother finally acknowledged the potential complexity of the abortion question. But why did she have to wait until a pregnancy caused by rape became an intensely personal dilemma before she could see some nuances of the abortion debate? Wouldn’t it have been better for her to learn sensitivity by cultivating an empathy that extended beyond her immediate family?

The prochoice and prolife movements are perhaps equally guilty of extreme rhetoric; but one side’s error does not justify the other’s lack of care in debating.

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To be sure, empathy alone will not solve the issues of abortion policy. But that woman’s about-face on the subject may suggest her all-or-nothing rhetoric had been a substitute for honest wrestling with the issues. She could have been a much more effective proponent for the right-to-life cause if earlier on she had engaged in the exercises prescribed in our rule of thumb: taking a fearless look at her own motives and probing sensitively for her opponents’ genuinely human concerns.

Here are a few lines from an evangelical acquaintance in Northern Ireland, who wrote recently to tell me of a proposal he has made to religious leaders in his country:

One way of assisting the promotion of peace in our society would be to arrange an annual debate between Roman Catholic and Protestant school teams on some topic related to Irish history. My suggested twist was that the Protestant team should argue the case from the Catholic viewpoint and vice versa. It seems to me that the ability to get right into the other person’s shoes is sadly lacking in our situation.

Prominent leaders from both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide have written, my friend says, to support his proposal. “As far as I know, however, nobody has taken the idea any further.” My guess is that much could be accomplished if Irish Protestants and Catholics would seriously pursue such an exercise in empathic speaking and listening.

The Divine Gaze

Getting cured of incivility means learning how to speak more honestly. But civility runs deeper than words. It is grounded in the way we view reality. This means that we Christians must work to view things—as far as possible for mere mortals—the way God does.

Psalm 139 is one of my favorite biblical passages. It is filled with awe in the presence of the divine holiness. But it also contains what strikes me as a delightful and instructive little drama. For 18 marvelous verses the writer extols the mysteries of God’s knowledge and power. Then he gets so overwhelmed by this spiritual exercise that he seems to slip into a crusading spirit for a few verses:

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 perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies (vv. 21–22, NRSV).

This is an understandable reaction, and, in a sense, it is perfectly legitimate. God’s majesty is so awesome that everything else pales in comparison. How can we offer anything short of total commitment to such a being? Can we do anything less than hate those who hate the Lord?

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But abruptly the psalmist seems to catch himself. He senses that it is rather presumptuous for a creature such as he to pretend to have either the knowledge or the integrity to possess a “perfect hatred” of unrighteousness. So he pleads, not for the defeat of the hosts of wicked ones, but for a correcting grace that will reach into the depths of his own being:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting

(vv. 23–24, NRSV).

This is where a proper view of reality begins: in our own awareness of the divine gaze. The Lord not only hears all—he sees all. He knows not only our habits of speech; he sees the hearts in which those habits are formed. Christian discipleship is permeated by the consciousness that we live before the face of God.

Seeing As God Sees

In quiet times when we are intensely conscious of the divine gaze, we learn to act in a way that honors God’s perspective on reality. Having been aware of being seen by God, we can actively begin to see in a more truthful and civil manner.

A few years ago, my wife and I joined several missionary families in Haiti for a retreat. One afternoon we drove through the countryside in a Land Rover, and I sat in the back with the missionaries’ children. Two of them were beautiful, twin Haitian girls who had been adopted after they were abandoned as babies on the missionaries’ doorstep.

As we rode along, the children began to sing Sunday-school songs: “Jesus Loves Me,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and so on. I sang until they started on this song:

O be careful, little eyes, what you see,

O be careful, little eyes, what you see,

For the Father up above is looking down in love,

O be careful, little eyes, what you see.

The verses went on: “O be careful, little ears, what you hear … O be careful, little feet, where you go … O be careful, little tongue, what you say.…”

This ditty had always struck me as much too negative: Don’t see this. Don’t touch this. Don’t walk there. And as I listened to it in this Land Rover, I looked out the window and saw some of the most desperate poverty that anyone could experience. Rows and rows of shanties unfit for human habitation. Malnourished bodies. Faces marked by despair and hopelessness. The sights and smells of decay and death.

Then suddenly I realized there is a very different way of understanding that song. I had always interpreted it as a set of “don’ts.” But it could just as easily be understood as a series of “do’s.” Be careful to see what God sees. Be careful to hear what God hears. Be careful to go where God goes. I realized these two little Haitian girls had become members of this missionary community precisely because that community was willing to see and hear and touch in a God-honoring way.

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Civil Christians know that they must actively “be careful” about what they say. But they also connect their ways of speaking to their ways of seeing and hearing and walking and touching. And this in turn means an awareness of the “Polite Company” whose Presence they can never escape.

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