When my children learned to talk, they began evaluating my cooking. Their commentary involved words like "I hate fish," "Don't make me eat that," and the all-purpose "Yuck." After a year or two of this, we decided it was time to give lessons in civil discourse.
"If I serve something you don't like," I explained, "you may politely refuse it. A simple ?No, thank you' will do. But if you say you say bad things about the food or about the cook, or if you make unpleasant retching noises, you will have to eat it."
Intelligent children, they decided not to risk a simple, "No, thank you." Perhaps I would take offense at their tone of voice and they would be forced to ingest - heaven forbid - fish sticks! mushrooms! avocado! To guard against such evils, they developed an elaborate approach to food avoidance: "Oh, Mother dear, those mushrooms look scrumptious, but I fear I must decline …".
Several years ago, in an article for the Los Angeles Times, Richard J. Mouw - president of Fuller Theological Seminary and one of the most civil people I know - noted that "the family meal is the primary workshop in civility." Perhaps churches should arrange remedial family meals for people who leave comments on blogs.
I love it when polite, well-brought-up people of opposing viewpoints disagree vigorously. Iron sharpens iron, and let the sparks fly! Mature people know how to do this respectfully. They treat their opponents with courtesy, as they would wish to be treated themselves.
According to Mouw, civility
requires us to show tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different from us. But civility also has an inner side - the struggle to get beyond our own perceptions, to see fellow human beings as creatures made in God's image, no matter how defaced and damaged they may appear.
"Every human being is a work of divine art," he says. "I can learn a lot about how to treat an unlikable person with reverence if I keep reminding myself of the value the person has in the eyes of God."
I do not usually like to read comments on blogs, and that includes Christian blogs such as this one. I feel slimed by the name-calling, ridicule, assumptions of bad faith, and general incivility that so often appear among the comments, even from people who are defending me. I don't want that kind of defense.
Honesty is important. Disagreement is unavoidable. Discussion is healthy. But when we discuss controversial issues, can we do so calmly, kindly, and politely, as we would surely do if we were disagreeing with a close friend, at the dinner table?
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