Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Diana Butler Bass on Civility

I have a confession to make.  I really haven't been listening to God Complex Radio for several months now.  Not since they started their revamped format for 2010, in fact.  Basically, I decided that although I deeply respect both hosts (Bruce Reyes-Chow and Carol Howard Merritt), and still read their blogs and tweets regularly, they simply weren't talking about the issues I wanted to hear discussed, nor using the diversity of perspectives I wanted to hear such issues discussed with.  I still wished (and continue to wish) both of them well, but I decided that I needed to focus my own time and attention elsewhere.

They got my attention again this week when guest Diana Butler Bass mentioned (on a post over at the Sojourners blog) that they had discussed the topic of Civility on the most recent episode of God Complex Radio.  Civility is an issue that I feel quite passionately about.  Few things get me more upset than when I enter into a discussion where I feel that someone is being unfair to another person's position or are treating them rudely.  I've written about issues that touch upon matters of civility on a few occasions (here's just a sample).  My curiosity piqued, I listened to the podcast.

The episode began with a brief discussion between Bruce and a pastor named Toby Brown.  I'm not familiar with Rev. Brown, but Bruce described him as a person with whom he "very rarely" agrees on "matter(s) of religious significance."  A quick web search found Rev. Brown's current church, and I am led to believe through their website that he and they are probably a bit to the right of where I am theologically (to say nothing of where Bruce is, which is undeniably to the left).  The conversation was warm and congenial.  This is exactly the kind of thing I felt had been missing back when I was listening (which, since they called this most recent episode the first of "season 2," was during what I have to assume is now considered "season 0," since I know that the reboot was earlier this year, after I'd decided to remove God Complex Radio from my weekly playlist).  I'd gotten the impression that they were interviewing people who might espouse positions to the left of where they were (thus proving that guests need not "agree" on all matters), but I wanted to hear this kind of interaction with the right, as well, and was very pleased to see that such was indeed happening (in at least this particular episode after I had "moved on" from the podcast). 

The bulk of the episode was dedicated to the interview with Diana Butler Bass.  Some things she and Bruce discussed didn't really surprise me.  For example, they discussed the fact that many of the "heroes" of our Christian tradition (Martin Luther, for example) were by no means "civil" in their writings (Margaret Fell also came to mind).  The fact that uncivil dialogue has been growing to dangerous proportions (especially on the internet, where the possibility of anonymity has added to the problem) and arguably making for a poor witness to the Christian faith was also examined.  What was more of an eye-opener for me, personally, was the point that, for many of us, requests for "civility" often serve as a mask for the protection of the status quo, especially when the person calling for "civility" is a white male (like me) or in a position of power (perhaps not like me, except insofar as my "white-maleness" contributes to such).  I'll need to take that seriously.  Similarly, they talked about the fact that many of us come out of a background where we want people to "just be nice" no matter what.  I know some people who were made to feel that they shouldn't speak out against an injustice at all because it might "threaten" the "peaceful" state of non-argument.  Remember that saying about evil thriving when good people do nothing?

Bruce suggested an alternative way of thinking of this issue.  Graciousness.  There may well be times when firm, indeed even forceful, language and actions need to be taken to do what God calls us to do.  But we should never lose sight of God's graciousness not only to us, but also to those who we might consider our enemies.  So, what then would graciousness look like?  I would submit that we can be firm without name-calling.  If we argue against an opponent's point of view, would our opponent at least be able to affirm that we have accurately represented their position, however much we disagree with it?  Can we be open to giving our opponents time to make a rebuttal?

One more thing that I appreciated about this discussion was the honesty of the dialogue.  The people making the case for civility/graciousness made it clear that they themselves sometimes fell short of their own ideals (Diana Butler Bass makes a confession during the podcast that is especially relevant, but you've got to hear it for yourself).  We're human.  We will fall short of our own ideals (to say nothing of God's!) from time to time.  But we can learn from those experiences, and perhaps that recognition of our own failures can point us toward the need for God's grace even more.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I too have heard people denigrate civility as a mere attempt to "be nice" or preserve the status quo. It's one reason I've always considered civility as a first step toward a larger goal: honest, respectful dialogue--the kind that, while civilly engaged, nonetheless dispenses with mere "niceness" in an attempt to truly understand the other. An infusion of graciousness into such dialogue can only help us treat our dialogue partners with respect, even compassion.

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