Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)
An octogenarian threatened me with a caning last month.
Pat and I were visiting her mom in an assisted living facility in Maryland when I noticed an elderly gentleman walking in our direction on a strip of lawn rather than the sidewalk. When I asked whether he had once lived on a farm his countenance immediately brightened as he confirmed my observation. Discussing our roots, I mentioned that we were from Ohio, and he asked whether I was going to vote in the upcoming Republican primary in my state. Before I could answer he asserted that “Trump is the best man for the country,” and then added that if I didn’t vote for Trump, the next time we met he would “hit with his cane.” His comment was amusing but also distressing given the day’s news about violence at Trump rallies. And regrettably, I responded with a flippant comment about the candidate’s vulgarity.
This got me to thinking about what Christian virtue looks like in the toxic political environment of an election year. What standards should we expect of ourselves, and for that matter of a candidate for public office who holds himself or herself out as a Christian? To the latter point, Max Lucado has a courageous blog post, entitled “Decency for President,” in which he challenges Mr. Trump on his crudeness, name-calling, and general behavior antithetical to the Christian faith he professes. https://maxlucado.com/decency-for-president/
But the real takeaway for me from the exchange with the elderly gentleman was to remember the standard that the Lord expects of me – a standard that I missed when I responded impulsively to the old man’s words.
Ironically, I have been troubled for years about the shameful discourse among many Christians when discussing politics. Our Master tells us to love one another, even our enemies. He challenges us against our anger and confronts us against the damage our tongue causes, yet many who claim to follow Christ freely express the most scathing and vitriolic comments about those with different political beliefs.
Consider then the virtue of Civility, which refers to politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech.
In its early usage, the term civility referred to being a good citizen with orderly behavior. I suppose this is why civility seems to be used more in a public sense, referring to our proper role as citizens. Alas, though, I fear the word has become hijacked in recent years by its association with “political correctness.” The latter phrase being almost exclusively used in a pejorative sense. This is too bad because the best meaning of political correctness is simply showing a sensitivity and kindness toward others, which we Christians should always do. Does anyone believe that mocking someone who has a disability or publicly commenting on someone’s bodily functions is honoring to God? Paul was unequivocal when he said to “have nothing to do with people [who are boastful, proud, abusive, … unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, etc.]” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
Let’s be honest, Civility is a pretty low bar when it comes to Christian virtues. For the most part, civility is simply abstaining from hurtful or vulgar remarks. In other words, as Paul counsels, to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth.” We don’t need sensitivity training to do this. We simply need to be sensitive to others and to exercise charitable judgments toward them. We are nowhere near the rarefied heights of Christian love where words of affirmation, understanding, and compassion dwell. No, we are talking about the lowlands of ordinary human discourse accessible to all through God’s common grace.
Jesus stated that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks, and so I take full responsibility for the words I speak. It is no excuse to blame my speech on the candidates or the political climate. The root of my problem, as I see it, is that I have allowed my heart to be poisoned by the rhetoric from the campaign. I have not heeded the wisdom of Scripture – “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)
And thus, this political season, I am determined to guard my heart, to not be swayed by the voices of the ungodly – whether candidates or ordinary citizens. The challenge for me is not to sit passively in conversations where unforgiving and slanderous remarks are expressed, or worse, allow myself to be drawn into such discussions. Being mindful of Jesus’ caution – that it is what “comes out of the mouth that makes one unclean,” I would rather emulate the wisdom of Scripture, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)
A wise friend once told me that early in his marriage he and his wife agreed that words spoken to one another would always be “kind, necessary, and true.” This is certainly good, practical advice to heed in all discourse. Hopefully next time I am threatened by an octogenarian I will remember this.