While looking through my files for a particular piece of information, I stumbled on notes from a workshop I had attended about 15 years ago. Though the workshop was on congregational conflict, the real focus was on “civility.” How to ensure such a culture of civility in congregations. Given the tenor of political debate in this country, I found the notes about creating an atmosphere of civility to be timely.
Civility is “the conscious manner in which we conduct our human relations.” It involves respect, trust, affirmation of plurality of opinion, a view of the larger picture, and individual responsibility. To create a culture of civility, ground rules and boundaries need to be clear. There has to be some sort of common commitment to a way of relating that upholds “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” There has to be acknowledgement of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.” Engagement in the political process by any candidate running for and serving in office needs to be grounded in something other than self-aggrandizement, ego, greed, and tunnel vision. When buffoonery and self interest trumps intelligence and integrity, the entire democratic process is threatened.
Several years ago, an ecumenical group of colleagues met with the editorial board of the local newspaper. We were disturbed by the rhetoric and tone of the paper. Before we entered the newspaper’s building, a colleague turned to all of us and said that what we have to contribute to political debates is an insistence on civility. That as people of faith, our task was to nurture civility and bring civility to situations of high conflict. Our job was to ensure that conversation between opposing positions could be conducted without either side taking hostages.
I have been thinking a lot about what the role and responsibilities of clergy and congregants is during this election season. Our voices are going to be needed. Our resistance to business as usual is needed. If political gridlock and partisanship are going to be the norm, then other voices will need to be raised and brought to bear. How that happens is as important as the outcome. Attention to civility seems to be key.
I find myself asking, “How should we speak or act in a way that does not further polarize but rather brings persons to the table to find common ground or a common way? How do we participate in this cultural and moral war without it degenerating into a violence of words and actions? How can we insist on and model civility in public discourse? Are we willing to go the distance and stay in conversation and relationship with those on opposite political sides of us?”
As we move further and deeper into the mire that is the upcoming November election, we as Unitarian Universalists will need to ground ourselves in our seven principles. And embrace civility. Civility should not be equated with passivity. We will need to be civil voices of resistance and insistence. Let us practice the discipline of civility in religious community and apply it beyond our walls.
Peace, Shalom, Salaam,