Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and non-violence.

They’re not the same thing.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about “civility.” In the midst of extreme political differences and polarizing public policy, calls for “civility” have rung out from both ends of the spectrum.

How to engage polarizing discussions is something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the past couple of years – well before Trump’s election. My faith has led me to such different convictions than my family and many friends (themselves people of deep faith and convictions) that I’ve had to wrestle with it.

With some, it’s easier. They may not be where I am, but they wrestle with many of the same questions and can at least accept the possibility that the conclusions I’ve come to might be reasonable or valid. For others, the directions I’ve moved directly contradict some of their most foundational paradigms, and their convictions obligate them to defend what they believe to be true. It can create deeply painful interactions.

I want to stay connected and engaged with them, but it’s hard. I’ve learned to discern how to interact based on the relationship – close family are different from close friends who are different from colleagues and acquaintances. And since most of our interactions are on social media, there can be a mix of friends and strangers in any given conversation. It’s complicated.

About a year ago, in a difficult exchange with a member of my extended family, something clicked for me. I remembered the movie, Selma. When King and the leaders of the movement were planning their march for voting rights, they chose Selma, Alabama because they knew the sheriff there was likely to respond violently. They knew that, however peaceful, they were going to be provocative, and they knew they were going to have to prepare if they were going to respond non-violently.

That’s not easy work. Non-violent protest. Non-violent resistance.

It requires knowing yourself, learning deep self-control and even a different way of seeing. It requires deep confidence – in both who you are and what you are standing up for. It requires the humility and faith to endure unmerited suffering, and trust that it can be redemptive.

It requires something very different from civility.

Civility, in the way we use it, means politeness and courtesy. That’s about social deference, both to individuals and within societal norms. Civility doesn’t work when what you are doing is refusing to defer.

Non-violence does, though.

With non-violence we can refuse to defer, refuse to back down, refuse to go away or be quiet, refuse to be convenient or cooperative, even to the point of persecution or abuse.

Civility itself doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t even stand for the dignity and value of every human life – great evil has been done with great politeness and courtesy.

Civility doesn’t stand for anything but keeping the rules, spoken and unspoken. And if what needs to change, what needs to be resisted and protested, are those very rules, civility is impotent. Worse, it can be complicit.

Reformation offends the rules. That’s its point. It can’t be done without deconstruction (and sometimes destruction), but it can be done non-violently.

And that’s hard work – hard work to do, and hard work to figure out how to do and prepare for.

Next week at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, I’m excited to be on a panel with Brian McLaren, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, and Xavier Ramey about what it looks like to do that work. The session is called Taking to the Social Streets: Non-Violent Engagement on Social Media, and I’m looking forward from learning with these amazing human beings and everyone who joins us for the discussion. We’d love to have you be part of that conversation – Saturday at 2:00 in the Greater Things Tent.

The roots of the word “civility” are in something much deeper than courtesy and politeness. The Latin civilas means ‘relating to citizens.’ It’s about citizenship, and citizenship is about where the power and privilege in a society lies. Citizenship is at the heart of what divides us today – the legal technicalities of citizenship, yes, but also the full privileges of citizenship – both formal and informal. We disagree on who should have that standing, and we disagree on what it means to be a good citizen of America. In this deeper sense of ‘civility,’ it is about what constitutes civility itself that we disagree.

Those who seek to challenge us to live up to the highest of American ideals are actually the most truly civil – even, especially, when their tactics break the social rules of politeness and courtesy. When they make us uncomfortable with our failure and with our denial of that failure.

A man sitting at a lunch counter where he is neither wanted nor allowed is impolite, but he is civil.

Marchers taking up space on a sidewalk or street are discourteous, but they are civil.

A person naming the realities of systemic racism is not polite, but they are civil.

Servers refusing to wait on a customer who has publically dismissed and demeaned them are discourteous, but they are civil.

Protestors chanting their protest in front of a public official who defends morally repugnant policy are not polite, but they are civil.

But that’s not the kind of “civility” so many people are calling for. They want the politeness and courtesy that keeps them from feeling too uncomfortable – that keeps issues safely in the abstract and theoretical and doesn’t push too hard for costly change. Or they want the façade that politeness and courtesy can give to anger and pain and suffering and oppression.

That civility is killing us. May we find the non-violent response that will help us truly live.

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