This past July most of us missed an anniversary celebration. Thirty years ago, our government passed a law that has helped millions of Americans. I’m talking about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—or the ADA. Before the law passed, a state judge called people with disabilities “the most discriminated against minority in our nation.” A state facility for children with disabilities was described as “sub-human,” a place where “the most helpless and defenseless of our citizens are left … rotting in inadequate warehouses.”
The ADA was passed to redress these wrongs. It was also a model of bipartisan cooperation. A Republican and a Democrat sponsored the bill. A Democrat-controlled Congress passed it, and the Republican President George Bush signed it into law.
Now let me take you back to a sadder story in the history of American politics. On May 28, 1830, despite strong opposition from Christian leaders like Jeremiah Evarts, President Andrew Jackson signed into law The Indian Removal Act. Nearly 60,000 indigenous people were removed from their native lands and forced to migrate to “Indian Territory.” Thousands died as they traveled on what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Both stories show the power of politics … to do good or to do harm. To bless or to curse. To ennoble or degrade human beings.
How do you feel about politics in our nation? Anxiety? Outrage? Cynicism? A recent survey found that most of us just feel exhausted, worn out by the wrangling and polarization. Politics is deeply broken.
As Christians we believe that everything is infected with sin, including politicians and our political systems. But we also believe that politics is one limited but worthwhile way to love our neighbors, promote justice and righteousness, and seek the prosperity of our cities and our nation. Politics led to the ADA. Politics led to the Trail of Tears. Our political involvement matters.
So how should Christians engage politics? It’s easy to say, vote or don’t vote for this person. Support or reject this policy. It’s much harder to say, “As the church engages in politics, become this kind of person.” When I say, become a certain kind of person, I’m talking about virtues. This week I’ll focus on the virtue of Fierce Civility. Fierce civility is more about our tone in politics.
(Read 1 Peter 3:8-18)
Fierce Civility in Action
Our Scripture reading from 1 Peter has a beautiful picture of fierce civility in the public square. When St. Peter wrote this little letter around 65 AD there were less than 5,000 Christians out of a total population of 60 million people in the Roman Empire. The church didn’t have political power or Christian candidates. They didn’t own land or church buildings. This tiny flock was routinely mocked, misunderstood, and even hated.
But despite this political marginalization, Peter casts a vision for fierce civility. Civility is “public politeness” (Richard Mouw). It’s politeness before the watching world. And according to St. Peter, it’s not optional. We don’t say, “If they play mean or dirty, the gloves come off.” No, Peter says, even if the world is losing its mind, you, the church, cannot lose your soul.
What does fierce civility look like in action? First, it doesn’t mean just be nice. Be chill. Be wishy-washy. Nor does it mean, check your faith—religious or secular—convictions at the door of the public square. Nobody does that. You shouldn’t either.
So, first, I’m talking about fierce civility. One definition of fierce means “showing strong feeling and energetic activity.” Fierce means some things are worth fighting for, even worth dying for. Or as St. Peter says, some things are worthy of our zeal. Look at verse 13—“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” The word zealous means boiling. Think of a pot of water on a gas stove. The water comes alive, bubbling and moving. Jesus is like the flame under your life. He makes you burn with his passion for his vision of the good life, his vision for human flourishing in areas like the treatment of the poor, marriages and families, racial unity, and religious freedom. That’s fierce.
Second, it’s fierce civility. So how did Peter define civility in this passage? Look at verse 9. It’s so easy to respond to evil with evil. To respond to reviling with reviling. That is the compulsive political cycle we’re in right now. Peter Wehner calls it “the politics of contempt.” This is the political air we breathe, and it’s clogging our lungs with poison.
A recent survey asked Republicans and Democrats whether they agreed with this statement: Members of the opposition party are … downright evil. More than four out of ten agreed with that statement. It gets worse. One out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that the other side lacks “the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals.” Oh, and it gets even worse. The survey asked: “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party … just died’?” Nearly 20% of Americans surveyed said yes. Downright evil. Not fully human. Better off with you dead.
The Air of Blessing
Peter says, “but on the contrary ….” Ah, look at that church! We are contrary. Not difficult contrary but different contrary. Why? Because verse 15 says, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Because Christ is Lord in our hearts—not a politician or a party—we are called to a contrary lifestyle. We are contrary to the cycle of political contempt.
Verse 9 again—“On the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” What’s Peter talking about? He’s bringing us way back to the foundational part of the Bible’s story. It’s from Genesis 12. God calls a man named Abraham and says, “I will bless you and make your name great, so that …”—note that purpose clause—a“so that you will be a blessing.” Then the Lord adds, “and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Peter says, church, this is the air we breathe. Not the polluted air of contempt. Not the poison of evil for evil or reviling for reviling. We breathe in and breathe out the air of blessing. And this is especially true in how we use our words. Someone says something evil. We respond with blessing. Someone reviles us or our beliefs or our political views, we respond with blessing. Someone shows contempt, we respond with blessing. When the world starts losing its mind, we cannot lose our souls. Instead, we honor Christ the Lord as holy in our hearts.
Verse 10 is from Psalm 34. It asks some deep questions: Do you love life? Do you want to see good days? Peter gives surprisingly simple answers to these deep questions: keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Do the words you speak or write contribute to the politics of contempt? Or do your words bring healing? Do you speak the truth in love, as St. Paul says? Are your words false? Do you tell lies or half-truths to get your political agenda advanced?
As the church we don’t wait for the world to say nice things about us or to give us political power and privilege. The early church didn’t wring their hands and say, “Oh, no, mean people have sidelined us.” Listen to verse 11—"Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.” What are we pursuing? Relationships. Love for our neighbors, even our political opponents. We are seeking to give blessings.
I heard some wonderful stories about the friendship between two late Supreme Court Justices—the devout Catholic “right of center” Antony Scalia and the Jewish “left of center” Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They disagreed fiercely on important issues but maintained a long friendship. A colleague of Scalia once told a story about visiting him in his chambers and spotting two dozen roses on a table. Justice Scalia said he had to get the roses to “Ruth”—as in Justice Ginsburg. The friend said, “So what good have all these roses done for you? Name one [close Supreme Court] case of any significance where you got Justice Ginsburg’s vote?” Scalia said, “Some things are more important than votes.” Ask yourself, who needs your roses these days?
I worry that our country is losing that. I worry that the church is losing that. As followers of Jesus, as contrary people, we should initiate and sustain these rich friendships. Don’t wait for the people on the other side of the political aisle to reach out to you. Peter says, “You seek peace and pursue it.”
Filled with Christ’s Poured-Out Love
But, once again, this doesn’t mean just be nice. Look at verse 15 with me—“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Gentleness and respect. For followers of Jesus, every person you meet is fully human. Worthy of respect. That’s civility. But be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you. That’s fierce. That’s something worthy of our risks, our life, our death even.
As Anglicans we celebrate Holy Communion or the Eucharist every Sunday. Because at the heart of our faith we believe in a God who came for us. Because we’re all lost sinners who needed to be found. But the Living God came in the person of his Son and gave his life for us. He says: This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you. Poured out love. And we unite our lives with his life. We honor him as Lord. His poured-out life settles into your heart and your bones and your hands and feet. It changes how you treat the poor. How you treat people who hate you. How you treat people who threaten you or curse you. How can we not engage in politics as Eucharistic people? People filled with Christ’s poured-out love.
So how are you doing with fierce civility? Let me guide you through a four-part civility checkup. As I ask these questions, invite the Holy Spirit to search your heart. Where do you need to grow in showing fierce civility to others?
First, are you civil to people in the church?
Let’s start with Church of the Resurrection and our diocese. Think of the fellow Christians, in this church or our diocese, you know who have the “wrong” politics. They may vote for the “wrong” party or presidential candidate. You’re suspicious of them. You may resent them. Are you willing to stand before the Lord Jesus and tell him, “Lord, it is okay for me to go against your word by not having unity of mind, not having brotherly love, not having a tender heart, etc. because that brother or sister in Christ is SO wrong on a political or policy issue”? This morning you may need to repent before the Lord for the way you think or speak about someone in this church.
Second, are you civil towards political authorities?
Look with me at something Peter says earlier in this letter—2:13. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Government is God’s instrument to restrain evil and to promote good. Peter says, don’t start by reviling it. Start by being subject for the Lord’s sake to the government and its leaders. It’s dangerous to reject God-given authorities. It places our souls in grave peril. Even imperfect politicians and civic leaders deserve our respect and civility.
Third, do you expect civility from our political leaders?
A lot of people are asking, do we really need civility in politics? Why should we care about civility as long as someone gets the job done for our side?
Lately I’ve been moved by Abraham Lincoln’s model of civility. One of his biographers wrote, “Lincoln did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against enemies. Indeed, he tried not to have enemies nor to plant thorns.” Another biographer wrote, “In this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender.” In his second inaugural address, Lincoln urged a torn and bloodied nation to have “malice towards none and charity for all … to bind up the nation's wounds.” Read the whole thing. It left a lump in my throat.
Yes, politics is dirty and messy. It’s riddled with fierce battles over issues of consequence. We’ll fight and argue. But let me be clear about something the church hasn’t said with clarity lately: Virtue still matters. Civility still matters. As Christians, no matter who we vote for, we call for civility. We long for civility. Incivility pollutes the political ecosystem. It’s like dumping toxic waste upriver. It always flows downstream. We should hold our elected officials accountable for incivility, especially incivility to refugees, victims of racism, poor white people, people of religious faith, or unborn children.
Fourth, are you civil to those outside the church?
Even those who oppose, deride, or despise the church? Remember Peter’s words—you seek peace and pursue it. You initiate it and follow through on it. You show that peace-pursuit to the world.
This past May 2020, as COVID-19 raged through New York City, a Christian organization set up a 68-bed hospital in Central Park. Christian doctors, nurses, mechanics, and administrators traveled from around the United States to care for the sick and dying. But the tent hospital also created a lot of controversy. Some New Yorkers, including the New York Times and the mayor Bill DeBlasio criticized the organization. Some of the criticisms were fair and some were grossly unfair. Some politicians and media outlets wanted the tent hospital to leave the city.
Meanwhile, the Christian doctors and nurses risked their lives working 12-hour shifts, sometimes for 21-day stretches in a row for a small stipend. The local hospital emergency rooms couldn’t get enough doctors to work shifts at $400 an hour. But the tent hospital had all the doctors they needed. They provided medical care for over 300 patients—almost exclusively poor immigrants or underserved minorities. All for free and with prayer support—if patients wanted it.
Eventually, New Yorkers saw what was happening. The patients said it was the best and most loving medical care they had ever received. Local restaurants brought loads of free food. Every night hundreds of New Yorkers lined up outside the tent hospital, cheering and even weeping. I will tell you a secret that you’ll never find in the New York Times. One night Mayor DeBlasio himself showed up and went inside the big tent. Without the press around, he humbly thanked all of the volunteers and gave them a batch of gourmet pies. Behind the scenes, those Christian nurses and doctors were treated like heroes.
That, my friends, is the church at her best. Why do we engage in politics? Because some things are worth fighting for. We believe that some things lead to human flourishing and some things lead to human denigration or even destruction. We fight fiercely for those things—not just privately or in our churches but also in the public square. But our ultimate aim is not just to win political arguments or get political power. Our ultimate goal is to win people. To share the hope that is within us.
That’s fierce civility. Because of Jesus, because of his hope within us, it’s worth living for. It’s worth dying for. So let me ask you this: Who needs your fierce civility? As Justice Scalia demonstrated, who needs you to bring some roses? What cause, group of people, or person in your life needs your fierce civility? May the Lord Jesus fill you with his courage and tenderness for this worthy endeavor.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.