Convicted Civility: Engaging as Christians in a Post-George Floyd America 

George Floyd Mural
Mural of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN (Photo: Unsplash/@munshots)

It is an infuriating and tiring moment to be a person of color in America. The public lynching of Black bodies has once again confronted America with the deeply racist history of our nation and the lasting effects it has in the present. The current national protests against systemic and institutional racism and the negative reaction of predominantly conservative, White Americans reveal just how deeply this polarization pervades our culture.

Anti-Civility and Politics in the Church

The uncivil response of the White American church to this increased awareness of racial injustice is worth deep and sorrowful lament. Many Christians have chosen to designate the inhumane deaths of Black people as a matter of politics rather than theology. In doing so, White Christians have widely embraced the false politicizing of an issue that in reality is not a choice between “Republican or Democrat,” but rather, is one between “human or chattel.” What is purposefully ignored is that “I can’t breathe” is a deeply theological statement, not merely a political or anthropological one.

As an Evangelical, I recognize how my tradition continues to reduce the Christian gospel to its individual implications while ignoring its social ones. In other words, we have emphasized the conversion of the soul over the transformation of society.

Even more, the response of Christians, specifically White Evangelicals, continue to foster hostility and lack charity. As an Evangelical, I recognize how my tradition continues to reduce the Christian gospel to its individual implications while ignoring its social ones. In other words, we have emphasized the conversion of the soul over the transformation of society. This understanding of the Christian faith fits neatly into a White imagination that sees little need for societal reform.

Evangelicals are reckoning with this history in our current moment. As one author describes, Evangelical leaders must realize “there are far more Trump supporters than Black Lives Matter activists” in the Evangelical tradition today. In other words, the White imagination is far more embedded into American Evangelicalism than we wish to acknowledge, and it is deeply hindering our Christian witness.

For example, in the past week I have seen Christians defend the use of blackface, condemn Black theology as idolatrous and unbiblical, argue that institutional repentance is not necessary, flaunt the slogan “Jesus died because ‘All Lives Matter,’” and proudly deny the systemic injustices that plague our nation. “We will not fall to liberal propaganda and emotional manipulation!” they say. “Freedom and liberation are in heaven, not on earth!” they explain.

We have heard that one before.

It is Supposed to be Different

Well-known Evangelical theologian Richard Mouw, who has written a great deal on Christian civility, explains why we ought to be burdened and frustrated by this uncivil, ignorant response from Christians: “…within the Christian community…We expect regenerated hearts and minds to be clear about the truth.”

In the Body of Christ, it is supposed to be different.

When Christians fall into the rhetoric of “All lives matter” and perpetuate a White normative imagination, we inherently make the gospel contingent upon adopting the same perception of social existence and our place in the world.

We (rightfully) expect more from our Christian brothers and sisters. The local church should be a place where “Black lives matter” is not a contested statement. When Christians fall into the rhetoric of “All lives matter” and perpetuate a White normative imagination, we inherently make the gospel contingent upon adopting the same perception of social existence and our place in the world.

Uncommon Decency

In my own reflections, I have spent most of the past two weeks wondering how to mend this cultural divide, both in the Christian church and also in American culture. How do we move forward in a Post-George-Floyd America?

Before I answer this question, I must acknowledge that there is a unique response in our current moment specific to the Black community. Dante Stewart describes this best when he asserts that “Black rage in an anti-Black world is a spiritual virtue.” He explains further: “Rage forces us to deal with the gross system of inequality, exploitation, and disrespect. Rage is the public cry for black dignity. It becomes the public expression of a theological truth that black lives matter to God.” Jemar Tisby complements this in his own essay when he writes, “There is a familial language to Black grief…a brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering. Like any family, it is not something we choose. This sense of solidarity through hardship is forced on us by the oppression we endure in a white-supremacist society.”

As a non-Black person of color, I can only seek to understand and affirm the fullness of black rage that Stewart describes. In fact, it would be disingenuous and improper to act outraged as if I was a Black man or to claim their familial language as my own. The response of the immediate Black community is unique to their experience; it should not be appropriated in non-Black spaces and action.

In my research, I came across the work of Dr. Richard Mouw and his 1992 text Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Even 30 years ago, Dr. Mouw observed Christians in America falling into patterns of uncivil engagement both within the faith and within American culture at-large. This trend, Mouw argues, detracts from our witness to Jesus Christ. In-fighting and hostility towards the world are not the fruit of a gospel-centered faith. As we have seen, this anti-civility (to use Mouw’s language) has only been exacerbated in our current moment.

Convicted Civility

This ethic [of convicted civility] calls Christians, even in our righteous indignation and fury, to dialogue in common faith and engage with one another as spiritual family, rather than spiritual enemies. More broadly, it calls us to hold in tension two biblical commands: conviction and love.

In light of his observation, Mouw dedicates his text to a Christian ethic of “convicted civility.” This ethic calls Christians, even in our righteous indignation and fury, to dialogue in common faith and engage with one another as spiritual family, rather than spiritual enemies. More broadly, it calls us to hold in tension two biblical commands: conviction and love. To be clear, genuine convicted civility can only be practiced through true conviction, not by the suppression of it. This ethic does not call us to tame our rage or replace institutional reform with a simplistic plea for “love and spiritual unity.” To use Dante Stewart’s language again, “Rage is the work of love that stands against an unloving world.” To feign civility apart from conviction falls short of genuine Christian witness and true effort to dismantle racial injustice.

agree photo

While Mouw is primarily asserting this ethic in the context of a growing “anti-civil sentiment” in the Christian community decades ago, I believe Mouw’s “convicted civility” aptly applies to our modern context. Even more, just as this Christian ethic drew the attention of many in the 1990s, it continues to do so when it is practiced today.

In a recent Facebook post, I asked my White Evangelical friends to “feel the dissonance” between what many claim President Trump to be and what he has done in office. “Don’t ignore it, don’t brush it off. Don’t make excuses,” I wrote; “Sit in it. Feel it. Then seek the Lord for guidance not only in November, but also today.”

The post stirred strong emotions from all sides of the political spectrum, and I took my response as an opportunity to actively engage with convicted civility and charity towards those who vocally disagreed with me. Within hours my inbox was filled with friends and strangers, many antagonistic towards Christianity, who were shocked by the level of civility shared between opposing sides and the ability to listen to the “other.” “I’ve never seen someone ‘like’ the comment of the person they disagreed with,” one person wrote. “I just want to applaud the level of grace in these conversations. I’ve never seen that before,” said another.

I offer this only to provide an example of Mouw’s thesis in practice. He is right—common decency in an uncivil world truly is our Christian witness. In an increasingly anti-civil world, convicted civility is quickly noticed.

Following Jesus

If I am honest though, I find the theological truth that we are all united in Christ (Ephesians 1, John 17) a divine mystery. When I see my fellow Christians continue to live in ignorance and hatred, it is hard to imagine that we worship the same God. When they pose straw man arguments, use clickbait articles as their news source, and resort to ad hominem tactics, it is hard to find any reason to be civil.

Mouw acknowledges this throughout his book. In a chapter discussing how convicted civility is possible in our society, Mouw looks, of course, to the example of Christ. He notes that Jesus intentionally placed society’s most despised people in his company—prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars. Our Lord, in his “convicted civility,” is able to simultaneously call these people out of their sin while also calling them to him. Mouw writes: “When Jesus showed ‘acceptance’ to prostitutes and tax-collectors, he did not condone their sexual or economic behaviors. He loved them in spite of their [behavior]. Jesus refused to define people in terms of their present sordid circumstances. He affirmed their potential for living as faithful children of God.” The comprehensive reconciliation of Christ frees us to live in community with one another and reveals to us the power of the Holy Spirit which can turn hearts towards divine justice in our world today.

Practicing Convicted Civility in a Post-Floyd America

There is no perfect way to practice convicted civility. It is a deeply contextual ethic, not a plan of action or linear rulebook. Rather, convicted civility is best practiced alongside more concrete application. In this sense, we may borrow from theologians today who have already begun to pave the way towards racial justice and reconciliation in the church and follow in their path while holding to this Christian ethic.

When seeking to engage with difference, Willie James Jennings argues that we must enter into shared space. In order to dismantle systems of oppression and white power, we must cross racial lines and humbly enter into the space of the “other” as listeners. While Jennings’ call is for White Christians to enter into the spaces of their BIPOC neighbors, the work, unfortunately, must be reversed. What this means is that Christians of color must enter into spaces of whiteness. By entering these spaces with convicted civility and charitable listening, we offer a radical witness to the world. Does this mean that we offer a charitable ear to the theology of racism and white supremacy? Of course not! But it does mean that we must seek to understand why these ideologies are held in predominantly White spaces and why so many are hesitant to recognize the whiteness in their own lives. Is it fear of vulnerability or a loss of power? Is it because basic questions about race and justice have gone unanswered? Is it simply too uncomfortable? Shared space within the context of convicted civility seeks to answer these complex, nuanced questions while simultaneously explaining how the gospel of Jesus Christ is antithetical to such beliefs.

If we desire to see racial injustice corrected and racial reconciliation actualized in our world, then we must begin such work within the church.

Specifically addressing Christians, we must take Jennings’ argument a step further and begin this very work within our own faith community. As the American church, we must heed the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” If we desire to see racial injustice corrected and racial reconciliation actualized in our world, then we must begin such work within the church.

One Body, Many Gifts

I must emphasize again that convicted civility is not required of all Christians. Neither is it the duty of all Christians of color to enter into White spaces with this ethic. The church needs believers whom the Lord has given the gifts of leadership, advocacy, and resiliency to lead protests and join the frontlines of social justice in aggressively shaking the racialized foundations of America. Black rage is a spiritual virtue. This groundwork requires deep conviction, but by nature does not accommodate itself to the civility. This is okay. Against institutions of whiteness this is necessary and important work.

Yet, we also need those who are willing to navigate the masses and recognize those who are genuinely seeking to understand, those who have been shaken from their White slumber, those who “hold potential for living as faithful children of God.” This is the work of convicted civility and often requires Christians of color to enter White spaces.

James Baldwin poetically wrote, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” Standing against institutions and systems of whiteness is dangerous and comes at a great cost—one which Christian leaders have been unwilling to pay through much of American history. The path of convicted civility is one of many, but I believe it is a step toward dismantling the racism that pervades our nation and lies within the hearts of believers.


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    Participant

    Written by Amar D. Peterman

    Amar D. Peterman is a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, focusing his studies on American religious history. Amar has worked with the Aspen Institute and Neighborly Faith and his work featured by Fathom Magazine, Interfaith America, Shared Justice, and other publications. He holds a B.A. in Theology from Moody Bible Institute.

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