No Reason for Rage: Christians Need to Be Civil
Worship services in first century Corinth must have been a raucous affair. After lengthy instructions about the way the church should conduct its services, Paul charges those early believers, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40). You can almost imagine Paul writing this with a sigh of exasperation.
You wonder, then, what Paul would have thought about the state of American politics today.
Civility in our public life is at a low point. I’m not talking about tea-time manners or cowardice masquerading as courtesy. We are at risk of coming to blows on a much larger scale than has been seen since the days prior to the Civil War. This is not true of everyone all the time, of course. Instead, it’s the trends we’re beginning to see that are so disturbing.
I first volunteered for the Reagan campaign in 1984. I was involved in local, state, and national politics for three decades. Politics is a tough game. For followers of Jesus, our loyalty to our Lord must always surmount the many temptations inherent in politics to abandon Christian ethics. Within that context, I’m very mindful of how linebacker tactics are part of the push-and-pull of elective politics and public service.
Yet when politics becomes a forum for derision, crudeness, and the slash of the rhetorical knife, the fabric of representative self-government begins to fray. The 2020 “debate” between then-President Trump and current President Biden is a case in point. The two men went at each other like fourth graders fighting on a playground. I watched the event — calling it a debate does violence to the term — with one of my sons. After it was over, I showed him an online video of the Ford-Carter debate in 1976. The two men disagreed vigorously, but they were respectful of one another. They actually allowed each other to finish their sentences without interruption — what a concept! I wanted my son, then 22, to see what an actual presidential debate looked like.
We’ve seen examples of this breakdown in civility and respect many times in recent years. Some have turned vicious. The massive riots in 2020 went beyond principled protest and became unrestrained expressions of meaningless rage. The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was not only crazed but seditious. As Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said shortly after that painful day, “There’s no way to preserve the rule of law through lawlessness. It’s not how you preserve the republic. This is not the way we solve things in America.”
On a lesser scale, there have been times when both Republicans and Democrats have allowed their anger and contempt flow too freely. Consider the hysterical behavior of radical leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) when they spoke on the House floor about the (thankfully successful) effort to remove the anti-American Democrat from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, from the Foreign Relations Committee.
Then there’s the conduct of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican firebrand from Georgia. During the recent State of the Union address, she yelled to Biden, “You lie! Liar!” and shook her fist at him. With studied rudeness, she remained seated when Biden introduced the Ukrainian ambassador and the parents of Tyre Nichols. Sadly but ironically, Rep. Greene was herself accosted recently in a restaurant by persons she describes as “insane.” Commenting on the event, she remarked, “People used to respect others even if they had different views. But not anymore.” Perhaps this experience will be a teaching moment for her.
As a final example, consider Ayanna Pressley, a far-left congresswoman from Massachusetts. In front of the Supreme Court, she claimed — with a rage made possible only through years of self-deception — that to oppose Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan is to spurn “economic justice, racial justice, and gender justice.” No, Rep. Pressley; it’s about demanding that some people pay for other people’s voluntarily obtained debt. If anything is unjust, it’s that.
It is far easier to call names, cast insults, interrupt, ensconce oneself in an ideological cocoon and listen only to those with whom you agree, than to brave honest if difficult political and intellectual debate. As Samuel James, writing in The Gospel Coalition, argues, the “norms of civil discourse don’t dampen zeal for just causes. There’s nothing necessarily uncivil about protesting or boycotting. … What civility properly protects against is the combustible nature of outrage.”
In 1981, as rioting spread across Great Britain in the wake of her economic policies, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned that “the veneer of civilization is very thin.” Christians should do all we can to ensure that as citizens, we stand unequivocally for truth but do so with both grace and emotional restraint.
There is never a time when rage is acceptable. This is one reason Paul wrote his disciple Timothy that spiritual leadership requires one to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable” (I Timothy 3:2). May these qualities be part-and-parcel of how faithful believers in Christ operate in the public square.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.