As I sit down to write, though former Vice President Biden is slightly ahead, no clear winner of this election has been established. Indeed, it may be sometime before the outcome is firmly settled. No matter who the winner may be, however, the country will remain as divided as it was when the present election cycle began. (The unfolding of events since Biden was projected as the winner has only born out this prediction.) The combination of a bitterly contested election and a pandemic of hideous proportions have scraped the scabs covering the wounds of the body politic and revealed festering sores throughout its members. I have no clear idea of how these bitter divisions will work themselves out in the days, months and years ahead, but I feel certain that they will continue and in all likelihood proceed with even greater intensity.
These rather dire observations prompt me to ask how the churches and how the ordained leaders of those churches will address the causes and nature of our present discontents; and what they will offer their fellow believers and citizens as the right and godly way forward. My guess is that we will continue on in a manner that is more or less the same as the one that has brought us to our present impasse. Some will focus on such moral issues as abortion, religious liberty and individual responsibility while others will focus on inequality, justice and rights for those who have been marginalized or economically disadvantaged. If I were writing a book on this subject, I would fill out the differing concerns of both groups, but for the time being I will let this very truncated list stand for a far more extensive account of our discontents. Suffice it to say, we are now a nation divided against itself, and we have been taught by our Lord that a house so divided cannot stand.
To understand our sad state, I believe it important to ask what has brought us to it. The immediate answer is that we have lost the capacity for civil discourse. More specifically as a people we no longer possess the civic virtues that make common life possible. By civic virtue I mean such habits as respect for others, tolerance of those with whom we disagree, truthfulness, sympathy, kindness, patience and courage. This list is a long way from being complete but sufficient to show that apart from their presence, one can hardly expect a society long to endure.
If this diagnosis is correct, a question of primary importance follows — given the importance of these virtues, in their absence, how are they to be cultivated? The answer to this question is not to be found in the heroic efforts of individuals. Virtuous habits are built by participation in communities whose values express themselves in a range of institutions and habits of life. In short, one learns to be virtuous by participation in a common form of life and by imitation of lives that exemplify the shared values of that community.
Robert Putman, in his classic works Bowling Alone and The Upswing, has set forth the alteration in America society from lives centered on “We” to those centered on “I” and then back again to “We.” We are now in the grip of a strong focus on “I.” As a result, we find ourselves with a paucity of groups that have the capacity to be centers for the formation of virtue.
To my mind, it is this social gap that suggests the proper focus for the social mission of the churches in our time. Their primary social focus ought to be the promotion of communities in which Christ is taking form rather than advocacy for particular social policies. It goes without saying that Christians ought to be politically and socially active but these activities ought not to comprise the social mission of the churches as institutions. The institutional focus of the churches ought to be the nurture of communities in which Christ is taking form. Members of such communities are identifiable by the presence of a very specific set of virtues. As I have shown in great detail in my book Christian Ethics and the Church these virtues are easily translatable into civic virtues that serve to build up the strength of one’s nation. As such, they ought to provide a primary focus for the social mission of the churches. I am saying that if the churches wish to be socially relevant in this era, they ought to focus on building forms of common life shaped by the virtues set forth in this epistle. In this way they will provide their environing society with something it desperately lacks — a form of life that develops in its members the civic virtues now so fearfully lacking.
In search of guidance, I have turned to Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus. The moral focus of this letter is set forth in chapter four. There, Paul appeals to the church in Ephesus to live a life “worthy of the calling” to which it has been called. That calling is to be the place on earth where God’s plan for his creation is being worked out. That plan is to unify the peoples of the earth in the love and worship of God. Thus, the first virtue the Ephesians are to manifest is eagerness “to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In pursuit of this end they are to be humble or open to instruction. They are also to be “gentle” one with another. Gentleness toward those with whom one may disagree requires patience and patience requires that we bear with others in love. Gentleness, patience and burden bearing do not, however, lead to passivity and acquiescence in the midst of conflict. Rather, precisely in the midst of conflict, we are required to put away falsehood and to speak the truth in love. Why? Because we are members of one another! Accordingly, as members one of another, we are forbidden to allow “evil talk” to come out of our mouths. We are to limit our speech to words that build up rather than divide. Measured speech and social tranquility demand that we “put away all bitterness and wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice.” By way of contrast, in the midst of bitter strife, we are to be kind to one another, tender hearted and forgiving. Indeed, we are to put on “the whole armor of God” — faith, truth, righteousness and a message of peace.
It is fairly clear I think that if these faith-based virtues are present within a community, they will suggest to its members the civic virtues required of them as they live out their lives in the social order of which they are a part. Civic virtue leads to civility, the very thing we lack and the root cause of our discontents. Civility surely requires eagerness to maintain unity in the bond of peace. The bond of peace cannot be maintained apart from openness to instruction, and openness to instruction requires that we treat those with whom we differ with gentleness. Gentleness demands patience and patience requires us to bear with those with whom we may disagree. If we are to pursue truth and justice in society with patience, we are also required to speak the truth to those with whom we disagree. True speech, however, is without effect if it clothed in evil talk, anger, wrangling, slander and malice. Rather, the true companions of truthful speech are kindness, tender heartedness and forgiveness.
If it is correct to say that the root problem of our society is the loss of civility, then it is also true to say that civility grows out of the presence of the virtues that support this form of social and political relationship. It is also correct to say that the virtues that support civility will be found only where there are institutions capable of forming people whose lives are shaped by these virtues. The churches are precisely those institutions that have in past years shaped the character of people whose lives are guided by these virtues. Their absence in public life then suggests that the churches have failed at the very heart of their social mission. That mission is, first of all, to form men and women whose lives are shaped by civility and so rooted in love, rather than rancor.
The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is the retired dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.