Civility is often given a cursory nod for how we interact with each other in the public sphere. The word suggests being friendly, polite, and courteous (at the very least). The condition of civility also suggests that societies can function by getting along, being nice, and bearing good citizenship with each other. In fact, the root word for civility is civilis, meaning relating to public life, befitting a citizen.
But when we consider what relates to public life in Christian higher education, we must realize we are called to something much more transcendent than niceties, smiles, and courtesies. We are beckoned to bear God’s image with each other. The empty, cursory, contemporary understanding of civility is replaced with sacrificial love and rooted in the convictions of the Spirit that establishes us in our Christian faith.
Of course, our civil behaviors should be friendly, polite, and courteous, but we must not be satisfied with the world’s ideals of a “civil” society. In a world filled with “civil” societies, we make believe we care for each other; we grit our teeth through the tolerance of one another; we justify our opinions by placing Jesus on our “side” of a situation, instead of viewing our situation solely through the world-changing reality of the cross and the resurrection. We divide across ideologies and use social media to declare who goes to hell or heaven.
However, in Christian higher education, we are compelled to embody a Kingdom identity of the beloved community, where we can bear witness to Christ’s love with each other in all situations because we see the dignity of humanity in each other. When we disagree, have alternative opinions, or find ourselves with opposing social and cultural issues of a divided society, we must bend into a practice of love first, because we see the humanity in the people and ideals we oppose. We cannot bear injustice; we long to see the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; we are drawn to practice civility with charity.
Here are some simple practices that require very little effort to live out this deeper, fuller vision of civility every day on our campuses:
- Notice others. Their presence matters, so greet others even if they don’t greet you.
- Practice cultural humility by self-reflecting on your motives, opinions, and positions.
- Be ready with a question for something you may not understand or agree with.
- Listen without waiting to talk.
- Remember that every human is worthy of respect because God respects every human; we are, after all, created in the very image of God.
- Make your arms wide open during disagreements. Choose words that speak life, not death, even in disagreements.
- Remember that scripture is indeed like a two-edged sword, but it is not a weapon of destruction.
- In opposing views, choose the opportunity to build bridges of understanding instead of walls of division.
Now to be clear, this kind of transcendent civility can’t change the heart, but it is a way forward on our campuses, and it may offer a flourishing model for the public sphere to consider. Perhaps in the midst of this kind of transcendent civility, Christ will be seen and known. After all, Jesus did tell us we would be known by the love we have for one another.
Lena Crouso is the CCCU’s Senior Fellow for Diversity and Special Assistant to the President. She serves at Southern Nazarene University as vice president for intercultural learning and engagement, chief diversity officer, and professor.