01/26/2011 02:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Echoes From Gettysburg: Restoring Civility With Love

Weeks before the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, four Americans gathered at a diner in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, only forty miles from the site of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address."

They gathered to ponder the rising levels of incivility in America's public square.

And as they dealt with that question, they pondered as well the issue that had troubled President Abraham Lincoln some 150 years earlier -- the potential loss of that great experiment that the world, for almost 225 years, has called "America."

The shooting of Giffords -- and of 19 others -- lends urgency to the question, "Can America survive the level of incivility we have witnessed in recent years?"

I was among that group at the Harrisburg diner -- a group that also included a black journalist; a black Pentecostal pastor; and another white professor.

The Case for Hope

The four who met at the diner were acutely aware that some have abandoned hope for the American experiment. They heard those voices loudly and clearly.

But they heard other voices as well -- profoundly religious voices that speak deep wisdom into our current American crisis and shed abundant light on the path back home.

One of those voices, in fact, was that of the first university professor (I was the second) who met with his friends that day at the Harrisburg Diner.

The professor thinks that loss of American hope is hard to contest on the basis of surface evidence. And surface evidence, he concedes, is overwhelming.

But if despair is justified, the professor claimed, hopelessness is not.

Hope, he explained, does not abide on the surface of the world in which we live. It abides, instead, within us, in our depths and at our core.

We never find hope by scouring the world, Diogenes-like, peering into the dark corners of despair, looking for reasons why hope might be justified. Indeed, we never "find" hope at all. Rather, we create hope, and we do so through love, empathy, and compassion. We create hope through the care we bring to any situation.

And that sort of care, the professor observed, is the beginning of civility.

At its most fundamental level, he said, civility involves a well-bred, cultivated pattern of polite response to disagreements.

But true civility, he pointed out, is so much more. True civility is a reflection of character and a fundamental expression of soul. True civility is nothing less than a practical manifestation of the power of the human spirit.

In civility, we embrace radical forms of empathy. In civility, for example, we affirm the spiritual dignity and essential worth of the other, even when the other expresses ideas we find objectionable.

But there is even more, the professor said, for at its root, true civility is a manifestation of human compassion. In fact, civility and compassion are but two congruent sides of the same spiritual reality. It is true that one can fake civility. But one cannot fake compassion. The kind of civility that emerges from the bowels of human compassion is civility, indeed.

In his Second Inaugural Address, even in the midst of a great Civil War, Lincoln called for Americans to embrace that kind of civility. "With malice toward none; with charity toward all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right," he said, "let us . . . bind up the nation's wounds." And that is the task that summons us today.

And here is the crucial point: once we discover the link that inevitably binds civility to compassion, we can then discern the truth that loss of civility in America's public square is inseparably bound to loss of concern for the common good.

The fact that so many Americans have turned their backs on the nation's public schools, for example, testifies to the widespread loss of concern for the common good. So does the fact that so many Americans have turned their backs on the nation's poor, or that so many Americans seem unconcerned about that growing pile of "disposable children."

And just as concern for the common good is the starting point for civility, in the very same way the loss of concern for the common good is the starting point for incivility.

This collapse of concern for the common good ultimately points to one dominant reality in American life -- the preoccupation with the private good. And when concern for the private good displaces concern for the common good, incivility can never be far behind.

The Power of Religion to Enhance the Common Good

Where can we find solutions to our current national crisis -- this entrenched "third time of trial" that is crippling our nation's public square?

Religion is surely one place to look.

All religions can sustain civility and the common good because religions, at their core, speak to us of relationships and connections.

By asking us to practice the virtue of love, religions encourage us to connect our lives to the lives of others, even those others who seem most different from ourselves, even those others with whom we most vehemently disagree.

And by encouraging these relationships and connections, religions can sustain both civility and the common good.

But what about the Christian religion in particular? Does the Christian religion offer spiritual resources that might enhance concern for the common good and diminish incivility? Put another way, can the Christian religion help heal our nation in its "third time of trial?"

These are fair questions to ask, if only because the Christian faith has shaped American culture from the nation's earliest beginnings. It's a fair question on another count as well -- because so many Americans continue to regard this country as a Christian nation.

At one level, the answer to this question is not encouraging. Over the past thirty years, the people who have most loudly proclaimed this country a Christian nation have also formed the most visible expression of the Christian religion in the United States, namely, the Christian Right.

Many in this movement have routinely embraced incivility, not in the interest of the common good, but in the interest of their own tribal vision of what they think "Christian America" should become.

For that reason, the Christian Right has become in many ways a significant part of the problem facing the nation today, and is therefore ill equipped to address the crisis of incivility and the collapse of the common good.

But that doesn't mean that the Christian religion more broadly conceived is impotent in the face of this crisis. Nor does it mean that other forms of the Christian religion that have flourished in the United States at one time or another lack meaningful resources that can speak with power to the crisis of our time.

Some evangelical Christians have, in fact, committed themselves to enhancing both civility and the common good. One thinks, for example, of Jim Wallis' Sojourners network or Ron Sider's Evangelicals for Social Action. One thinks as well of large swaths of African American Christianity for whom both civility and the common good are central to the Christian faith.

Likewise, liberal Protestantism, while suffering a steep decline in members since the 1960s, has long been noted for its commitment to civility and the common good. And while there are obvious exceptions, the Catholic Church has promoted civility and the common good in so many ways over so many years that, in the minds of many, the Catholic Church is almost synonymous with those objectives.

Most important, all commitments to civility and the common good, when they appear in the context of organized Christianity, have as their root the pervasive teachings regarding those themes that we find in the biblical text. And of all those teachings, the most important surely is this -- that "God is love." (I John 4:8)

That was the premise that stood behind the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:24) Indeed, the biblical message is clear: "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love ... Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (I John 4:7-8, 11)

This is why all forms of triumphalism and all efforts to gain advantage are alien to the Christian faith. Christianity rejects triumphalism for the same reason that love rejects triumphalism. Neither love nor the Christian religion seeks glory at the expense of other human beings. Neither love nor the Christian religion seeks dominance or privilege, but both seek only to serve.

Jesus made this point to his disciples who, on one occasion, disputed among themselves regarding "which of them was to be regarded as the greatest." Jesus acknowledged that those kinds of power games were common among the Gentiles, "but not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves ... [For] I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:24-27)

One could multiply scriptures like these almost endlessly since they dominate the biblical text from start to finish. In truth, biblical religion always supports civility and the common good.

But of all the biblical texts one might cite, one in particular spells out the meaning of civility and concern for the common good. That passage is among the best known and most dearly loved in the entire biblical text: the Apostle Paul's ode to love in I Corinthians 13.

"Love," Paul writes, "is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

When American Christians can grasp the truth that genuine Christianity is always transparent, that it always breaks through its own particularities, that it always embraces a spirit of openness toward the other, even if that other is a Jew or a Buddhist or a Muslim; when American Christians can grasp the truth that genuine Christianity is always ripe for dialogue and always seeks to serve; and when American Christians can grasp the twin truths that civility is central to the meaning of the Christian faith and that authentic Christian faith always serves the common good -- when American Christians can grasp these great truths, they will be well positioned to help address the great American crisis of our time.

Indeed, they will be well positioned to help restore civility to America's public square and enhance our common good.

Richard T. Hughes is Director of the Sider Institute at Messiah College and author of Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 2009).