Lamentations Rising: Civility Part 2

Eric Liu: Politics is about “blood and guts.”

In the run-up to Nov. 6, laments about the decline of civility have continued to mount—as seen in headlines such as “A Call for Civility in Days Leading up to the Election,” “Can Civility Be Returned to Politics,” and “Reporter Confronts Obama Over His Lack of Civility.” The latter story, from Fox Nation, cried foul over President Obama’s off-color remark suggesting that Mitt Romney is a serial prevaricator.

We need critiques of incivility, early and often in an election year. And for a particularly thoughtful and earnest one, I recommend James Calvin Davis’s recent essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” in which he adds a Calvinist punch to such virtues as humility—“an important Christian corollary to the belief that God is God and we are not.”

But we also need critiques of civility itself, or its depth and relevance to questions about justice, truth, and solidarity.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton, hits a few of the high notes in his Oct. 16 opinion piece in Time, “Civility is Overrated.” He gives civility its due, but says that focusing on it can make us “pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also—in fact, primarily—about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong, this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.”

Rational dialogue is just a “tiny” piece of politics? I hope not, but listen to Liu as he draws nearer to the core question of justice.

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

I highlight here “levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration.” Naming that, and doing so with a touch of rage, ought to be part of civil discourse.

Civility is about Caring

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was similarly underwhelmed by the usual pleas for civility. “Personally, I worry more about what’s happening to civil rights than to civil discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about civility if all it meant was good manners, manners often at the expense of morality,” he wrote in an essay on civility and multiculturalism that appeared in his 1999 book The Heart is A Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

But, for this liberal Christian stalwart, civility was never about good manners. Look at how civility took on both a theology and an epistemology, a concern for truth, in Coffin’s hands:

At its most profound, civility has little to do with taste, everything to do with truth. And the truth it affirms, in religious terms, is that everyone, from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet, is a child of God, equal in dignity, deserving of equal respect. It is a religious truth that we all belong one to another; that’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.

The takeaway? “Caring, I believe, is what civility, profoundly understood, is all about,” Coffin said.

If his essay were less about multiculturalism than about economic justice, he would have undoubtedly emphasized that civility is, above all, about caring for 100 percent of God’s people—but especially for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. How the weak are faring in a society increasingly in the grip of the strong is a fair question for the civility patrol. …read more

Ten Years After

Filipino General Raymundo Ferrer: In the midst of a U.S.-backed war against Islamic extremists, he wields the soft power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working on—of all things—a book about forgiveness and international politics.

I was at my desk at home, and spoke briefly by phone with a Georgetown University colleague who said she had just overheard something about a plane crash in Lower Manhattan. Oblivious to the scale of the catastrophe and the cascading irony of my theme, I kept my head down and dug into case studies of political forgiveness around the world.

That I might be onto an idea whose time had passed almost as soon as it arrived did not set in until the next day when I heard from friends who had seen or been close to the horror in my hometown. They were, as they had every right to be, unforgiving.

Did it make sense to continue talking about forgiveness as a geopolitical option, as I and many others did? A decade into the war on terrorism, is forgiveness a useful way to think about international relations and conflict resolution?

A Political Theology of Forgiveness

The answer depends on your concept or theology of forgiveness.

There is the pietistic view that assigns forgiveness to the realm of personal faith. In this spiritual milieu, forgiveness is an unconditional act. It happens when one person musters the inner strength to say to another, “You’re forgiven,” or otherwise buries the hatchet, once and for all.

This concept of forgiveness does not travel well from faith to politics. No one should hold her breath waiting for such a sweeping, unilateral act of mercy involving extremely fractious groups. And it’s easy to miss the real story, when forgiveness is understood in that literal fashion.

Then there is a political theology of forgiveness articulated by such thinkers as Donald W. Shriver, Jr., in his 1995 book, An Ethic for Enemies. In his rendering, forgiveness is not a single act; it is a process with a range of transactions that look to a new political future together.

Truth—the acknowledgment of wrongdoing or misguided thinking—is one such transaction. Another is the decision to steer away from revenge and retribution.

There should also be clear signals of a desire to eventually repair the fractured social relationship. In the years leading up to 9/11, such strategies helped transform conflicts in places ranging from South Africa and Rwanda to Northern Ireland and South Korea.

Conditionality is a must, in the politics of forgiveness.

For instance, at the end of white minority rule in 1994, South Africa’s black leadership offered amnesty to human-rights violators—with one stipulation. Those perpetrators had to publicly divulge the truth about atrocities committed under the apartheid system. Without conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution.

Enter Islam

What has altered this picture distinctly since 9/11 is the challenge of Islamic extremism. Is forgiveness an improbable way to conceive of a response to such a worldwide threat? Perhaps, but some practitioners of conflict resolution have found ways to begin reconciling locally with radical Islamic movements.

Among the most unlikely of them is General Raymundo Ferrer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, whose command covers most of Mindanao, the nation’s second-largest island. The Filipino military has waged counterinsurgency campaigns against Islamic rebels in the southern islands since the 1970s, working hand in glove with the United States military since 9/11. During this past decade, however, Ferrer began to realize that an absolute reliance on hard power was foolish and misguided.

In his rethinking, the notion of a final military victory by the Armed Forces became far-fetched. He began repairing ties with long-aggrieved Muslims in little ways. For example, Ferrer ordered his troops to point their guns down and smile at Muslims when passing them on the street, as political scientist Maryann Cusimano Love describes in a case study published earlier this year by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

Ferrer himself began striking up conversations on the sidewalks near his post in Basilian, Mindanao, meeting the locals, among them a Catholic social worker who wasted no time linking him up with interfaith peace activists. These are Christians and Muslims who had begun holding grassroots interreligious dialogues between members of their communities years earlier.

They, in turn, encouraged him to sign up for “peacebuilding” training conducted jointly by Catholic Relief Services, the American-based international aid organization, and the Mindanao Peace Institute, a Mennonite-Catholic collaboration. Ferrer did so in 2005, in the face of resistance from both fellow generals and church human-rights activists who distrusted the military.

Soft Power

Since then the general has sent his colonels to classes in “nonviolent communications,” mediation, religion and culture, reconciliation, and other peaceable subjects.

Love’s case study throws light on the possible utility of forgiveness—understood as a way of reconstructing social relationships, piece by piece. Stemming from his acknowledgment of misguided thinking, Ferrer’s overtures were  essentially signals of his commitment to rebuild relations with Muslim populations. Those are transactions of political forgiveness.

Together, the Filipino government and Islamic rebel movements have made strides toward reconciliation, but this story continues, partly due to the splintered nature of those insurgencies.

Approaches involving truth telling, forbearance from revenge, and empathy have entered into the toolkits of many religious and secular peacemakers around the world. Whether these initiatives multiply will depend in part on leaders like a Filipino general who is not afraid to wield the soft power of forgiveness and reconciliation. …read more