The Table Video

R. R. Reno

The Gospel of Peace in a Divided Society

Editor, First Things
June 15, 2017

St. Paul tell us to put on the full armor of God, which includes the “equipment of the gospel of peace.” The Bible provides us with clear guidance about how to promote civility with love and humility amidst our most heated and important public debates.

R. R. Reno is Editor of First Things Magazine / Author of several books, including  In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity; Fighting the Noonday Devil; and Redemptive Change: Atonement and the Christian Cure of the Soul, and his most recent Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society;


Gird your loins with truth, Saint Paul, urges us in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. Put on the breastplate of righteousness, and he goes on to urge us to take up the whole armor of God. So clearly, the Christian faith is, in a certain sense, a fighting faith. And I think that we owe our neighbors a clear witness to the truth that we hold within us and that that truth is not only a truth about the soul, but also, a truth about the public world in which we live. And given the fact that the Christian faith is, in a fundamental way, a fighting faith, one ought not to shrink, necessarily, from being called a culture warrior.

That is not necessarily something that one should shrink from. But it seems to me that, and what I’m gonna talk about this afternoon, we have to contend against the worldly powers of our time with the right spirit. Otherwise, we betray the gospel even as we seek to serve Him. And so it’s very interesting that, in that sixth chapter to the Ephesians, among within the armor of God, that Saint Paul urges us to take up, Saint Paul includes the equipment, he says, the equipment of the gospel of peace. And so, at the same time that, I think, our Christian witness has a distinctive war-making quality, we really are in there to try to make a difference and to change the way things are. It should also be a peace-making project, not simply, a war-making project.

I’m Catholic and in the Catholic tradition, Paul VI, who was Pope, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, spoke of our mission to build a civilization of love. I think that can be, sometimes, overly ambitious and there’s a danger in having the wrong sort of ambition in public life. I think, part of humility is knowing the limits of what can be accomplished in public life. But there’s something right about that image, the image of a civilization of love. Or at least, a civilization leavened by love, I think, is a good goal. \

So, how then do we wield the sword of truth? How do we wield the sword of truth in the right sort of way with the right spiritual discipline? And I want to, kind of, walk through a few biblical… That, I think, are biblical passages that, for me, have been ways to discipline my own war-making, if you will, as I sally forth, month after month, on the pages of First Things magazine, to try to make a case for what, I think, Christians ought to fight for in the public square. Now, the most obvious one, which really reinforces, also comes from the letter to the Ephesians, Ephesians 4:15, speak the truth in love.

So, I’m gonna try to to spell out other biblical passages that, I think, help us understand what it means to speak the truth in love. Starting point, Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you wuld have them do unto you.” The golden rule. This is not a council, it seems to me, to niceness, per se. I want to know what other people are thinking, so why shouldn’t I do unto others what I would have them do unto me, which is that I would actually speak my mind. But on the other hand, I don’t want my views to be distorted or misrepresented. And it strikes me as a basic principle of Christian engagement with the public square, that we try to be fair in the way we characterize other people, the people with whom we disagree with, their positions.

I don’t like to have my motives impugned, and therefore, we ought not to impugn the motives of others. And I don’t want to be lied to or manipulated, and with political rhetoric that’s dishonest, or in some way, simplistic. And so, we, I think, also ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and not to distort, manipulate, or spin. So, I think, that’s the kind of basic ground floor of the way I think of this. Another passage that’s helpful, Romans 3:8, which roughly translated says, “Do not do evil that good might come.”

One of the great temptations in public life is to have your eye on a supreme good. Perhaps it is the sanctity of life, that’s the supreme good that you’re deeply committed to, or a restoration of the family, or justice for the poor. Whatever it might be that, it is very dangerous when we think that the end justifies the means, and that’s essentially what Saint Paul is warning against.

And I think to dig more deeply into this sense here, it’s an awareness that we have to accept the limits of argument and persuasion. I think Jennifer Fitzgerald mentioned that, was it you, Jennifer, that mentioned that, people are not transformers, or Deshawna, that said people are not transformed by arguments, or they have to be–

Audience Member: They have to know we love ’em.

Yes, but I think, were you the one that quoted… Was it… Yeah, I can’t remember who said it but, that we have to be adequately disposed to be able to accept an argument. And one of the most humbling things about my life as a college professor was the growing awareness of the impotence of arguments, that they so rarely persuade, they so rarely persuade. And to recognize the limits of our capacity to persuade, I think, is very important so that we don’t, then, turn and resort to illicit means. We just have to accept the recalcitrant finitude and fallen character of us all, and that includes the people we’re contesting with in public life, and the ability to have this kind of humility, which I think is very important in public life.

Otherwise, we can be very tempted to try to manipulate rhetoric or manipulate events, when we manipulate movements in order to try to overstep the limitations of our fellow citizens to ensure the outcomes that we are very confident are for the best. Do not do evil that good might come is a very important principle. Third principle, another one that I’ve had a hard time digesting, or conforming to and that is James 3, the discipline of the tongue, that unruly steed of the tongue that can do so much damage. So, discipline of the tongue, such a small member, but so capable of sewing ill will and disruption in public life. I think that that’s another important biblical principle that we need to focus on.

So, it strikes me, those three are kind of, what I would call, kind of, principles of civility I would think of here, that, I think, are kind of key for us. The golden rule, do not undo evil that good might come, don’t lie thinking that that will be justified by the fact that you’ll achieve the desired outcome in politics. And then, finally, a discipline of the tongue. So hard in the passions of the moment, in the passions of political debate, not to resort to the… To sharp words. I was at a debate in Europe recently and needless to say, things, kind of, turned to the immigration question and the interlocutors who disagreed, next thing you know, we were talking about, it was the Reductio ad Hitlerum, the reduction to Adolf Hitler, which is, I think, something we always need to discipline ourselves against, reducing our political opponents to paragons of evil.

So, it takes a certain discipline of the tongue in the heat of the moment, not to reach for that really telling blow that you can use rhetorically. So, now, two more principles that are more, I think, in line, more distinctive, to Christianity. I think any well-meaning person ought to recognize the importance of the golden rule, the notion that the ends don’t justify the means, and the importance of having a civil tongue rather than an uncivil tongue. And this fourth principle then is John 18:36 when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Now this strikes me as the profoundest source of Christian humility in politics. Our public and political witness matters. It matters for our fellow citizens, it matters for the future of our nation, but it does not matter ultimately. And that this is hugely important for making sure that the temperature doesn’t reach a boiling point in public engagement. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And part of the crisis of our time is that in a secular society that loses a strong sense of the transcendent, it’s very tempting to make a god of politics.

And woe unto us, should we fall into that idolatry because we should know better than to make an idol of politics. And this is not a posture of political neutrality, instead it’s a proper recognition of the limits of all worldly politics. One of the crises, I think, of the modern political imagination, is the difficulty of accepting limits, the limits and the tragic character of human existence and the fact that we cannot solve all problems, and that this is part of the… This contributes to the frenzied character of public life, the sense that the ultimate disposition of human beings is decided in this world, in this realm.

And I think the Christian notion that no, our ultimatel weal and woe is a matter in God’s hands, puts a very powerful limit on our political zeal. Final biblical principle, Matthew 10:16, this is one of my favorite ones. “Be wise as a serpent, and innocent as a dove.” Hm, I wish Jesus had told us when to be wise as a serpent and when to be innocent as a dove. But I think it’s a useful biblical passage because I think it has a double-edged sword, it has two edges to it. One, beware a kind of political Pharisaism, that will shrink from any coalition, that insists on purity down the line in every political engagement. No, we have to sometimes be wise as serpents and we have to make coalition and alliance with people who are not clean, right? By biblical principles, they are unclean.

And this is why, you know, I think it’s wrong to anguish over the obvious imperfections of our major political parties, or to anguish over much the obvious imperfections of our political candidates. That we need to be wise as serpents and recognize whom we think best advances a Christian vision of the future and do what is needed. But at the same time, we need to be innocent as doves. And here, I think, is where we need to not be overly strategic. So there are times when we should just say what it is that we think is true. That we should speak in the public realm with a kind of naivety, a kind of holy indifference to how we are heard by others. So, this is very difficult, right? ‘Cause a part of being wise as a serpent is knowing your audience, and knowing what can be heard and what cannot be heard. But Jesus tells us to do that, to be wise as serpents, but he also tells us to be innocent as doves.

And we should beware, if, in all of our engagements in public life, we are ever just saying it out loud, the whole picture, our vision. Even though we know that after we say it, like, oh boy, this is gonna get me in trouble. So, I do think we need to be innocent as doves as well as wise as serpents. So there are my five biblical principles for how to speak the truth in love. Golden rule, don’t do evil that good might come, discipline your tongue, recognize that the kingdom that we seek is not of this world, and to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. What I wanna conclude on a somewhat different point, here in the final, couple minutes, and I was really gratified to what Ron Sider’s emphasis on what the church can do in our moment.

Because it seems to me that the proper form of love, or, if not, the proper, the primary, form of love in public life, are not our zealous actions on behalf of those who are in need, important as that may be, nor are they necessarily heroic gestures of love for our enemies, crucial as that might be in some instances. Instead, the primary form of love in civic life is civic friendship. Civic friendship is the primary form of love and it has natural forms and it has supernatural forms, to use the distinction that we Catholics like to use. The natural forms are the natural forms of solidarity that we, as human beings, are attracted to.

Family, first and foremost. People learn what it means to sacrifice for the common good in family life. A child sees parents putting differences aside or overcoming conflict for the good of the family, that’s their first political experience in life of sacrifice for the common good. And it’s based on the union of the man and the omwna, their friendship in matrimony. Patriotism is another form of civic friendship, the sense that, when it’s all said and done, we’re really all in this together. So, friendship is based on a common devotion, shoulder to shoulder, seeking a common devotion and then civic organizations, local communities, these are all natural forms of civic friendship. And I think that’s the primary expression of love in public life.

And then there’s the supernatural unity of the church in our common devotion to Christ, and that what strikes me with Ron Sider, rightly recognize that, when we get together and when we debate, disagree, about politics, we trust that we both share that common devotion, which transcends our differences. I believe we live in a dissolving age where the institutions and fora in which we unite together in civic friendship, are increasingly weakened.

And we can talk, maybe in the Q&A, about why I think that they’re dissolving. But I think it’s really important in our time, there are many biblical principles, and I think that we can profit from thinking them through, but I do think that one thing that Christians really need to think about contributing to our current political temper, is some renewal and strengthening of the basis for us to develop in our communities, these bonds of civic friendship, to resist the dissolving tenancies of our age. Thank you very much.

Continue the conversation with this article from Jesse Carey.

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