Keeping civil discourse civil

I once heard Stephen Carter, an eminent scholar of United States constitutional law, tell a thought-provoking story about the first African American who served on the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. When Marshall was a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he would sit down respectfully with white segregationists and talk with them, listening to their points of view. Marshall, who spent his life working for racial equality, strongly disagreed with them. But that didn’t prevent him from talking with them civilly.

Truth be told, words and tone matter. I’ve found inspiration in this regard in the Bible Gospels, which indicate that Jesus emphasized this point. He often took the teachings in the Hebrew Scriptures and explained them in such a way as to raise the bar, lifting his listeners to a more spiritual understanding of the concepts in what we now know as the Old Testament. With specific regard to the violence of words, Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21, 22, New Revised Standard Version).

Jesus understood that God is a loving God, so this doesn’t point to a God-inflicted punishment; it shows that when we lose sight of goodness, and our motives aren’t loving, we’re not living consistently with our true nature as God’s spiritual offspring. Beyond condemnatory words, insults, and the attitudes that spawn them stands a beautiful truth: We all shine as children of God. And those who don’t share our views, political or otherwise, are still our spiritual sisters and brothers.

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