In previous posts, I’ve highlighted that civility is not to be confused with an unwillingness or inability to engage in meaningful and even intense dialogue with others. Ideas have consequences, but so does the posture, tone, and quality of how we communicate with the people sharing those ideas.
Civility as a set of communication practices or methods can certainly help us navigate conflict or disagreement. But civility is not sustainable merely as an external set of practices. Genuine civility is a virtue and is sustainable only when it is sourced and structured in our character. Arizona State Professor, Cheshire Calhoun has argued that civility is not only a virtue, but a moral virtue, and that “the function of civility is to communicate basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance, and considerateness.” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 29:3, Summer 2000, p255) Civility, when practiced apart from the moral anchors of dignity listed above, cause civility to be misused as a means of oppression (see my post, Don’t be Nice).
How then can civility be sustained as a virtue? How is it possible to practice civility when in dialogue with someone we have a really hard time respecting? How do we maintain composure and assertiveness in the face of a situation where our civility is met with contempt or even ridicule? What keeps us steady when not just our ideas, but our character is being attacked (an indication that our conversation partner on the other side is unable to respond to the content of our ideas). When civility is being misused, or is nowhere to be found in conversation, what’s missing?
The missing piece is … peace.
Unless and until we are at peace internally, we will find it difficult if not impossible to promote peace through the practice of genuine civility. This may sound surprising at first since we usually think of peace as something that only comes when conflict and trouble are absent. However, just as civility must be understood as a robust virtue that is needed most within the context of conflict, peace is a reality that stands out not when everything is rainbows and sunshine, but amid the storm.
Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies the true nature of peace when he and his disciples encounter a storm on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:23-27 & Mark 4:35-41). The waves and wind rob the disciples, some of whom were experienced fishermen, of their peace and hope of life. They believed they were going to die. Meanwhile, Jesus is asleep. They wake him, and he calms the storm. Then he asks them why they doubted.
Why did Jesus ask this?
Because he wanted his disciples to understand that their peace should not depend on what was going on around them but must be settled within them. Jesus’ world was one of turmoil. He was born into poverty, survived the slaughter of children ordered by Herod, lived as a refugee in Egypt, and grew to manhood in a land occupied by Rome. Yet in the face of all this chaos, peace and freedom were at the heart of his life, his teaching, and his work. Jesus’ peace came from his knowing his identity, his purpose, and his place in this world. Jesus endured temptation, rejection, ridicule, distress, loneliness, disappointment, and even crucifixion without losing the peace that steadied him in it all. As a Christian, I believe Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of sustaining peace, but whatever your spiritual path may be, the reality is that there will never be peace around us and between us unless and until there is peace within us.
In his book, The Way of the Warrior, Erwin McManus writes, “the world within you will create the world around you.” This is why the presence of peace is essential for the practice of civility.
Peace isn’t found in the absence of trouble. Peace comes in the presence of trouble. Peace stares trouble in the face … and confidently smiles.