Speaking from decades of Christian leadership and more than 20 books he has authored, Dr. Richard Mouw shared at Redeemer University College the compelling case for Christians to practice civility as we face tensions worldwide and in our own churches, families and neighbourhoods.
Redeemer staff, students, supporters and educators from the Edifide conference took in a panel and keynote, as the Redeemer Centre for Christian Scholarship hosted Mouw as part of their third fall conference. In the afternoon panel, Mouw, his doctoral student Jessica Joustra and Redeemer’s Prof. Ken Herfst, assistant professor of religion and theology, discussed Christian civility and other religions in a conversation moderated by Dr. Syd Hielema, team leader for Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. In the evening keynote, Mouw explored how we broadly as Christians and specifically as Calvinists can practice Christian civility.
The followers of John Calvin are often portrayed as fostering an especially uncivil kind of Christianity, with harsh ideas about how those who are “in” should treat those who are “out.” “We deserve some of the bad reputation that we have,” Mouw reflected. “We have often been mean-spirited people.” When he first started work on the topic of civility, Mouw gave a presentation to a Calvinist audience, after which an attendee responded: “‘Why should we be civil towards those to whom God is not civil? If he has determined from all eternity that they’re going to go to Hell, why — on their way to Hell — should we be treating them any differently than God sees or treats them?’”
More broadly, Mouw saw religion playing an influential — and perhaps even causal — role in conflicts worldwide. He was troubled by the spark faith gave to seemingly intractable conflicts, like that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the ’80s and the tensions in Palestine. But Christian — and Calvinist — resources have more than fuel to offer to these conflicts, Mouw explained. In each tradition, there are powerful resources that lead us in and prepare us for civility. In fact, Mouw considers convicted civility — strong Christian convictions held in balance with Christ-like empathy and compassion — to be a biblical mandate.
“Extending beyond the ties of kinship or acquaintanceship or the neighbourhood, [Christian love] should embrace the whole human race without exception.”
Take Mouw’s “oops” interpretation of Psalm 139 — dubbed by a pastor who had shared the interpretation with his community. After reflecting on God’s ceaseless, faithful presence in the first 18 verses, the psalmist transitions to reflect on his enemies, who are certainly God’s own. But after a few lines of bluster about the self-evident evildoers, the psalmist seems to pause, reconsider and repent, starting verse 23 with, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” Mouw phrased it: “When I start thinking that God wants me to hate my enemies with a perfect hatred, that I understand what God hates and that I’m ‘with God’ on this, the very next thing I need to do is say, ‘Lord, search me and know my thoughts and see if there has been any wicked way in me.’”
In fact, when we encounter an enemy, or just a person we dislike, Mouw suggests we take the approach of the Carmelite nun Thérèse de Lisieux. Vexed by a fellow sister, Thérèse challenged herself, in her prayers and thoughts, to view the nun for who she truly was: the work of the divine artist, who creates every human being in his own image. In worship, Mouw continued, we practice this skill. We reflect, through Scripture and singing, on the created and redeemed humanity that we share with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, who are of every tribe, tongue and nation. This prepares us, Abraham Kuyper wrote, to consider our shared root of humanity with non-Christians.
It is this ability to find shared humanity and bonds in the public square, beyond our own friendships and families, John Calvin writes, that marks our spiritual maturity. “Extending beyond the ties of kinship or acquaintanceship or the neighbourhood, [Christian love] should embrace the whole human race without exception,” Calvin said, “or a single feeling of distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God and not in themselves.” As such, Calvin calls us to seriously consider the wars that we have with others, whether a battle brews between nations or a debate among acquaintances looms. Our first spiritual practice is to look into ourselves, consider the anger and fear fuelling us, and move beyond flattering understandings of our own motivations. Second, we must contemplate the other person and the humanity that we share with him or her. And if we still must oppose that person, we bring with us the wisdom gained from these two Calvinistic exercises.
The resources of our faith and the Calvinist tradition can, then, prepare us to remain faithful to our convictions and cultivate a kinder and gentler spirit in public life. This preparation seems all the more necessary as we face the dividing lines within our globalized, interconnected culture and world. Redeemer works to foster this same spirit of Christian civility in its students, who will navigate conflicts among people of faith and within the public square as the next generation of Christian leaders. The university’s students and alumni are impacting their workplaces and communities, their families and churches, drawing on the resources of their faith, as shared by Mouw, to do so with civility and respect and the love modelled by Jesus Christ.