The campaign season is already interminably long; now it is also despicably harsh. Debate stages have become debate cages. Cable news segments and social media replay the most obscene, malicious and vitriolic one-liners. I can’t recall so many asterisks replacing the letters of a politician’s words that for the sake of decency can’t be said by respectable journalists.
Has shock and argument culture won? Is our society doomed to mean-spirited debates and divisions that get only deeper? Does meanness now trump kindness? With every passing headline in this election cycle, I wonder. I lament.
But I also must confess. As president of a Christian university, I am watching with worry how the rising generation perceives incivility from the evangelical tribe. I have been guilty of lobbing my own acerbic one-liners at people who have ideas I don’t like.
I am part of an evangelical culture that has too often opted for boycotts over reconciliation and culture wars over common-good collaborations. We’re often more interested in building revengeful walls than relational bridges. When we could be on the streets serving neighbors, we are on social media rattling sabers. We have used our hands less to serve than to shake our fists. We’ve used our voices far more than we’ve used our ears.
I’m sorry for how often Christians have disregarded God’s call for his people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Sadly we have often been perpetrators of injustice, exemplars of unkindness and citadels of hubris.
I’m sorry that we have often been more concerned with changing an opponent’s mind than with hearing what stirs her heart. When we bypass or devalue a relationship in favor of being right, we cheapen the image of God in our fellow human beings. In a culture in which ideologies are divorced from people and conversation becomes more about winning the argument than inching toward truth, everybody loses.
Someone recently told me we never lead our enemies toward following Christ, only our friends. The same logic applies to any contested idea, whether in politics, religion or philosophy.
People are rarely won over by their enemies. So many of the well-mounted arguments in the world will fall on deaf ears if they are divorced from empathy and couched in arrogance. As has been tweeted of late: “You don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea.”
If the caustic course of our culture is to be reversed, the virtue of kindness in the context of relationships must be prioritized. And I am calling on Christians to lead the way. Kindness is espoused in scripture and embodied in Jesus. If the followers of the one who said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) do not take the higher road of countercultural kindness, who will?
I’m calling on Christians to focus less on battling their enemies than on befriending them. If Christians are always thinking that it’s us against them, we won’t get very far. We can’t influence people who are our combatants. If we are unkind to those with whom we disagree, how will they ever see in us the profound, reconciling, unmerited, and sin-forgiving love of Christ? As a dear friend has reminded me, “You don’t have to see eye-to-eye to work shoulder-to-shoulder.”
I recall the words of J.D. Salinger in “The Catcher in the Rye”: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
Humble kindness doesn’t mean we go spineless or soft on convictions. It just means we are quicker to listen and slower to speak, leading with love rather than legalese. As I say in my new book, “Love Kindness,” it means living in the tension of “a firm center and soft edges.”
Kindness that bends to accept as valid everyone else’s viewpoint is not kindness. We can be kind and strong in our perspective. Kindness is not built thoughtlessly on the cliche that we should “agree to disagree,” never engaging in conversation. Kindness frees us to hold deep moral convictions, minus the vitriol.
Kindness in a pluralistic society means respecting the deeply held beliefs of others without feeling threatened by them or assuming that contradictory convictions cancel out the possibility of collaboration and friendship.
We need to celebrate examples in culture of people on opposite sides of issues who reason with one another in the context of friendship and mutual respect. I was so encouraged to read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s moving tribute to her “treasured friend” and colleague on the Supreme Court, the late Antonin Scalia. Though they were ideological opposites in so many ways, they were “best buddies” for more than 30 years.
I was heartened by a “60 Minutes” segment recently that highlighted the unexpected friendship between President Obama and former Republican senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who opposes gay marriage and abortion rights yet was one of the president’s closest friends in Congress.
Here’s what Coburn said of Obama: “I just love him as a man. … You don’t have to be the same to be friends. Matter of fact, the interesting friendships are the ones that are divergent.”
I’m also reminded of Princeton University professor Robert George and Union Theological Seminary professor Cornel West, political opposites yet profound friends who we hosted at Biola University last year as part of a dialogue with megachurch pastor Rick Warren about friendship amid disagreement.
West and George offer a great example of a meaningful friendship — forged through kindness — in which empathetic listening and spirited debate are not mutually exclusive. They ended the night clasping hands in prayer.
We need more of this. Amid the noise of our outrage culture, we need to turn down the volume and come together. We need to recognize that friendship-amid-disagreement is the foundation of a flourishing society, that kindness opens doors and transforms minds more effectively than a bullhorn ever could.
Barry H. Corey is the eighth president of Biola University, in La Mirada, Calif. He is the author of the recently released “Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue” (Tyndale, 2016).