I've long been a fan of the careful thinking of Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California. He quotes a line from the Lutheran church historian Martin Marty, said some years ago:
People these days who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil. What we need is convicted civility.
Having passed through the most recent lessons in political incivility it's easy to cite the evidence. But Marty's quote explains more than the yuck factor of the recent elections. It names a dynamic that operates just below the surface in many Christian congregations. The fear of being thought "uncivil" stifles a lot creative disagreement and discussion that church needs to move forward. Most of us can cite a meeting where some fellow Christian "lost it" and said things they would come to regret later. But fearing that mistake we often limit ourselves to ideas and commitments that can't be thought of as anything but nice. We're stuck. We are so afraid somebody is going to say "something". On the other hand we are terribly afraid that somebody won't.
As we have hosted Christian-Muslim discussions in our congregation over the past few weeks I have felt the dynamic at work. There are those who are afraid that in the name of civility we will ask and say nothing of consequence. We'll never really talk about what scares us. And then there are those who fear above all else that we will appear intolerant.
Can we practice convicted civility or are the only options weightless convictions and shouting matches? It seems to me that one thing Christians could offer their communities is a way to talk about what matters that veers off neither cliff. That is, if we will learn to do it ourselves.