August / September 2015 - Vol. 81
welcoming people
 Speaking the Truth in Love
On Waging Peace in the Culture Wars

by R.R. Reno

This article is excerpted from an essay written for the Summer 2015 issue of Plough Quarterly. Used with permission. Reno's full essay is available online at Plough Quarterly.

Christianity is a fighting faith.
We’re called to gird our loins with truth and to put on the breastplate of righteousness, so that we can contend against the principalities and powers that rule in the present darkness (Ephesians 6:11–14). And rule they do. We are living in an era of transition. Increasingly self-confident secular Americans, many very powerful, are frustrated with the residual influence of a Bible-formed worldview. They tire of the limitations Judeo-Christian morality puts on personal decisions about sex, family, and marriage. They’re indifferent to the soul-destroying effects of pornography. They turn away from the now widespread moral chaos among the poorest and most vulnerable, focusing instead on the things they want: abortion on demand should contraception fail, greater freedom to use an accelerating technology of reproduction should nature not cooperate, and the option of doctor-assisted suicide at the end of life should the trials of suffering and death be too daunting.

The truth demands our loyalty

All of us feel in our bones that a great deal is at stake, and we can’t simply step aside. “Take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13). The truth demands our loyalty. Furthermore, Christ’s commandment that we love our neighbor surely means speaking up for the moral order God has inscribed into every heart. We owe our neighbors, Christian or not, a faithful witness to truth, even when those truths are controversial. Even when our witness gets us labeled as “culture warriors.” Even when our witness upsets the status quo and enflames political passions. The prophets of Israel did not come to bring peace, but the sword that is the Word of God.

Though we feel the dark undertow of post-Christian culture, Christ calls us to do more than stand against evil, denounce error, and fight against the corruptions and betrayals of moral truth. The armor of God includes a sword, but we’re to beat it into a plowshare. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Our Lord arrays us for battle, yes, but he does so with the “equipment of the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15). The most profound Christian vocation in the public square is not to win debates and elections, but to build a civilization of love.

This is not easy today. In my view, the rancor that now greets Christian morality presents a significant spiritual challenge. When our witness is part of a society-wide cultural conflict, when once widely accepted moral truths are viewed as partisan political stances, our words can too easily rend the fabric of society. Our witness can heighten conflict rather than contribute to a civilization of love. Thus an important question all of us face: How, for the sake of peace in our society, are we to wield the sharp, sometimes flaming words of truth?

Love seeks the higher peace of unity in Christ

Saint Paul gives us a clear principle: We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Love seeks the higher peace of unity in Christ. In all we say and do, we should aspire to love’s heights. However, in civic life we may do better to start with a more modest enterprise, which is to develop good habits of public speech, beginning with the virtue of civility.

The Bible itself can help us become more civil, and in so doing turn our truth-telling, if not into peacemaking, then at least into something that preserves the possibilities of peace in our era of intense cultural conflict. In this regard, the Golden Rule teaches the most obvious lesson: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12).

I don’t want others to pretend that they agree with me when they don’t, and I find it condescending when people remain silent because they think I might be hurt by disagreement. The Golden Rule does not warrant shrinking from sometimes tough and sharply worded encounters. It is not a counsel of niceness, which at best produces an artificial peace in which everyone works very hard to avoid controversial topics. Admittedly, to agree to disagree makes a truce of sorts, and there’s a proper place for it in public life – we may need a cooling-off period, as it were.

But the peace of Christ that passes all understanding is not the merely negative peace of an absence of conflict. It’s the peace of union with him, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Peacemaking involves community building, which can’t be done if we refuse to engage each other about the moral underpinnings that shape the civic life we share. That requires us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us: engaging them as adults who can bear disagreement without rancor.

So by all means there should be public debate. The question is, will such conversations be civil, or will they be saturated with ad hominem attacks, as today’s debates often are? Here the Golden Rule’s lesson for civility is obvious. I don’t like having my views distorted, nor do I enjoy it when others suggest that I have mean, selfish motives; accordingly, I must refrain from treating my opponents in these ways. While it may be true that the thinking of today’s secular liberals has been distorted by the modern diminution of moral authority to the sovereign self, it’s not true that they are motivated by a selfish interest to make moral truth revolve around themselves. On the contrary, many are motivated by a profound regard for the rights and freedoms of others. The same goes for me, of course. I’m often the “conservative” voice arguing against secular-liberal efforts to change our laws and social norms to reflect “progressive” views. But that does not mean I “fear change” or am in some way psychologically incapable of engaging other views.

One of the most uncivil and destructive aspects of today’s progressive project in morality and culture has been to label morally reasoned opposition to same-sex marriage as “homophobia.” It is politically convenient to summarily dismiss those who disagree rather than showing how they reason wrongly. But doing so erodes civility. The Golden Rule stip­ulates that, no matter how deeply we disagree, we must take others seriously as moral agents who seek to promote the common good.

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”

To the Golden Rule we can add another basic moral principle: Saint Paul’s exhortation to refrain from doing evil for the sake of some greater or higher good (Romans 3:8). Political debate is a contact sport. It involves sharply worded polemics, and rightly so, because a great deal is at stake. It’s no sin against the Golden Rule to refuse to speak of abortion supporters as “pro-choice,” saying instead, “pro-abortion.” A picture of an aborted child is shocking, but then the reality is as well. Civility does not shy away from forceful words and images that our adversaries would like to parry, dismiss, and hide....

When biblical morality becomes a political football, we need to follow another of Jesus’ teachings: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We should be aware of how our convictions are being manipulated in the political process. Still, we cannot let the cynicism of the world silence our witness, which is what happens when we shy away from issues in order to avoid being partisan. If our attempts to do justice to the Bible’s vision of the common good lead to us being labeled ­partisan, then so be it.

> See also an excellent related article, Grace and Truth On Campus,
by Matthew H. Young, published in First Things, July 27, 2015

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things magazine and the author of Fighting the Noonday Devil: And Other Essays Personal and Theological (Eerdmans, 2011).

This article is excerpted from an essay written by R.R. Reno for the Summer 2015 issue of Plough Quarterly. Used with permission. Reno's full essay is available online at Plough Quarterly. Plough Quarterly is a publication of the Bruderhof, an international movement of Christian communities in the United States, England, Germany, Australia, and Paraguay.

 copyright © 2015 The Sword of the Spirit
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom