Three steps to catalyzing cultural civility

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Three steps to catalyzing cultural civility

January 23, 2024 -

A lit candle and a handful of salt in a small bowl sit atop a black Bible. By pamela_d_mcadams/

A lit candle and a handful of salt in a small bowl sit atop a black Bible. By pamela_d_mcadams/

A lit candle and a handful of salt in a small bowl sit atop a black Bible. By pamela_d_mcadams/

Yesterday was the fifty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, more than sixty-three million babies have been aborted in America. This is equivalent to aborting the entire population of New York City seven times.

The good news is that cultural engagement by pro-life advocates led to overturning that horrific decision in June 2022. The hard news is that the battle has shifted to the states while chemical abortions (which can transcend state lines) now make up a majority of abortions in the US.

As a result, those of us who believe life begins at conception have only begun the work of persuading our society to value life as God does. The way in which we do so is crucial—what we say is often less significant than the way we say it.

The same is true of contentious issues across the board. It’s hard to identify a subject in America today about which we are not deeply divided:

How can we and those we serve be the salt and light our culture needs so desperately this year?

Three principles form the foundation stones upon which we can build a ministry of cultural civility and transformation in these challenging times.

One: Democracy depends on civility, which depends on character

I’ve been to Cuba ten times and can testify that the Communist government doesn’t need civility to operate. In fact, it thrives on chaos that divides its people and keeps the autocrats in charge.

A democracy is different: you cannot have participatory democracy without civility. Listening to candidates without rancor, voting in elections and trusting their results, and participating in government in productive ways—they all require a basic level of civic trust and community.

However, as our founders knew, such trust requires a commitment to consensual morality and trustworthy character. George Washington was adamant: “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”

In his marvelous work, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

Morality cannot be outsourced because it depends on each of us. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

Benjamin Franklin would have agreed, warning: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Two: To be people of character, we must be transformed with the Spirit

You and I are finite, fallen people. We do not just sin—we are sinners. Paul spoke for us all: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Consequently, to be people of holy character, we must be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

This means that we begin every day by surrendering that day to God’s Spirit, asking him to lead, empower, and use us (Ephesians 5:18). We practice the various spiritual disciplines, not because they have the innate power to change us but because they position us to receive what the Spirit does through them in our hearts and minds.

As a result, we manifest the character of Christ, his “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).

And we become the change we wish to see.

Three: To lead America to experience the transformation of the Spirit, we must use our influence in the power of the Spirit

In a darkened room, even a mobile phone is glaringly obvious. That’s because light always defeats dark.

The same is true spiritually: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

This means that when we use our influence in the power of the Spirit, we can know that God is working through us in character-forming and culture-changing ways. His word always accomplishes his purposes for it (Isaiah 55:10–11). Our work with souls, though it may seem inconsequential in the moment, plants the “seeds” of biblical truth that grow powerfully over time (cf. Matthew 13:31–32).

As I often say, we cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.

Alfred North Whitehead was right: great people plant trees they’ll never sit under. You and I are privileged to rise to such “greatness” every time we share God’s word with the world.

But we must be led by the Spirit to be used by the Spirit. This is why staying surrendered to God’s Spirit before we preach, when we preach, and after we preach is so vital. It’s why delivering a word from God, not just about him, is so urgent.

And it’s why we must never yield to disappointment and discouragement. It’s always too soon to give up on God.

“The supernatural redeeming gospel of Jesus Christ”

In his seminal work, The Gospel of the Kingdom, theologian George Eldon Ladd wrote:

The gospel is the supernatural redeeming gospel of Jesus Christ, and the kingdom is to be established by the church’s proclamation of the gospel. The gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future tense to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationships of life here and now and thus cause the kingdom of God to prevail in all the world. The gospel of redeeming grace has the power to save the social, economic, and political orders as well as the souls of individual believers.

Is there a greater privilege than sharing this “gospel of redeeming grace” with the world?

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