Three magpies
Image courtesy of K Rayker,

I’ve recently become aware of an organization called The National Institute for Civil Discourse because they launched a “Golden Rule 2020” campaign on November 3. Many mainline denominational leaders participated in the gathering that led to this campaign and subsequently endorsed it. As a result, in my social media feeds, people I respect offered very different perspectives on the campaign.

On the one hand I’m very aware of my tendency to criticize anything that comes from mainline Christian traditions, and I try to hold that in check. On the other hand, I’m also aware of how I, my LGBTQ, BIPOC, and other marginalized siblings have been harmed by calls for “civility” and “unity.” This campaign, as well-intentioned as it is, disturbs me.

Here’s an excerpt from a resource recommended by the campaign called, “Text, Talk, and Revive Civility.”

Let’s put these listening skills into practice. Review the following topics and pick two people in your group that disagree on a topic (do a show of hands for pro/con):

Climate change
Health care
Same sex marriage
Campaign finance reform
Text: P8

Discuss (10 min): Have one person discuss their point of view and underlying values on the topic. The other person listens for understanding. When done, the listener repeats back what their partner just shared. Change roles and repeat. The rest of the group will listen to the discussion. Text: P9

10 min: Now that they’ve listened to each other for understanding, have the two people take turns explaining any points they respectfully disagree with. Why do they feel differently than the other person?

As a personal example, if we are discussing same-sex marriage and you are a heterosexual person, we are discussing my humanity, not yours. I don’t believe that Jesus calls me to have a civil conversation with a person who believes that I have less dignity and worth as a human being because I’m bisexual and queer.

I also note that this list of hot-button issues ignores racism, which undergirds every injustice and system of oppression in this country. There is a resource called “Civility Game for Family and Friends,” that asks some useful, open-ended questions and invites more nuanced discussion. But overall, a call to civility without critical engagement with systems and structures of oppression is not what we need as Christians or as a country.

Personally, I’m about to dive into RevGal Layton E. Williams’ new book Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us. I’m acquainted with Layton through my previous work on bisexuality at the Religious Institute. I appreciate her hot takes and radical honesty on Twitter. Because of that, and after reading an excerpt at the link above, I trust that her book will resist easy answers and facile platitudes. If you’d like to join me, The Resistance Prays is offering its first book club based on Layton’s book.

As I’ve transitioned from the social justice non-profit world to congregational ministry, I have at times struggled to maintain my social justice commitments while also being a pastoral presence to my congregants. I hope that Layton’s book will help me to have more nuanced conversations.

I’d love to hear from others about how you balance the prophetic and the pastoral in your ministries.

Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey is the senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Palm Beaches, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. She and her wife April live with fat cat Memphis and ministry dog Sandy.

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