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Promoting civility

Promoting civility

Religious fundamentalists who insist that politics must be theocratic or Theodosian—equating a particular political order with God’s will or design—often find democracy the work of the devil. Perhaps, in response to these charges, a concrete example of the delicate balancing act that I endorse is necessary. I rely on reports of John Paul II’s visit to the Baltic States in September 1993 for this story. The situation in Lithuania was particularly delicate for John Paul because “Polish nationalists for their part have tried to exploit the alleged mistreatment of the 300,000 strong Polish minority in Lithuania.” Thus, being not only pope but also a Pole associated with Polish aspirations to self-determination, John Paul “had to be very careful not to offend Lithuanian sensibilities.”

Much of current Lithuania, remember, was once part of Poland. The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is Poland’s “Wilno,” dear to the hearts of Poles everywhere, in part because it is the home of Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish poet. But John Paul, while acknowledging the love Poles have for that particular place, used the Lithuanian name Vilnius throughout his pastoral visit, including the one time he spoke Polish—when he delivered [sic] mass in the Polish-language church in that city. For the rest of his visit, “the Pope spoke…Lithuanian which he had learned for the occasion” and this “made a tremendously positive impression on the Lithuanians.” The Poles “were not so pleased, but coming from the Pope they had to accept it. The Pope exhorted the Poles to identify fully with Lithuania, and not to dwell on the past—by which he meant not to endlessly recall the time when Vilnius was part of Poland.

~Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 111-112.

I share this story about Pope John Paul II, as told by Jean Bethke Elshtain, because we are in a political season, and various candidates and parties will vie for our allegiance, and because we are called as Christian people to be engaged with the needs and concerns of our society. John Paul’s example of diplomacy and symbolic bringing together of different sides with their tensions and contrary historical narratives might be of use to us as we think about our own engagement in deeply divided America. How might the Church promote civility and reasoned discourse in the winner-take-all struggle that our system seems to promote. How might we seek the common good by gracious accommodation without sacrificing the personal stake that each one of us has in the outcome?

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as rector of Emmanuel Parish, Shawnee in the Diocese of Oklahoma. His new parish blog is Emmanuel Shawnee Blog


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Bill Carroll

I think that when we really talk to someone, especially a sjncere Christian, we discover very few pure ideologues

Most people are complex, have what they take to be good reasons for what they believe, and genuinely care abiut other people. The Gospel is clear about the least of these. What is not clear is what role the stateplays vis a vis private persons and churches and othwr institutions of civil society. I myself would like to see a smaller state, with reduced military and entitlement spending, and a much stronger civil society. Makes it hard to cheer for either side.


“How might the Church … How might we seek the common good by gracious accommodation…?” Fear abounds here because of a lack of trust of the “other”. So how does a Christian, a person of conscience, make that leap of faith to trust the “other” who demonstrates a lack of interest in the “least of these”; but exibits only self interest and interest in ones own economic strata? Is there wisdom about this in the Psalms? Psalm 118:8: “It is better to trust the Lord than to trust people.” Psalm 49:6: “They trust in their money and brag about their riches.” But we also find Jesus saying in Matthew, “You will know these people by what they do. Grapes don’t come from thornbushes and figs don’t come from thorny weeds. In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit…” (Matthew 7:16 & 17a ncv)

Any comments, because I do not post these as retorical questions.

Normhutch – please sign your name when commenting. Thanks ~ed.

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