Since the Arizona shooting tragedy on January 8th, public discourse has been dominated by conversations about the tone of our political debate and the decline of civility in our culture at large. This holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. provides an occasion for reflection on civility in the political process, as Dr. King was a model for how to fight against injustices in the political system in a firm, impassioned, but civil manner. Yet such models are rare in our time, a time characterized by increasing polarization in politics and growing disdain across political lines. Any attempts by our cultural and political leaders to restore a spirit of civility in our country must address the roots of what makes us a civil society and understand how those roots have been eroded in our time.
Political commentator and NYT columnist David Brooks offered such an analysis in an editorial last week called “The Tree of Failure.” He argues that civility grows out of a sense of humility and modesty that comes from a sober awareness of one’s own weaknesses and sinfulness. Such an awareness leads us to appreciate the role others, even our political adversaries, play in improving upon our small, mediocre individual contributions to solving social problems and “making the world a better place.” Alone, we can do little to affect good in society, but when we work within a larger community, others help make our work better. He writes, “We all get lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement.” This awareness of one’s own shortcomings and appreciation for the contributions of others is key to behaving civilly: “Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are…”
In a culture that suppresses these realities, and instead promotes self-esteem, self-fulfillment and self-actualization, our sense of modesty has weakened. Put frankly, people are losing their sense of sinfulness and thus of the need for restraint. Without an awareness of one’s own sinfulness, humility is replace by arrogance, which feels no need for balance and correction, but only demands to be heard (not listen) and believes one’s own position is completely correct and good, and one’s opponents completely wrong and even evil. Thus, pride – the opposite of humility – bears the fruit of incivility.
This connection between self-pride (self-centeredness) and incivility is astoundingly supported in a Secret Service study about the motives of assassins. A few years ago the Secret Service conducted an in-depth study of 83 people who were assassins, or attempted to be, in order to better understand the reasons for their actions. They conducted in-depth interviews with those who were still alive and in prison. The chief conclusion of the study was that assassins’ motives are rarely political, but are a way to achieve fame and notoriety in response to a deep sense of failure and anonymity. Prior to their crime, these individuals were experiencing chronic failure and disappointment in life, and viewed an assassination as a way to be transformed from a “nobody” to a “somebody”: they “did not want to see themselves as non-entities,” the report states.
Assassination is surely the most extreme act of incivility, and according to this study it is motivated by the most hideous manifestation of pride: the seeking of glory at the expense of another person’s life. In the hearts of these assailants lay not just a glory vacuum, but a glory vortex that they were so desperate to fill that they sought to suck the life away from another person to fill it. What is fascinating about this study is how willing the participants were to disclose their deepest motives. The investigators attributed this largely to their belief that their actions did not fulfill their need for glory, but left them even emptier. They actually hoped they could prevent people from walking down the same path.
Very few people will ever plot or attempt an assassination. Yet everyone has an insatiable need for honor, recognition, and approval – a glory vacuum at the core of our being. We attempt to fill this void through romance, education and career accomplishments, participation in “good causes”, accumulating wealth and possessions, and so on, but remain unsatisfied, still seeking more and more. The Bible explains this void as a profound spiritual condition resulting from God’s disapproval of us because of our sin. The sin that inflicts us should humble us and lead us to seek God’s forgiveness and grace, but instead we are prone to suppress the problem through denial and prove ourselves to the world that there really is something worthy about us, deserving approval and honor. This pride, though, just hardens our hearts more, making us more twisted and bent. It manifests itself, not likely in assassination attempts, but in countless other ways we assault others to tear them down in order to exalt ourselves at their expense.
The good news is that if we turn from this self-exalting bent about us, “own up” to the reality of our sinfulness, and seek to be restored to a right relationship with God, He promises to grant us favor and accept us as a Father accepts his children: “The Lord opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5) This promise is guaranteed by the work of Jesus Christ who did not exalt himself, like the rest of us, but humbled himself to the point of death – a vicious death on a cross reserved for those most rejected by society. Through faith in this sacrifice, we can gain approval from God that is secured forever. The reality of the smile of God, shining on us approvingly for all eternity – this alone can fill our glory vacuum and give us the kind of humility and grace that enables us to “love our enemies” – the ultimate expression of civility.