Each year graduates of Christian schools enter civic spaces of deep and profound difference. These present and emerging differences are religious, political, cultural, sexual, economic, and more. In America’s diverse and pluralistic cities our differences are increasingly deep, fast, and close.
Whenever human beings encounter deep difference it’s common for our teeth to clench, our shoulders to raise, brows to furrow, and fists to form. Difference makes us uncomfortable and the discomfort needs to be dealt with—quickly.
Historically Christian citizens have responded to their anxiety about deep difference in six rather predictable ways:
- First, dominion. Some Christians have sought to dominate and marginalize the difference that makes them uncomfortable through the use of political and cultural power.
- Second, retreat. Some Christians sought to culturally retreat from difference by moving away from the cities or into their own hermetically sealed communities.
- Third, denial. Some Christians have tried to deny the differences that make them uncomfortable. Papering over these deep chasms, some will naively claim that “we are all basically the same” or “we just need to focus on what we have in common.”
- Fourth, assimilation. Some Christians will try to politically “solve” the differences they encounter by forcefully assimilating these differences into themselves.
- Fifth, assimilation—but in the opposite direction. Some Christians try to “solve” the problem of difference by sacrificing their own religious distinctives and convictions and assimilating themselves into the cultural difference that is making everyone so uncomfortable.
- Sixth and finally, laissez faire. Some Christians will adopt a “live and let live” posture, cultivating a sort of cold, distant, and disinterested aloofness to the differences that surround them—here they give their neighbors (whom they’ve been commanded to engage and love) a wide and distant berth.
While diverse, these six responses to difference share two points in common. First, all six arise from feeling uncomfortable with the difference. Second, the public response to this discomfort is driven not by the teachings of scripture or the example of Jesus, but by an urgent desire to immediately alleviate the discomfort that difference brings.
The classroom interventions and civic lessons that make up this resource should be understood as a pedagogical attempt to cultivate an alternative, Christ-like response to deep civic difference. Here we seek a Christian response that will not fall into the fight or flight traps discussed above.
This alternative is sometimes called “convicted civility” or “principled pluralism.” It seeks to do two difficult things at once. It encourages Christians to both hold firmly to their Christian convictions and also make generous public space for the diverse ways of life that make them uncomfortable.
To be clear, this is not a moderate stance. This is not a compromise. This is not a mealy-mouthed “middle way” into some “safe space” between a moderate amount of Christian conviction and a moderate amount of Christian civility. No, conviction and civility are not in competition with one another. Rather, we are proposing that uncompromising Christian principles and convictions actively demand a generous and civil hospitality towards the deep civic difference we encounter in the world.
This is not easy. As you might guess, demonstrating deep hospitality requires a high level of tolerance and grit amidst the discomfort that deep difference brings. Christlike hospitality is not easy, clean, or simple—it’s complex and costly. Sometimes, Christlike civic hospitality hurts.
In light of this we have two pedagogical questions that drive us. First, how might our students avoid the common Christian mistakes of civic dominion, retreat, denial, assimilation, and laissez faire? Second, how might they begin to cultivate an alternative posture of civic hospitality amidst deep difference?
We can think about these questions using a body metaphor. When our students experience deep difference, how might we give them the tools they need to avoid tightening their shoulders, balling their fists, and clenching their teeth? How might we help them practice the bodily postures and practices of openness, vulnerability, listening, proximity, and care? Can we equip young Christian citizens with the tools, practices, and postures they will need to sit at a table of deep difference and actually stay there, embodying Christ’s hospitality along the way?
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane and, soon enough, the scene was not unlike our current political environment—clubs and swords, fear and fighting, shouting and trauma, betrayal and cowardice, an array of angry faces lit by flaming torches.
Amidst the chaotic fighting and fear, the carpenter from Nazareth embodied an alternative response, a new form of politics. While the disciples either fought or fled, Jesus extended an unarmed hand and gently healed one of the men who came to bind him.
Jesus refused the two dead end paths of fight or flight, instead he drew dangerously near to his vicious neighbor and embodied a hospitality that was both vulnerable and strange. And it is was the strangeness of this hospitality that stood out to the biblical writers, it was the strangeness that convinced them to include this incident. Christ’s strange decision to heal in that moment simply could not be explained. It did not fit.
And thus, perhaps, in educating for civic hospitality we are each aiming for the cultivation of strange students—odd citizens capable of entering into a political culture of fear and fighting with strange postures and practices of truth and grace, conviction and civility, principle and plurality.