The Virtue of Getting Along with Others

shutterstock_60267664Disputed matters are tearing at the fabric of society: law enforcement and racism, national security and immigration, economics and poverty, marriage and sexual identity, international affairs, refugees and the sad list goes on. In his 2008 book entitled, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It, author Os Guinness called for a restoration of civility in America. But today the world looks on in disbelief at our public discourse and the lack of civility exhibited by so many politicians and citizens. Dr. Guinness’s passionate plea has largely gone unheeded. How can we as Christ followers engage our disordered cultural moment in ways that work for the common good?

 

Engagement

One of the symptoms of our unhealthy public discourse is the failure to engage with others in a way that is virtuous. We win arguments and debates but deny truth by our character and conduct. When we fail the virtue test, we come away feeling self-satisfied and triumphant yet betray the Lord by our lack of virtue.

Gracious engagement with those of another religious, cultural or political tradition can be a special problem for us living in America. In our individualism we tend to be in a hurry, culturally unaware and often unkind. But here in South Florida we have such a wonderful mix of cultures and ways of living that it should give us an advantage. How can we work to engage one another more virtuously?

 

Lessons from the road in India

My wife and I recently visited northern India and enjoyed a very different driving experience. In the United States we typically drive fast, are only faintly aware that others are on the road and when interfered with will impatiently lay on the horn.

In the parts of Northern India that we visited, everyone shares the road, including all creatures, great and small, monkeys, cows and even an occasional elephant. We learned three keys to driving in India: slow down, know the exact dimension of your vehicle and that of others around, and “horn please” — but in a gentle way that lets others know of your presence. What does all this have to do with engaging those who are different? Let me explain.

 

Slow down

If we are going to get along with one another, we must slow down. We must take time to treat others at their best, not their worst. God expects us to exhibit virtues of fair-mindedness and empathy. Besides, this is the most effective way to get at our essential differences. What good does it do to hold up an ideal picture of our own position or way of life against a poor representation of others, all the while ignoring their best thoughts and practices?

When teaching about world religions, I like to use an empty chair to remind students that a believer of the religion we are studying is in attendance. We must speak, and act as though sincere and thoughtful adherents are listening and watching. This is only right and consistent with following Christ.  Such empathy illustrates the virtue of humility and also helps us to be honest.

We need to slow down long enough to let others tell us what they think and feel. At all cost we must avoid “essentialism” – that cruel and unwise habit of imposing on others a list of stereotypical traits. For example, we should not impose on Muslims in our neighborhood mistaken ideas of what they believe and practice. We must let careful Muslim thinkers tell us how they interpret the Qur’an and their religion. This exhibits fair-mindedness and illustrates the virtue of curiosity. We may want others to come to our point of view, but this does not mean that we have nothing to learn in return, if only we will slow down to listen. As on the Indian road, slowing down increases the likelihood of a safe and successful journey for all. Let’s slow down for one another in our city, not just on the roads, but in all our civic discourse.

 

Get to know one another

The second lesson relates to knowing the size of your vehicle and that of others around you. There are some very tight places along the Indian road. This is also how it is as we live in the public square with all our differences. We need to know our own positions, but if we are to engage others virtuously, we also need to know what they think as accurately as possible. In our life together, disagreements are inevitable. However, as on the Indian road, unnecessary accidents can be avoided, if we attend to each other with care.

This applies, for example, when we engage with others in political affairs. In a hotly contested political season, party platforms are very different. In fact, as we are seeing in the primaries, there are serious disagreements even within each party. But in the midst of all the partisan noise, we must seek to understand each other. There is no room for sloppy thinking or analysis here. The virtues of carefulness, tenacity and honesty are required. Let’s learn the size of one another’s vehicles. In this way we can get along more virtuously in the very tight places of our public life.

 

Make your presence known

The final lesson is “horn please.” This appeal is seen on the back of vehicles all over the Indian road, and, as a result, there is a constant cacophony of horn blowing. But no one seems upset. It is simply a way, on crowded streets shared by all, to make one’s presence known.

We need to slow down and empathetically understand others, but we must also, for their sake, bear faithful witness to the gospel. We must make our presence known. Horn please! We must have the courage to winsomely clarify how our respective positions are similar and how they are different. Then we must graciously bear witness to the difference.

In these three ways, learned from the Indian Road, we will better and more safely reach the destination of our common good. Slow down, get to know one another, and “horn please.”

 

Daniel J. Ebert IV, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs and Affiliate Professor of NT at Trinity International University (Kendall) he can be reached at [email protected]

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