We live in a volatile age.

The last decade in American politics and public life has been increasingly dysfunctional, polarized, and vitriolic. Especially troubling is the incivility that increasingly characterizes public discussion and debate.

We shouldn’t be surprised.

We live in a secular age. Many or most Americans deny transcendent moral absolutes, viewing morality as subjective or as having developed out of the evolutionary process. Thus, when we debate morality and its application for politics and public life, we have no agreed-on point of reference. All we can do is shout each other down.

We live in a polarized age. We find our nation not only more divided politically than at any time since the 1960s, but also divided along lines of religion, race, age, gender, geographic location, economic status, and educational background.

We live in a hateful age. The public arena is viewed as nothing but war, with those on one side of the aisle often viewing those on the other  side as reprehensible persons in whom little or nothing good can be found. The effect is that citizens are tempted to justify unethical behavior—insults, mockery, partial truths, and even lies—as a necessary means toward the end of “winning.”

Learning from Missionaries

As believers we have an irreplaceable opportunity to help our nation find a better way forward, especially in the tone of our public discourse. And, as I argue in Letters to an American Christian [read TGC’s review], all of us—politicians, talk show hosts, and everyday citizens—could stand to learn from Christian missionaries.

A Christian missionary typically moves overseas to minister among a group of people who differ from him or her linguistically, religiously, socially, culturally, and politically. The missionary’s goal is to minister to the people’s needs and to persuade them to consider the claims of Jesus Christ. But in spite of—even because of—these deep differences, good missionaries are known for refusing to caricature the people’s religion, mock their culture, or impugn their motives.

Instead, missionaries generally do three things that we—everyday Americans—ought to imitate in our coffee shop conversations, Facebook updates, blog posts, and other forms of public discourse.

1. Exhibit Genuine Concern

Christian missionaries move their families overseas at great financial cost, sometimes risking their own lives in volatile environments, for one reason: They genuinely care about the people there.

As Christians in the public square, we must exhibit the same genuine concern for the people with whom we discuss and debate public matters. Politics should be done out of a desire for the common good, not to humiliate or crush the people with whom we disagree.

Truthful words without a gracious disposition make us political bullies and jerks. Gracious dispositions without truthful words make us political wimps and nonentities.

A good way to think about this is in terms of truth and grace.

Truthful words without a gracious disposition make us political bullies and jerks. Gracious dispositions without truthful words make us political wimps and nonentities.

But truth and grace together—that wonderful combination exhibited by our Lord—enables us to break society’s ability to classify us and dismiss us as the hypocritical and bigoted special-interest arm of a given political party.

2. Find Common Ground

Christian missionaries work hard to find common ground with their conversation partners. There are always things on which both parties agree. From that common ground, missionaries finds it much easier to persuade their conversation partners on other matters, precisely because they do so from a point of mutual understanding.

Christian missionaries work hard to find common ground with their conversation partners.

As Christians in the public square, we must do the same. Consider economic policy, for example. As a politically conservative Christian, I think a responsible free-market economy is most conducive to human flourishing and poverty alleviation. But instead of demonizing or mocking people who are socialists or big-government liberals, I can start from common ground: the shared desire to see humanity flourish and poverty alleviated.

Thus, even in the midst of a sharp disagreement, we’ll often find we share genuine concerns and commitments despite our divergent solutions or conclusions.

3. Play the Long Game

At their best, Christian missionaries play the long game. If their conversation partner isn’t receptive to their ministry and message, they don’t quit and go home. They don’t insult the person’s intelligence or impugn their motives. They don’t caricature the conversation partner as a thoroughly reprehensible person in whom no good can be found. Instead, genuine concern causes them to persevere in the long run.

Similarly, as we participate in politics and public life, we shouldn’t allow our anxieties and fears to cause us to blow our fuse, compromise our character, or walk away. Instead, we should cultivate a sustained and comprehensive social and political witness over decades.

And if our public posture is characterized by these three things, we won’t undercut our ultimate goal—an objective we share with Christian missionaries—of sharing the love of Jesus with everybody in our nation.