The Case for Civility (Os Guinness, 2008) & Christians at the Border (M. Daniel Carroll, 2008)

Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country—and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians.
[Charles Krauthammer]

Illegal aliens have always been a problem in the United States. Ask any Indian.
[Robert Orben]

Re-Thinking Issues: Civility and Immigration
As I write this America is in the midst of a political campaign—which isn’t saying much, now that I have said it. I think of campaigning as a constant rumble in the background, like the noise of the engine on a cruise ship. As Michael Novak once quipped, when you’re on a cruise you want the engine to run smoothly, but it ruins the cruise if you have to spend much time in the engine room. In any case, political campaigning is underway, which means it is a time to make choices, which means we need to think about issues responsibly, which means for Christians that our politics needs to be intentionally under Christ’s Lordship, which means that we need to be sure our thinking is informed by a biblically informed Christian perspective instead of being simply swept along by political ideologies or slogans or party loyalties.

Within the flurry of competing concerns and candidates, all Americans should agree that two issues are worth careful consideration: civility (or actually its lack) in the public square, and what to do about the undocumented immigrants (usually called illegal aliens) that have entered the U.S. Though I am writing as an American within an American context, neither issue is a distinctly American one. In an increasingly pluralistic world, people must figure out how to live together given their deepest disagreements, and huge populations are on the move in Africa and the Middle East, and from both those regions into Europe and Great Britain, as well as into the U.S. It does not take much imagination to see that failing to address these two issues properly could be deadly, since violence has already erupted over them. As we peel back the news stories we find that cherished freedoms are involved. It is worth remembering that freedom is a fragile gift—hardly the norm in human history.

Both issues also provide an opportunity for Christians. For, as we dig deeper into questions surrounding civility and immigration, we discover that orthodox biblical faith is uniquely able to address them. The biblical Story provides a compelling reason for human significance and dignity, provisions for healthy human communication, a firm foundation for freedom, and a solid basis for justice when human rights and the provisions of law conflict.

Though I have no research to back this up, my impression, for what it is worth, is that most Christians aren’t even aware of the opportunity that’s been presented to us. Instead, many are energetically fighting as cultural warriors (a prime symptom of the lack of civility) and repeating conservative or liberal slogans about illegal aliens (rather than evoking a distinctly biblically informed sense of justice). It will be sad if history records that America missed an important opportunity in failing to adequately address the questions of civility and immigration. It will be a tragic dishonoring of the name of our Lord if history records American Christians were conformed to the world’s thinking instead of rooting their political understanding and behavior in the truth of God’s word.

Two Christian thinkers have published wonderfully accessible studies addressing these two issues, and it is a delight to commend them to you. Neither is too long to be out of reach for busy people, and though both are scholarly, neither are academic and dry but lively and practical. I recommend each for two closely related reasons.

The Case for Civility: And Why our Future Depends on It written by Os Guinness, is clear, concise, and compelling. I recommend it first, because it presents the case for winsome, persuasive (rather than warrior, offensive) communication in the public square, and second, because it is a superb model of how a Christian can make their case in the public square rigorously without being argumentative.

Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible written by M. Daniel Carroll, is thoughtful, careful, and biblical. I recommend it first, because it helps Christians gain the perspective of Scripture to bring clarity to a complex political and legal issue, and second, because it is a superb model of how Christians can root their political convictions about current issues on the truth of God’s word in Scripture.

The Case for Civility
Grappling with liberty, diversity, and unity has been part and parcel of the United States’s being the world’s “first new nation.” Indeed, E Pluribus Unum, or “Out of Many, One,” is not just the American motto but one of America’s great accomplishments. Whereas the special pride of the ancient Jews was that out of one—namely, Abraham—they had become many, the special pride of Americans is that out of many—namely, the diverse tide of settlers and immigrants—they have become one.

No feat could be more relevant to the world in the global era, for on a small planet united by our communications, our travel, our markets, and our common planetary problems, we are still divided by our religions, our political ideologies, our cultures, and our civilizations. There will not be, and there should not be, a universal way of being modern. Multiple modernities are both inevitable and proper, but the world requires precedents and patterns for how the challenge of living with our differences may be tackled, and the American experiment provides the most thought through and helpful model so far.

The questions raised are daunting. How can we live with our deepest differences on a global scale? How do we do it when there are tensions between entire ways of life, some of which are grounded in truth claims that are absolute—ways of life that are so different as to be philosophically and socially incompatible? What does it take in such a setting to establish a global public square that is both cosmopolitan and civil, doing justice to both halves of the first word—so that in some sense we are citizens of the worldwide “cosmos” while also citizens of our local city or “polis”’? And how can we build such a worldwide order that promotes liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all while allowing for the full consideration of global diversity and disorder? And above all, how can we do so when the differences that are the deepest differences of all are religiously and ideologically grounded differences, over which humans have fought and are still fighting? [p. 60-61]

Guinness shows persuasively that a civil public square is preferable to either a naked or a sacred public square—and that it is actually possible. He shows that American Christians have every reason, both in terms of a commitment to the convictions of the founders expressed in the American Constitution and an even deeper commitment to the teaching of Scripture to take the lead in this effort. And he helps us see how we can begin, by being faithful as citizens if only we will choose to be guided by principle instead of being manipulated by ideology.

The candidate we choose to vote for may be elected, or not, but either way neither hell nor heaven hang in the balance. The party we prefer may have a majority in Congress or not, but either way no tragedy has occurred—a tragedy is the brutal conflict in Darfur or your Mom being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Our vote matters, but does not matter most of all.

On the other hand, at least on the long view, working to demonstrate the possibility and promise of a civil public square matters a great deal more because far more is at stake. The effort is consistent with a Christian understanding of faithfulness. It involves beginning with simple steps as individual citizens to stand for greater justice and freedom for all. And if we fail here, as Guinness shows, the future of the freedoms we cherish is made rather dim.

Christians at the Border
Carroll deals primarily with Hispanic immigration, though his biblical study applies to immigration issues involving all national and ethnic backgrounds. The heart of his book includes three chapters in which he takes us into the Scriptures. Whether we realize it or not, the Bible says a great deal which is pertinent to the movement of people across national borders. Some biblical characters were immigrants, like Ruth (into Israel), Joseph (into Egypt), and Daniel (into Babylon). And unlike the law codes of the nations surrounding Israel, the Mosaic regulations had a great to say about how the people of God were to treat the foreigners in their midst. Then in the New Testament we find Jesus embracing outsiders (women, Samaritans, and lepers) and the apostles picking up an Old Testament theme in identifying God’s people as sojourners and strangers. Finally Carroll takes us into Romans 13 and the questions of obeying the laws of the land. Why haven’t we done this sort of study before taking a position on the topic? Though applying what the Bible says will take courage and holy-spirited creativity, neglecting what it teaches is foolish for those who claim to believe Scripture is God’s word, written.

Resident Aliens is the provocative title of a stimulating work on Christian identity and ministry in modern America by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. The idea behind the title apparently comes from one of the biblical quotations that preface the book: “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20-21). The title is apropos to our concerns, as “resident aliens” is one of the translations given for the Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible that refer to the sojourner. Resident Aliens, however, does not deal at all with immigration issues (it was published in 1989). Nevertheless, what it says is relevant.

Hauerwas and Willimon’s contention is that the Christian church has lost its way and is captive to the culture. The church must regain the vision of being a distinct community, a distinct community made up of ordinary individuals with a calling to be faithful to its Lord. The focus on living the life of the Savior in the world is clear from the other biblical quotation that begins their book: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). Christians are to display the life of Jesus, and this requires acquiring a set of virtues, like peaceableness, kindness, hospitality, and patience. Christians and the church need to be a certain kind of people with a particular way of looking at and living within society. For the church to be the church requires training in these virtues, the nurturing of Christian tradition through Word and sacrament, and the continual practice of the virtues.

The virtues are fundamental for a Christian approach to Hispanic immigration. An appropriate response to the complicated situation in society will not come from detached, objective analysis, cost-benefit calculations, efficiency quotients, and cultural arguments. The decisions that are made and courses of action that are recommended should be commensurate with the life of Jesus—his actions, his teaching, his cross. Analysis and calculations are necessary, but they must be informed by more transcendent beliefs and other overriding life commitments.

Christians, both of the majority culture and Hispanic, are not to exclude the “other,” whether Christian or nonChristian. We are all called to embrace the “other.” We can embrace those who are different—and even those who have offended or wronged us—because we have embraced Jesus, who calls us to a self-sacrificing life for others. We embrace him, because he first embraced us. We take up that cross of forgiveness and hospitality because he took up his.

This embrace of the other—the majority culture of the Hispanic and the Hispanic of the majority culture—will be a “soft embrace.” Resident aliens will embrace resident aliens: respectful and mindful of differences, open to grow and change, reciprocal and mutual, personal and communal, assured yet with great risk, while confident in the light of the Word, the empowerment of the Spirit, the example of Jesus, and the blessing of the Father. Let the journey to reconciliation begin. May the church lead the way. [pp 138-140]

Indeed, may we be faithful as God’s people. Immigration is a complicated issue to resolve, and justice hangs in the balance. Some argue that something must be done quickly because things are quickly getting out of hand. Be that as it may, one thing is certain: for the Christian biblical principle must be prior to expediency and faithfulness before either economic concerns or fears about security. Dr. Carroll, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, helps root this highly charged political issue in solid biblical study—to help us get started.

We highly recommend both works to you. Read them carefully. Discuss them with friends. And for the sake of God’s glory, the honor of Christ, and the grace of justice and freedom, put them into practice.


The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It by Os Guinness (New York, NY: HarperOne; 2008) 175 pp. + afterword + notes + index.
Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible by M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2008) 140 pp. + afterword + resources + notes + index. Krauthammer online (
Orben online (