American theologian philosopher Richard Mouw has been championing a call to civil discourse on religious, political, and other social issues for well over four decades. On this episode, he resumes the conversation with Tim and Rick on a distinctly Christian approach to civility. Dr. Mouw shares personal experiences in interfaith dialogues and other exchanges involving pointed disagreement where he needed to simultaneously hold fast to his faith convictions while honoring and even demonstrating a willingness to learn from those with whom he disagreed. They highlight wisdom we can take into our own disagreements with others. This is part 2 of a 2-part conversation with Dr. Richard Mouw on civility.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication at Biola University and co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, and my partner in crime is Dr. Rick Langer. Rick, welcome.
Rick Langer: Thanks, Tim. I'm a professor here in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department, and I also work for the Office of Faith and Learning. And as Tim mentioned, we work together on the Winsome Conviction Project, and part of that is doing the Winsome Conviction Podcast, which includes talking to some wonderful, exciting, faithful, inspiring people who've been doing the kind of things that we're advocating for.
And it's a very, very special treat for both Tim and I to be here together with Dr. Richard Mouw who's President for many, many years of Fuller Seminary, and perhaps for us even more importantly, has just been a hands-on pioneer of caring for difficult civil discourse, I guess would be the easiest way to frame it. And sometimes those are on political issues, maybe religious issues, maybe interpersonal, social, ethical things. But he has been at this for a long, long time, written a wonderful book called Uncommon Decency, and many others as well, that touch on issues of how we communicate across these boundaries. So thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Mouw. We're very excited you're able to hang around for kind of episode two in this process.
Tim Muehlhoff: Richard, one objection that we have come across since doing the Winsome Conviction Project is that people object to civility, sometimes quite stridently, by claiming it is a tool to silence the voice of the oppressed or disenfranchise. Doubtless, it has been used that way in the past, but it seems like there's much more to civility. What would you say in response to this accusation, that civility is just a bunch of rules that are meant to silence people?
Richard Mouw: Yeah. Well, I've gotten that from some angry persons in the African-American community, for example. And we need to wrestle with it. I think the image that the young man, the young black man who gave me a hard time about it... The image that he had was that I would enter into dialogue with white racists and where the whole thing was, I just want to be polite to them and make them feel good about this conversation, and that I would actually be betraying the cause of people who have every right in the world to be very angry toward the people that I'm having that dialogue with. And so I do think that it's not some politeness to people that we disagree with is a pretty superficial thing.
We really need to put our... I mean, I think it's a character question. And I do think that the same qualities that go into my wanting to discover, say the hopes and fears of a white racist, cannot be divorced from my empathy for the hopes and fears of people who have been victimized by that white racist's kinds of views and practices. And so I'm representing them in that conversation and I'm trying to give... I can't betray them because civility has to be a matter of deep character. And that's where I think we often run into people who see it as just being nice to people and not trying to win an argument.
But I do think that ultimately we cannot engage... I mean, sometimes people say to me, this is the extreme case, "So if you had a chance to talk to Hitler, you would just want to find out about his hopes and fears?". No, I could tell you, I mean, I'll put it bluntly, I'd try to kill him for what he's doing, put an end to what he is doing. I don't have time for civility with Hitler. And I've said that. And then I had a couple one time who asked me to talk to their son who had gotten into skinhead, Nazi type stuff. And I did have a civil conversation with him, this 19-year-old kid, we sat together and I said, "Hey, tell me your story. How did you get into this? What attracted you about this?".
And I was able to say at a certain point, "You know, want to master race? Your parents are Christians and they believe what the apostle Peter is that the church is a holy race. If you really want solidarity with people who are like you, you will find that only by accepting Jesus Christ, who brings you into solidarity with people from different tribes and tongues and nations and races and languages." So I think I could have a civil, I mean, I know I can have a civil conversation with a person with Nazi convictions, but I would not be betraying my Jewish friends in that. And that I think is, I need to see myself in those conversations.
I've had that with the LDS thing, too. People have written to me and said, "You're having this nice conversations with all these Mormons." Well, I was raised in the Mormon church and I know how bad it is, and now I've met Jesus Christ and you're acting... I want to say the next time I'm in dialogue with my Mormon friends I... That's my sister in Christ and I've got to represent her. But at the same time, I need to understand the reality of what she experienced. And some of my Mormon friends will say, "Boy, I wish we could talk to her, because she really did get a bad treatment."
Tim Muehlhoff: Right.
Richard Mouw: And that's the kind of goals that we're hoping for.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, you may not remember this, but when you did come to Biola and we did that panel of discussion, I kind of self-righteously said, "But Dr. Mouw, aren't there people who deserve our condemnation?". And you asked me, "Well, give me an example of that." And I said, "Well, Westboro Church, Westboro Baptist Church." And again, you said, "Of course, their views are just heartbreaking and deplorable how they treat our military." But then you shared a story that has stayed with me all these years where you said, "But let me tell you about a grad student named Sarah who went and got access to the Westboro Church and was able to exhibit kindness, some empathy and compassion, and was able to," if I get this correctly, "lead some women out of the Westboro church."
Richard Mouw: Yeah, yeah. Well, Sarah, she's an interesting case because, just alluding quickly to the Mormon thing again, she actually got her undergraduate degree at BYU because she wanted to understand Mormons better.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow.
Richard Mouw: Yeah. But Sarah told me when she started doing this, she wrote a letter to the leadership at Westboro and just said, "I'm an evangelical and you and I will disagree about things, but I'd really would like to understand you folks better. Would it be possible for my friend and I to come and just live among you? And we're not going to try to destroy you or undercut you, but we just want to understand better because we think a lot of people who are critical of you don't tried to do that." And she ended up living with some young women in that community. She did talk to the leadership and they did have dialogue, and they showed the love of Jesus.
And they were there for a couple months, but as their time came to a conclusion, a couple of those young women said, "We want to be like you, we want to be that kind of Christian." And they helped them get out of that culture. And yet at the same time, I think they left an impression with the leadership that these were people who really had wanted to show the love of Jesus through them, even though these are people who would love the people that they were often holding signs condemning.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Richard Mouw: Now I want to say, I think that's a special calling. It's almost like my monastic, my monk friends, they're taking on a certain calling that I can't, but they're doing it for the sake of the body. And I think when the day comes, the last judgment, when the Lord assesses Westboro Baptist Church, that the Lord will also appreciate and reward those who try to understand without betraying the cause of those who were opposing the racism and the like.
Tim Muehlhoff: And what I love about that story is let's let people surprise us.
Richard Mouw: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I mean, if a student came to me at Biola University said, "Dr. Mouw, I got this crazy idea. I'm going to write to the leadership of Westboro Baptist Church. I'm going to ask if I can meet with them and even live amongst their community." I would say to the student, "Well, okay, God's blessing to you, that is never going to work. Why in the world would you think that would work?". And I love illustrations like that because it worked. And the leadership of Westboro Baptist surprised us of saying, "Yeah, I'm going to let you come here and I'm going to let you do that." That, to me, is shocking and encouraging all at the exact same moment.
Richard Mouw: And it's interesting you say at Biola, a school that I greatly respect and much about it that I love. But if those kids came to their leaders at Biola and said, "You know what? We've got this real heart for tribes in some remote region of Africa that engage in child sacrifice, and we really want to go and live among them and find out about them." That's the missionary movement we support. And those two graduates of Moody Bible Institute, two women who went off to China in the 1920s and gave their lives to people in a small village. I mean, we just think that's wonderful, but we don't think it's wonderful when they want to go to Westboro Baptist.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: Well, it seems like that's actually one of our common problems is that problematic things at a distance are much easier to deal with than when they're up close and personal or are people. And it just is really hard to take a deep breath and say, "Okay, let me understand my near neighbor." Oftentimes, nowadays, especially it's become family members. We have spouses who are divided from one another on political lines or whatever the issues may be. And that seems much harder to cross some of those boundaries that might seem objectively bigger, but because of the proximity distance, seems easier to wrap your head around.
Richard Mouw: Yeah, I mean, I was at an ivy league university one time, speaking at the law school, and I said to a group of Christian students, "We need to see this law school as a mission field, and a mission field where we really want to understand people. And you have angry feminists who are angry about Christianity, and you need to approach them the way you would've tribe in Burma." And a woman came up to me afterward and said, "Thank you." She said, "I've taken it as my mission to evangelize angry feminists who have a radical opposition to Christianity." And she said, "The people that like evangelism don't like feminists, and the people who like feminists don't like evangelism, and I feel so lonely, and you really affirmed me today." And she said, "I'm working with a woman right now who's been wounded by abuse, and she just can't stand the idea of a male savior."
So I said, "Hey, hang in there, stick with her." And the next morning she sought me out and she said the crazy thing, she said, "I got a call from my friend at six o'clock this morning, and she said to me, 'I'm a Christian.'" And I said, "What happened?". And she said, "I had a dream." Now, here's the dream. She saw, in the dream, a bare-breasted woman who came to her and said, "I want to save you." And she said, "Who are you?". And she said, "You can call me Krista."
"And what do I have to do?" Krista said, "You have to say you're a sinner." She said, "I'm a sinner." And then Krista said, "How,"... I mean, the young woman said, "And how am I going to get saved?". And Krista held out her hands and they were nail-pierced hands bleeding. And she said, "I went to the cross for you."
Rick Langer: Wow.
Richard Mouw: Now, this woman at the law school came to me and said, "What in the heck do I do?". But I said, "Hang in there with her." I mean, I'll tell you the two things that tell me that there was something good that happened there. And the one was, you're a sinner. And secondly, that nail-pierced hands. And she's eventually, maybe in the Eschaton, maybe, but eventually she's going to have to be reconciled to the fact that her savior was a man.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Richard Mouw: But right now, the Lord may be speaking to her in the only way that she can understand. Now, I want to say those are the risks that we take when we take on difficult assignments and when we really try to find out the hopes and fears, because when it turned out that with this young woman, for all of her anger toward Jesus as a male, she wanted her guilt and her shame taken care of.
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's a beautiful image. One of the things that, so one of my-
Richard Mouw: I do tell you what, I've done that in Fuller classes and had them discuss in small groups, and you might want to try that sometime. Interesting to see how the numbers come out. There were students, I think the majority of my students said, "Well, you need to keep working with that woman. She's on the right track. And if she were to die tonight, she'd go to heaven." Although there are some who had problems with that, and we need to dialogue about that. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, I love what you said, hang in there.
Richard Mouw: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I love that. You write in your book on common decency. "If I cut off the civil conversation at this point, what would be the effects? Do I really want them? Are they worth it given all the other things I care about? So if you don't hang in there with people and cut the conversation off, you may never see the softening that the Holy Spirit can do in the hearts of a person." So I love that. Let's hang in. These are hard conversations, but if we cut it off, how does that make it better?
Rick Langer: So having said all of this, one-
Tim Muehlhoff: It's a bummer.
Rick Langer: One of my favorite chapter titles in your book was When There is No Other Hand, and you tell that delightful story from Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye is always going through and saying, "Well, on the one hand this, and on the other hand that," And he finally gives into his daughter every time. And then of course one of them decides to marry a Gentile. And he finally just is like, "You know what? There is no other hand."
Richard Mouw: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And I love this story partly because I think for most of us at least, who have seen Fiddler on the Roof, there's a sense of likeness about it, but also a striking sense of gravity that when he hit that wall, he realized, "Wait a minute, I do have some boundaries and I don't think it's right for me to let this go," so to speak.
And I wondered if you could talk to us a little bit, at this moment, I feel like I'm hearing a lot of people almost lead with when there's no other hand. In other words, they have labeled a set of people as if these are the people who are beyond the pale. There's no other hand, there's no reason to talk to them. But then I hear other people, I guess we've been doing the pushback saying, you can still talk, but is there a time when there's no other hand? And how do we, perhaps maybe simpler, just confront people that were saying, this isn't just a matter of you see it this way I see it that way, but this is a matter of right and wrong and somewhere that has to be addressed. So any wisdom you have for us on that?
Richard Mouw: Yeah. Well, let me put it this way. For starters, I doubt that there will be much that happens at the last judgment with the Lord saying to people, "You hung in there too long." I think that, if anything, our danger is that we don't hang in there enough.
Rick Langer: Wow. Now that right there is a good thought to savor.
Richard Mouw: Yeah.
Rick Langer: But go ahead. Thank you. Go ahead.
Richard Mouw: So in the kind of Christian community that we have, people move too quickly to "There is no other hand," but at the same time, we need to be aware that that could happen. And I think it's discernment there. I don't think civility, Christian civility, that is really a character trait that there has to be a spiritual formation for the humility, for the learning posture, for the ability to see beyond what a person says about how they voted or what they're for or against, all that kind of. But there has to also be a discernment being used, that we're come up against the wall. But I would say, what we often call the hermeneutics of suspicion, we need to be suspicious of deciding that it's all over. And I think, in our community, our kind of Christians, are much too quick to say, "Well, now is time for me to speak the truth."
And we need to also look at that pattern, what's going on there? I had a pastor say to me once, before the election last time, and he stood up and we were talking about how to preach about these things and he said, "Dr. Mouw, I've never preached a political sermon in my life until this time, and I never will again. But this time I've got to preach a sermon in which I condemn Trump." And I said, "Well, congratulations. You're going to really feel good about yourself and nobody else is going to like you." And if you've never preached on it before and you never preach on it again, there's something about the teaching ministry of the church that's failed in this.
So that's that sense. I've got to speak truth. God's going to judge me if I don't actually say true things. Well, I think the truth is also found in asking people their stories. And what is it about a Christian like me that you dislike? And you may find out that people like me have wondered. In the Mormon thing, we had 20 years of this, and we met in Illinois and we went to the Carthage Jail where Joseph Smith was murdered by white evangelicals.
And we sat there, and my LDS friends, there were tears. And I realized, this is a sacred moment for them. And then Bob Millet turned to me and said, Richard, would you pray? Wow. But to see the pain of another person about what we have done, and the MeToo movement has to be taken seriously because... And Black Lives, I think whether we believe in the ideological statements that are made, we need to own up to the pain that we have often caused. And I say this as a conservative on sexuality issues, that my kind of Christians have been unspeakably cruel to people who wrestle in their lives with same-sex attractions.
And here's a methodology that I find when I'm talking to conservative groups about things. I think you always have to be reassuring. And so on that unspeakably cruel thing that I said. I have to say, first of all, you got to know that I take the Bible seriously and I take Romans 1 very seriously. I'm a traditionalist in my understanding of what God cares about in our lives as sexual beings. Having said that though, so I've done the reassuring thing, I have to say we have been unspeakably cruel. But there has to be that reassuring thing that I'm in solidarity with you on the basic issues. Anyway, I'm a preacher.
Tim Muehlhoff: Preach away. That is really good.
Rick Langer: Well, we are so grateful for the time you've taken with us, and this is probably a great note to end on. I appreciate the moments like this. It gives us a little bit of, I think, cognitive complexity when we think about our own perspectives and all that to just realize... Look, in the name of the Christian faith, sincere Christians, people who are evangelicals, there have indeed been terrible things done. At some point, you have to kind of acknowledge that, swallow that pill, so to speak, and say that's part of why we advocate for a measure of humility, because I'm sure the people who are making those choices at that time did not understand in any way how we might view them 150 years later.
Richard Mouw: No, right.
Rick Langer: It's just one of those things you miss. So anyhow, we're so grateful for you joining us. Thank you, too, for our listeners for joining us here at the Winsome Conviction Podcast. Again, you can find us at Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, and would love to have you become both a regular listener. And also check out our website at winsomeconviction.com for lots more resources and pray that you'd be joining in the task of cultivating a more civil society and a society in which we generally exercise the gift of love towards one another through the context of the conversations we carry out. So thanks again for joining us.