On the corner of Kimbrough and Walnut in downtown Springfield sits one of the city’s oldest churches: Christ Episcopal Church. Inside, the Reverend Kenneth L. Chumbley, or “Father Ken” as he’s known, is delivering a sermon to his flock.
Father Ken has been here for nearly 22 years, and he says he’d rate the state of civility among Christian groups here in Springfield as “good.”
“It’s healthy. In my experience here, I can think of no occasion when Christians have been uncivil to one another. I think generally, we treat one another very respectfully. I think we generally treat one another as children of God,” Chumbley said.
To make sure we’re all on the same page here, we should probably define what we mean in this piece by “civility.” The easiest way? The Merriam-Webster dictionary. It defines civility as: “having a civilized conduct,” and “courtesy, politeness.”
And that’s generally easier to do when you see eye to eye with someone else – like being from the same faith background.
Father Ken tells me he’s long been involved in a local group called the Interfaith Alliance of the Ozarks.
“On that group, Jennifer, we have Christians representing a variety of denominations. We have Jews. And we have Muslims. And we have very civil discussions. We’re very respectful of one another and our traditions. We work together, and I think that group really is an example to the larger community that people of faith whose traditions differ, one from the other, can come together and can relate to one another in a respectful way as children of God,” Chumbley said.
In a statement to KSMU earlier this year, the president of the local NAACP chapter, Cheryl Clay, said her office is seeing a significant "uptick" in verbal taunting and bullying of children from minority ethnic and religious groups.
Father Ken says he himself has not witnessed such behavior, but he knows it’s happening here and elsewhere—and believes it is on the rise.
“I think if Christians are engaged in such behavior, I think it genuinely distresses our Lord, who is the embodiment, I believe, of God’s love, and who teaches his followers—Jesus teaches his followers—that there are ways to treat one another. And that goes for people who are not followers of Jesus,” Chumbley said.
Civility, he says, is all about the Golden Rule.
“In the case of civility, I try to keep in mind that I want to speak to people as I would want people to speak to me,” Chumbley said.
Springfield is also home to the Council of Churches of the Ozarks—an organization with about 75 member churches and many more affiliate organizations, including Temple Israel and members of the Baha’i tradition.
Mark Struckhoff, the executive director, says civility is warranted by many religious traditions.
“And I specifically think about Philippians Chapter Two, where we’re reminded to think of others as better than ourselves. And to not try to dominate other people. I think that’s what sort of breaks civility and creates tension in a community—when others try to dominate, or even when we try to ‘otherize,’ if you will, folks, and treat them as if they are not part of our community. Or not part of the essential oneness of our humanity,” Struckhoff said.
The Baha’i teachings encourage respect and equality among all humans. Surahs Al-Imran and Al-Ankabut in the Qur’an encourage Muslims to “come to common terms with” the Ahl Al-Kitab, or “People of the Book,” meaning the Jews and Christians in pre-Islamic Arabia. Many faith traditions and sacred texts extol the virtues of politeness and respect.
“Part of the role of civility in any community is to really allow people to have different opinions. To be able to disagree on important things and things that are important to the whole community. And yet to maintain a sense that we’re together—we really are for the same thing, which is the greater good of the community. So civility is sort of, hopefully, the glue that holds the community together," Struckhoff said.
And, Struckhoff says, having an organization whose mission is to help unify people who might otherwise not be at the same table makes a difference in a community.
“So, a community need like hunger. Or community needs like finding ways to support foster families. Or a community need like sheltering our homeless. Those are things that create the occasion for people of faith from different denominations, or even different faith traditions, to say, ‘You know what, we really believe that this is an important thing,’” Struckhoff said.
Council of Churches oversees programs like Crosslines, which serves the hungry in Greene County. Or Safe to Sleep, which provides shelter for homeless women. Common goals like these require civility among members.
Missouri State University recently hosted Dr. Eboo Patel as its featured Public Affairs speaker. He’s the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Corps.
“I think that we live in a ‘best of times, worst of times’ kind of moment,” Patel said.
His organization is trying to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in the US.
“Frankly, I’m shocked by some of the rhetoric that’s coming from high political office these days. It has been typically the case in America that our national elected leaders, from George Washington on, have been overt and explicit about welcoming religious diversity,” Patel said.
That’s the “worst of times” part, he said. And, it’s worth noting, all people interviewed for this story said they believed that some elected leaders, who serve as role models, are inciting a lack of civility.
The best of times, though? Eboo Patel says many more people are aghast at the ugly rhetoric they’re seeing—and they’re standing up more publicly against it.
He says incivility is directly related to fear. Fear of “the other,” including the “other” religious groups.
“There are stories about European map makers in the Middle Ages who would make maps where Europe was in the center. And everywhere else they would write the words, ‘Here be monsters.’ And they were literally imagining people and societies and civilizations they’d never met as monsters. And I think we’re still doing that right now,” Patel said.