A Response to “The Danger of Civility” by Christena Cleveland

posted in: Race, Theology | 0

Today I came across an article by Christena Cleveland on the website for The Table, a publication of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.

The piece – titled ‘The Danger of Civility’ – was basically the transcript of a speech she gave by the same name. It was published July 13, 2017 and so may not reflect Ms. Cleveland’s sentiments today. However, I will leave that for her to say if she will or already has. As the piece still remains up on Biola University, YouTube, and other sites, I will assume Ms. Cleveland stands by the remarks which I will reference here.

I was previously unfamiliar with Christena Cleveland. However, I see that she is listed as Associate Professor of Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School. She is also the author of ‘Disunity in Christ’ (2013) and ‘Christ Our Black Mother Speaks’ (2020). The latter work is described at GoodReads.com as “An 84-page, full color collection of art, essays, questions and practices to deepen our connection to the Dark Divine Feminine.”

‘The Danger of Civility’

In the article by Christena Cleveland, I read:

“Challenging ideas are typically better received when they are presented by a “respectable” speaker in a “civil” manner. But who gets to decide who is respectable and what is civil? And what crucial information do we miss when we insist on respectability and civility as prerequisites for discourse?”

Ms. Cleveland’s goes on to show a picture of young men throwing Molotov cocktails during the Ferguson, Missouri riots of 2014. Then she says rioting is just their way of trying to communicate their frustrations and pain. And we need to feel their pain instead of judging them. Our disapproval of their behavior is a form of oppression, essentially. So we need to cut them some slack. These young men are just angry and tired of being told how to behave in America. It is unreasonable to expect them to be law-abiding and polite, or to respect other people’s bodies and properties.

But here is the thing. I do not particularly want to hear someone out as they are assaulting innocent men, women, and children. I do not first and foremost want to have a “conversation” with someone destroying or stealing other peoples’ property. And when such is how someone wants to “communicate,” my priority must be action. In the interest of justice and righteousness, I must forcefully oppose them for the sake of protecting their would-be victims.

And for all the somber tones and employment of spiritual phrases to somehow sanctify rioting and looting, what this message by Ms. Cleveland boils down to is that rioting is an acceptable means of communicating, at least for those who supposedly cannot help it. Moreover, we need to affirm those who riot as the real victims.

The Apostle Peter on “Creatures of Instinct”

Christena Cleveland’s reasoning is that the people who riot when they are angry at injustice – real or imagined – do not know how to engage in “civil discourse,” or how to conduct themselves in a way we would consider respectful and respectable.

In other words, they are just angry and cannot help it. Racial disparities in education, upbringing, and culture exist. This is all these young men know to do when they believe their community is being oppressed by the system.

And perhaps this is true, in a certain sense. These men and women were trained up in a way they should not go. Now that they are older they are not departing from it. Even so, this does not absolve them of responsibility for their misdeeds. Nor does it obligate us to affirm, condone, or especially reward such behavior.

Consider 2 Peter 2:12-13 (ESV):

“But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.”

To be clear, the subject of this passage is not the rioters and looters who have besieged American cities in recent weeks or years. However, this characterization of certain lawless people by the Apostle Peter tells us that sometimes, when the shoe fits, it is appropriate to describe bad actors in the bluntest of terms.

Moreover, it does indeed seem Ms. Cleveland is saying rioters and looters are “like irrational animals.”

Christena Cleveland & Social Deconstructs

Sometimes it is necessary to call a spade a spade. Sometimes it is needful to forcefully oppose wicked behavior rather than waxing eloquent our pity for the conditions which facilitated someone being reprobate and operating in total disregard for the rights of others or the laws of nature and nature’s God.

To paraphrase an Outkast song that was popular when I was a freshman in high school, ‘I’m sorry, Ms. Cleveland. I am for real.’

You seem like a nice and intelligent enough lady, and I do not mean to offend you. Nevertheless, you are way off the mark on this. You swim in academic waters where it has become fashionable to deconstruct everything. The mark of intellect and virtue is to say that anything and everything is just a social construct, and that we need to check our privilege.

But what you neglect to mention is that there is such a thing as a universal standard of righteous conduct. And that universal standard is not the invention of “white people.” And it is not merely a social construct.

When people of any skin color, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, creed, or nationality choose to act contrary to the universal standard of right conduct that God himself established, it is not only fair to hold them accountable in the present. It is actually needful to do so, particularly when they are making victims of innocent people by violence and threats of violence – whether against persons or property.

In other words, Christena Cleveland asks “who gets to decide who is respectable and what is civil?” But there is actually an answer. And the answer is that God decides.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.