James Calvin Davis reacts to the Red Hen incident and the trivialization of civility in our current political climate.
Truth be told, after thirteen years of fatherhood, I have to admit that I still am not used to thinking about myself in the context of Father’s Day. Father’s Day doesn’t feel like it’s about me, at least not intuitively. On Father’s Day I reflect on my own father. I remember the very good moments with my dad, moments that in some ways get more poignant as he and I get older and the relationship roles reverse just a bit. I think about the ways in which I am shaped by being the son of an Appalachian coal miner, influences that go down to my core, accidental on his part, but molding who I am as a person and as a professional. These days I spend a little of Father’s Day telling myself I’ll be more faithful this year in calling home and visiting. On Father’s Day, I think like a son. It continues to catch me a bit by surprise that this day could also be about me.
And yet, being a father is who I am, and with every passing year it becomes as formative to my character as being a son. My sense of self and my responsibilities in this life are defined in large part from the duties of parenthood; my calendar certainly reflects that I have two jobs now. I think as a father now, too. In the classroom, I approach many of the ethical issues I teach with different eyes. In the airport, my heart beats faster when I hear a small voice crying. I know more about circumstances we broadly refer to as “special needs” than I ever did before. I am more invested and interested in a place and culture on the other side of the world (where my sons were born) than I ever was before. I watch baseball and NASCAR now; as it turns out, there are sports other than football played in this country! I am father now.
Last month Tammy Duckworth made history, becoming the first U.S. senator to cast a vote on the Senate floor with a baby in her arms. It took some doing; the Senate first had to change a longstanding rule that prohibited babies on the floor of the Senate, and changing Senate rules doesn’t happen easily. Duckworth and others worked for months to change the rule, answering questions like whether this would mean diapers could be changed on the Senate floor, or whether the baby would have to adhere to the Senate dress code. Ultimately, though, the rule was changed to allow senators to bring their newborns onto the floor and even to breastfeed them if needed. And so Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Senator and mom, cast a vote with her child right there with her.
Of course, the news media covered the moment with enthusiasm for its rarity. It was a rare moment in large part because of the limited number of women who have exercised privileges on the floor of the United States Senate. In the history of the body, only fifty-two women have been members; twenty-three of them serve today, an all-time high. So the sight of Senator Duckworth bringing her baby into the Senate was a symbol of the way tradition has been forced to evolve under the pressures of gender equity. But beyond the celebration of justice and progress, I was struck by the power in the juxtaposition—one individual holding together in a single moment four distinct identities: woman, veteran, political leader, mother. And the infiltration of mothering, with all of the connotations it brings—nurture, protection, love, sacrifice—into a body that frankly is regarded by many Americans as mired in futility, impotence, and destructiveness, spoke a word of prophetic protest to politics as usual. Insisting on bringing her young child to the halls of government, Duckworth did more than demand workplace accommodations. She offered a display of mothering as an act of resistance to disordered power.
The Presbyterian Outlook recently surveyed their readership, asking for compelling and transformational recent books. In Defense of Civility was mentioned in response to the question, “What is the book you keep going back to and why?” Andy Kort, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, Indiana, shared that in the book Davis “highlights issues like war, abortion, marriage, separation of church and state, and more in a way that not only helps me articulate my own thinking, but also is very helpful in allowing me to better understand the opposite view. He does this all while making the case for a civil discourse.”
You can find out more about all of the readers’ choices for captivating books here!
A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont
April 15, 2018 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Text: Luke 24: 36-49
I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”
Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?
What happens when we approach disagreement not as a problem to solve but as an opportunity to practice Christian virtue?
In this book James Calvin Davis reclaims the biblical concept of forbearance to develop a theological ethic for faithful disagreement. Pointing to Ephesians and Colossians, in which Paul challenged his readers to “bear with each other” in spite of differences, Davis draws out a theologically grounded practice in which Christians work hard to maintain unity while still taking seriously matters on which they disagree.
The practice of forbearance, Davis argues, offers Christians a dignified, graceful, and constructive way to deal with conflict. Forbearance can also strengthen the church’s public witness, offering an antidote to the pervasive divisiveness present in contemporary culture.
“Forbearance. It’s an old-fashioned word, perhaps, but if ever we needed to recover its use, now is the time. Our politics and economics, our communities and churches, and even our families are fractured by polarizing disagreements that often grow into debilitating conflicts. In this discerning book James Calvin Davis deftly narrates the meanings, spirit, power, and practice of ‘bearing with one another’ as a fundamental Christian civic virtue, one that can lead us into ways of dealing with our conflicts that are marked by wisdom, justice, faithfulness, and hope.” –Craig Dykstra, Duke Divinity School
Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, Kindle Edition
Can you be a Christian misanthrope? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a misanthrope as “a person who hates or distrusts humankind.” Precisely used, the term refers to someone who retreats from human interaction out of a rejection of human community. Understood as such, it should be pretty clear that you can’t be a Christian misanthrope, for that’s a contradiction in terms. Christianity’s emphases on love and community make our faith tradition obviously incompatible with someone who would declare that he is done with humanity.
So I will admit that the phrase “Christian misanthrope” is a bit of intentional literary exaggeration, an oxymoron meant to grab attention. But I also use the term because I have been called a misanthrope from time to time—kiddingly, I hope, by friends who know my strong preference for alone time and independence. Even to call it a “strong preference” seems an understatement. I often tell people that when I underwent my psychological evaluation for ordination to ministry, my tests concluded that if I were any more introverted, I would quite simply be dead. My default is to be alone; it requires intention for me to seek out the company of other people. I like quiet; I often prefer time to talk to myself over talking with others. A good weekend to me is spent walking in the woods behind my house, sitting on my porch staring at the deer in the field across the way, or tinkering with a project in my garage.
A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont
February 18, 2018
Text: Matthew 6: 7-13
My Pentecostal-leaning grandmother knew a good preacher when she saw one. Modeled after the televangelists with whom she spent much of her time, her standard for a good preacher was one who just “preached the Word,” spontaneously and extemporaneously, not with a sermon crafted in the week before but in a heartfelt connection with the Bible that lived from the moment. Good preachers, she would say, prayed the same way. A good prayer isn’t written out; it comes from the heart—spontaneously, with words that come directly from the Spirit in that moment.
When I was in college, the campus chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship was my main community of friends, and there too the evangelical model of prayer was consistently lifted up and practiced. Good prayer was heartfelt, personal, spoken in the moment, with a generous use of the word “just” that I never quite understood—as in “Jesus, we just thank you for your love.” Good prayer finds its expression in the moment and from the heart.
Then I went to seminary and discovered a number of things, including that on the topic of prayer and worship, I was a closet Catholic. Or so it seemed, because I fell in love with another kind of liturgy and prayer. In seminary I discovered prayers that are old, standardized, and passed down from one generation to another. I discovered the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, chock-full of prepared prayers that were used in common in many different places and many different times. I learned the art of crafting prayers carefully, ahead of time, with attention to language more like poetry than conversation. Prepared, shared, standardized prayer became authentic and good to me.
The president is at it again. This week, in a White House meeting on immigration reform, and just days before the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mr. Trump apparently let loose with disparaging comments about Haiti and various African nations suffering from natural disasters, poverty, or underdevelopment. He called them “shithole” countries, and he wondered aloud why we should want to invite immigrants from those places, instead of from places like Norway. The comments, confirmed by both Democrats and Republicans in the room, exhibit clear racial undertones, and they continued Mr. Trump’s tendency toward racially ignorant public rhetoric (think Mexican rapists and the “good people” he assumed to be among the white supremacists in Charlottesville). Rather than serving the cause of unity, the president’s remarks further stoked the racial antagonism and injustice that is our national crisis.
For the past decade, I have been writing and speaking about the need for more civility among American leaders and citizens. I define civility as the exercise of patience, humility, integrity, and mutual respect in public life, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree. Civility is a set of virtues that we need to actively cultivate in each other, in our relationships and our civic institutions, as the public ethos that guarantees the health and effectiveness of democratic politics. (My most recent book argues for a Christian version of these norms that I call forbearance.) Without this commitment to open and constructive dialogue, rooted in a genuine respect for others as fellow participants in public life, the future of democracy looks grim.
What’s in a name? When I was in seminary, my middle name understandably got a lot of attention. Professors and students alike at the Presbyterian school I attended got a kick out of a guy named James Calvin Davis in their midst, wondering aloud whether it was foreordained (get it?) that I would be called to ministry with a name like that. The reality is, at least on the surface, much different. I am proud to be named after both of my grandfathers, James Kermit McCullough and Calvin Davis. But the ironic part is that the man who gave me the name that tickles my fellow Presbyterians so much was, in many ways, the opposite of the sixteenth-century churchman—not so much pious and learned as a rough-around-the edges coal miner from which I get both my appreciation for blue-collar values and a legendary Davis temperament.
And yet that name of which I am proud has become more to me than just a testament to my grandfather. Without it, I am a generic placeholder; “James Davis” is one level up from “John Doe” on the scale of nondescript monikers. But with it, I am James Calvin Davis, professor and Reformed Christian theologian. James Calvin Davis has become an symbol of who I am, of what I consider myself to be.