Richard J. Mouw. 2010. Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Downers Grove: IVP Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Our society has become much more diverse. Measured in terms of race, the number of non-Hispanic whites fell from roughly 84 percent in 1965 to 62 percent in 2015 . Among children under the age of 20, the trend is even more pronounced. Stated in terms of perspectives, we are more likely today to meet someone with a different cultural background and point of view than at any time since the Second World War . Consequently, Rodney King’s 1992 question: “Can we all get along?” remains a serious question for everyone, but especially Christians who are supposed to model the love of Christ to those around them .
In his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Christian ethicist Richard Mouw attempts to address Rodney King’s question. Mouw defines civility as: “public politeness” where “we display tact, moderation, refinement and good manners towards people who are different from us” (14). He further observes: “being civil is a way of becoming more like what God intends for us to be.” (15) Importantly, he stresses that we do not have to approve of other people’s views (22) or to like them (24), but only to recognize their inherent right to express their views and to listen to them.
Mouw tells the story about a “crusty old Irish Catholic judge” whose days were filled with judging inner-city criminals. One day this judge had a what-would-Jesus-do (WWJD) moment just as he was about to give a tough sentence another street tough kid. He started to see this kid as a divine image bearer and in terms of his potential, not the person who he currently appeared to be (24-25). Suddenly, this judge had a completely new attitude about his job and started having good conversation with these street kids. In Mouw’s words, the judge starting seeing “every human being a work of divine art” (26).
The story of the judge is essentially our story as we live day by day under the gaze of our ever-present God. Mouw reminds us that: “God is always watching listening, some words are so offensive to God that they should never be uttered.” (46) Two examples that Mouw offers are racist language (46) and a crusading mentality. Racist language is offensive to God because each of us in our diversity reflect the divine image. A crusading mentality forgets God’s enduring love of the people whom he created. Mouw defines a crusader as: “people who think the cause they are fighting for is so important that they must use all means at their disposal to win.” (50). Using all or nothing rhetoric feeds this crusading attitude (53).
The term, divine gaze, is both novel and familiar. Mouw cites a familiar passage in Psalm 139 as an example of the divine gaze:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps 139:23-24)
This example of the divine gaze follows what appears to be the psalmist’s reminder to himself to hedge his own crusading spirit:
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Ps 139:21-22)
Would that we were all so self-aware and God-aware!
Having had to confront the question of the Vietnam as a young man, I was intrigued by Mouw’s use of “just war” theory to develop guidelines for public discourse without incivility. These guidelines take the form of questions to consider in sorting through such discourse, including:
- Is my cause a just one?
- Am I sustained in my commitments by the wisdom of competent authorities?
- Are my motives proper?
- Is my move beyond mere civility a choice of last resort?
- Is success likely?
- Are the means I am employing proportionate to the good goals I want to promote? (142-46)
Mouw notes that Martin Luther’s stand against the Catholic church during the early days of the reformation was not an example of a lone crusade. As a scholar and theologian, Luther was well-informed of short-comings of the church and sought advice from many mentors (143). He further noted that Augustine, in arguing the case for a just war, was concerned that prisoners be treated humanely and that the rights of civilians be respected (146). Augustine certainly was not just another apologist for a Roman war policy.
At the time of publication, Richard J. Mouw was president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, professor of Christian Philosophy, and the author of many books. He is currently a Professor of Faith and Public Life at the seminary  He writes in 14 chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue and notes.
In view of the wide range of topics covered, a brief review is inadequate to survey all the topics covered. Nevertheless, Mouw’s Uncommon Decency is both accessible and a good read. I suspect, however, that more than one read is needed to absorb all that he has to offer. While I believe that most Christians would benefit from studying this book and would hope that journalists would take an interest, I suspect that seminary students and pastors are the intended audience.
 Pew Research Center. 2015. “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065.” Cited: 7 January 2015. Online: http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/2015/09/2015-09-28_modern-immigration-wave_REPORT.pdf.
 Is it any wonder that millennials and boomers differ so dramatically? For boomers, the world was entirely different; for millennials, this is the only world that they have ever known.