By Gerard Flanagan, news writer and photographer, Office of University Communications
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – Dr. Joseph Hopkins and his family had just finished a daytime trip to Venice, Italy when a rainstorm suddenly swept through as they waited for a water taxi.
In the chaos of people ducking for cover, Hopkins managed to find a private boat to transport him, his family and dozens of other tourists, only to receive a much higher-than-expected price for the trip from the boat’s owner.
Hopkins, Campbellsville University’s 12th president, immediately sprang into action to negotiate a lesser price, and he used this experience to discuss civil discourse during Campbellsville University’s first chapel of the fall semester on Aug. 30.
Campbellsville University’s newest Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) focuses on fostering civil discourse across the entire campus community.
Hopkins defined civil discourse as “a respectful conversation that is productive, truthful, listening, sharing and learning.”
Society often exposes us to the exact opposite of civil discourse, Hopkins stated.
“From shouting matches to opinionated and often cowardly social media posts to rhetoric-filled political debate, we are confronted every day with uncivil conservation,” he said.
Hopkins instead provided a framework for engaging in meaningful civil discourse based on a model provided by Rick Love, founder of Peace Catalyst International.
The model is based on four R’s: receive, reason, relate and respect.
Hopkins explored Luke 7 as he discussed the four R’s of civil discourse. Beginning with verse 36, Hopkins discussed the account of the sinful woman who heard Jesus was eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Once she arrived at the house, she wet His feet with her tears, kissed His feet and poured perfume on His feet.
Verse 39 reads, “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.’”
“You’ll see that Jesus understood his thoughts, but he doesn’t attack,” Hopkins explained. “Instead, with respect, He says to Simon, ‘I have something to tell you.’ Notice that Simon responds with respect by saying, ‘Tell me, teacher.’”
Luke 7:41-43 contains Jesus’ parable about a moneylender who had two debtors. One debtor owed 500 denarii, and the other owed 50. In verse 42, Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee, “Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now, which of them will love him more?”
Simon’s reply is found in the first part of verse 43: “Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ In response, Jesus says, “You have judged correctly.”
“I’ve heard many sermons on this in the past,” Hopkins said, “but I’ve never heard one about civil discourse. So, if we could, for a moment, look at the structure of what Jesus does in this moment, and I believe we might find a pattern for how we can have civil discourse with one another.”
First, Jesus receives, according to Hopkins.
“We sense that He receives as he understands the thoughts of Simon,” Hopkins said. “I realize that, when you’re in a moment of civil discourse, you can’t know the thoughts of the person on the other side, but the point is, we can be sensitive to the position and circumstances of our counterpart.”
A significant part in receiving people as part of civil discourse is to simply be in a position to receive, Hopkins stated.
Hopkins asked, “Do you put yourself in position to hear other viewpoints? Christ boldly entered into civil discourse with someone of an opposing viewpoint out of concern for the souls of others.”
Hopkins noted that Jesus, even though He was perfect and sinless, still found it important to listen to the perspective of others. And, if Christ placed importance on listening to others, Hopkins asked how much more important should it be for us?
In this, Jesus reasons, the second R in Hopkins’ model for civil discourse. As Simon criticizes Jesus for associating with the sinful woman, Christ replies with a question.
“Questions help us better understand concerns, and they make people think more deeply about their statements,” Hopkins said. “Sometimes, questions expose the error of your critics. Sometimes, they open the door to deeper, meaningful dialogue.
“Either way, questions are good and help keep us focused on the problem rather than the person. Are we open to hear other ideas and to be changed?”
Referencing Jesus’ parable about the moneylender and the two debtors, Hopkins said, “We see that Jesus commends his counterpart in civil discourse for judging rightly, which really brings contrast to the moment just before when His counterpart was thinking a judgment against Christ.”
Hopkins also noted we see Jesus relate, the third R in Hopkins’ model for civil discourse, as he discussed Jesus’ response to the woman.
“He turns in kindness to the lady washing his feet to announce that her sins are forgiven, and her faith has saved her,” Hopkins said. “He demonstrates pure love and empathy, where others around him are demonstrating judgment and hatred.”
Hopkins pointed out that Jesus did not tell the woman she had not sinned.
“Civil discourse does not mean we remake the truth,” Hopkins said. “Civil discourse is powerless if we don’t speak the truth.”
Hopkins then explored the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States.
They first met in 1775 and overcame their vast differences on the future of the young United States to help craft the Declaration of Independence, developing a deep friendship in the process. However, by the time Jefferson, serving as Adams’ vice president, prepared to succeed Adams as president in 1800, a deep rift had formed between the two.
The bitter separation lasted over a decade when Jefferson’s friend heard Adams say, “I always loved Jefferson, and I love him still.” Jefferson replied, “These words are enough for me to revive all the emotions of our deepest friendship.”
They remained close friends until their deaths, which both happened on July 4, 1826.
“Despite the overwhelming differences between us, there’s always hope,” Hopkins said. “There is always hope in our ability to relate in such a way that we can transcend philosophical and social divides.”
Hopkins noted relationship holds significant power as he explained his fourth R for civil discourse – respect – and how Jesus modeled it in Luke 7.
“It’s all over this story in Scripture,” Hopkins said. “It’s His very presence in Simon’s house, with respect. It’s how He speaks to Simon, with respect. It’s how He respects the woman and honors her in the way He addresses her and lifts her up.
“It’s the example of Christ praying for those who seek to destroy Him, giving to those who take from Him and dying for those who need mercy for their sin.”
Noting that all people are created in God’s image, Hopkins proclaimed, “We should be able to see the face of God in everyone, even the person on the other side of that conversation or argument or fight.”
Hopkins provided another example of two historical figures who sat on opposite ends of the political spectrum – Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin and America’s 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt manages to win alliance in position for the United States’ interest through relationship bonding, the establishment of trust and persuasive negotiation,” Hopkins said. “…Roosevelt spoke peace and truth into these conversations.
“His success in civil discourse was so powerful that Russian leadership was really never able to move past Roosevelt’s death, and in the years that followed, our countries began to drift apart into an era of frightening tension known as the Cold War.”
Civil discourse, Hopkins noted, is a back-and-forth conversation, and sometimes, the four R’s of civil discourse might need to be rearranged.
“Respect everyone first,” Hopkins said. “Build relationships that break down barriers. Reason with those who differ from you and receive from them. Learn and grow.”
Hopkins stated that the new academic year will be filled with “wonderful moments and great events,” which will also contain complicated situations and challenging moments.
“Our faculty and staff are designing moments that will challenge us to engage in courageous conversations of civil discourse,” Hopkins said. “This is civil discourse, throwing the difficult viewpoints to present their perspectives.”
As Campbellsville University enters a new academic year, Hopkins encouraged faculty, staff, administrators and students to consider the final part of Jesus’ encounter with the sinful woman, contained in Luke 7:48-50: “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests began to ask themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’”
“Jesus’ objective was not to win an argument but to win a soul,” Hopkins said. “What a consequential difference…For those who follow Christ, the entire objective of civil discourse is not to win an argument or the fight but to weave the hope and peace of Christ into the lives of those around us.”
Hopkins asked, “Will you join us as agents of civil discourse, changemakers and peacemakers who make this world a better place?”
Campbellsville University is a widely acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university that offers over 100 programs including doctoral, master, bachelor, associate and certificate programs. The website for complete information is www.campbellsville.edu.