A breakdown in civility leads to a collapse in relationships at every level. Politics. Culture. Religion. Family. Whereas civility builds up, incivility tears down. Civility is a lynchpin of democratic society. Incivility undermines democracy, culture, church, even our families.
What is civility? It is respectful conversation intended to build understanding. Right now America seems in short supply of it. It is distressing to see so much suspicion, unnecessary division, and outright rage.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, says, “civility is simply demonstrating respect for the dignity of our fellow humans — even those humans with whom we have sharp disagreement. Civility is allowing others to speak, and having the humility to admit that we may have something to learn. Civility favors truth over cheap gain, and patience over knee-jerk judgment.”
In today’s overheated, divisive, and mean-spirit throwing of words back and forth at each other, we need to rediscover civility. Instead of shouting down each other we need to rediscover how to engage in frank and civil discussion, with the understanding that we need not only to talk, but also to listen.
Phil Klay, son of a friend of mine and author of the National Book Award for best seller “Redeployment,” writes this week in Time magazine: (Civility) “is a display of respect and tolerance, which make clear that you are engaging in a conversation, not delivering a last word.” Instead of fury and furor, which energizes only partisans, “a civil argument is a plea to all fellow citizens to respond, even if in opposition. It invites the broader body of concerned citizens to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, to correct the flaws in my argument and to continue to deliberate in a rapidly changing world.” Klay is right on target.
What’s a faithful person to do in the face of so much incivility? A prayer in my tradition encourages us to do just that: “Help us, (Lord) in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect…”
A healthy society cannot function without a respectful exchange of ideas. Since our founding, our entire system is built on the notion that no single point of view holds a monopoly on the truth, and that compromise is a necessary component of a healthy society and body politic.
Is American democracy on the brink? Maybe, maybe not. “Democracy is going to hold, but it won’t hold on autopilot,” says Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal Church. “It will hold because people of good will and human decency come together and say we’re not going to destroy this country, we’re going to build it better.”
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How do we build a better country, a better church, a better family? Jesus suggested that “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) A near contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel put it this way: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) We know these wisdom teachings as the Golden Rule.
The first step toward restoring civility is to practice the Golden Rule ourselves. Our interactions need to be built around doing to others as we would want them to do to us.
The second step is to enlarge the conversation about civility. We need to encourage each other to be the best version of what we can be; the version that God wants for each of us. That means treating each other how we want to be treated, even when we seriously disagree, even when we don’t share the same values.
When we encounter incivility in ourselves or others, we need to confront it. Say, “Whoa” or “Wait a minute.” We need to employ new “Rules of Engagement” built around the Golden Rule to guide ourselves and encourage others to use them. The list includes speaking for ourselves, paying attention to our feelings, sharing talk-time, listening better, speaking respectfully, suspending judgment, disagreeing without being disagreeable, and trying to understand other points of views.
Congregations and other groups may want to look at adult course material about civility. A good one that I have turned to and recommend is “Civil Discourse.” It can be found at www.reclaimingjesus.org. Click on resources and you will see it at the bottom of the page. The material is free, open, and available to all.
Most of all, we need to practice civility. In an uncivil environment that is hard work. But it is essential work. Civil discourse brings us together, opens up opportunities to talk about difficult topics, and helps us recognize the humanity in each other.
The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired dean and rector of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Helena. At the upcoming Nov. 14 “Great Conversations“ event, sponsored by the Helena Education Foundation, he will lead a table on “Practicing Civility in Uncivil Times.” For information on this presentation and others, go to https://www.hefmt.org/great-conversations.