Maybe I'm too old-fashioned. Maybe it is because I enjoy Miss Manners' column. Maybe it is my Bob Jones University education (where guys held doors for ladies; there were often times where I'd be stuck holding the door for two minutes while dozens of girls came into Alumni Hall right before class). But it is startling the lack of basic civility that characterizes our public life and daily interactions.
Saturday, I was driving up our street behind a mid-90s Explorer. The driver didn't know where he was going, apparently, and so he decides simply to stop in the middle of the road, with no warning. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid smashing into the back of him. After I gave him an annoyed honk, as he slid into the middle turn lane, he gave me a hand gesture, as though I was the rude individual.
Later that same day, coming out of a restaurant at the Missouri Botantical Garden, with a stroller and four children in tow, a gentleman coming the other way pushed his way through the entrance area (his way in on the right was blocked), cutting me off and forcing me to come to a complete stop, and didn't even bother registering an "Oh, excuse me."
These are small things and it may seem as though I am just venting. But what it really points up is the failure of a common civility that enables human interactions to proceed. Stephen Carter, the Yale Law School professor, wrote about this in his book, Civility. He observed that civility is the oil that causes the machine of our public life to continue to operate without grinding people, without dehumanizing them.
As I think about how civility operates within our public life, I can't help but think about how civility ought to operate within our ecclesiastical life. In the same way that there are socially accepted rules for life together in society (please and thank you and holding doors and honoring older people by letting them preceed you and the rest) so there are basic rules for living life together as the body of Christ (assume the best about another; look out for their best interests; watch what you say about and to someone else).
But at the heart of all those rules is love: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). In a letter where Paul is telling the church "how one ought to behave in the household of God," he claims that one ought to behave in a way consonant with love, which springs from pure motives, clear consciences, and sincere faith. To be sure, civility doesn't mean that important doctrinal or moral concerns should go unheeded. But it does mean that, in our interactions with others, we are called to demonstrate to them; it means that the Golden Rule always applies, that grace should characterize all our dealings, that disagreements ought not to be characterized by our being disagreeable. It does little good to bemoan the lack of charity in someone's life when our own actions are frequently so uncharitable.
In short, civility represents the most basic attitudes and actions that come from loving others well. And civility should apply both in the church and in the world, for we as Christians are called to love even our enemies for Christ's sake.