Nov. 1, 2013 Civility in Xian Scripture
November 1: Civility begins in my heart, within me, and is my responsibility.
Matthew 15:10 & 11, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you.'”
Quick definition: Civility “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior”
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Civility is a term that we don’t find in our scriptures, though it is a good old term. This month-long exercise is not about forcefully inserting civility into the scriptural narrative, and thereby “hijacking” scripture to teach something it doesn’t want or intend to teach. Instead we are going to dig into the teachings of scripture to illuminate the role and action of civility in our daily lives.
My belief is that civility (“polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior”) should flow very naturally from the mouth and life of someone acquainted with our scriptures. Christians, in their imitation of Christ and following the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments, should always be incredibly civil in daily discussions, when interacting with diverse neighbors and even when disagreeing. But we know that’s not always the case. Christians are often some of the most shrill and uncivil voices in our religious, political and social discussions and debates. (In October of 2009 I blogged about my embarrassment that Christians with bullhorns rudely disrupted many of our Muslim neighbors praying for our nation at the National Mall in DC.)
I’ve also heard and seen Christians act and speak with abrasive incivility and then rationalize and justify their words and actions upon religious arguments. They will judge, condemn and ridicule others, or one another, and then say something like, “I’m just following the Bible” or “It’s just what my faith demands of me.”
I believe that Christ and our scriptures show a better, immensely better, way. And so we begin with Jesus confronting those who devalued others (specifically their own parents) and rationalized it away with religious reasoning. In Matthew 15 some religious leaders questioned Jesus about his followers not being very correct in their observation of ritual purity, and he turns the question back on them in a deeper way, asking why they observe religion in a way that neglects the needs of their elderly parents. In the context of our verses in Matthew 15 Jesus is pointing out that people are more important than rules and regulations, even the best rules handed down by tradition and seeming so religious and right. The needs of the neglected parents matter more to God than legalistic excellence in the children. Jesus quotes Isaiah to say that their mouths and lips seem to be praising God and doing the right things, but it’s all wrong because their hearts are misplaced, moved far from God. I believe the teachings of our Christ and of our scriptures consistently show that religious practice and God’s heart are inextricably intertwined with the way we are called to treat others.
The passage is also a strong lesson that I am much more responsible and identified, not by what I might hear or see, but by what I might say and show. And this is where I must start with civility in my own life: within myself. My being civil is not dependent on someone else, but it’s a responsibility and an attribute of my own life, my own heart, my own words and actions. I hope that as we explore scripture in November we’ll be mutually encouraged and taught in deeper ways how the teachings of our Lord and our sacred texts lead us life-affirming, God-honoring and neighbor-serving civility.
2 thoughts on “Nov. 1, 2013 Civility in Xian Scripture”
November 1, 2013 at 11:01 am
And yet, that same Jesus was anything but civil to the money-changers in the Temple. He didn’t try to reason with them, or calmly discuss why they shouldn’t exploit and oppress the poor. He cast them out of the Temple and overturned their tables.
We are faced with those who are oppressing the poor, those who are keeping food from the hungry, those who are withholding or foreclosing on shelter for those who need it, those who are stealing wages from their workers by not paying them the full value of their labor.
At what point do we decide that those who are profiting from oppression are maintaining their system by counting on the “civility” of those who would stand in defense of the poor and the oppressed, rather than fearing that the people they are oppressing might be roused to say “enough is enough” and demand a more just, equitable, and sustainable system?
I’m not saying that there’s some kind of hard and fast rule as to when “civility” ceases to be enough to defend the poor and oppressed and it becomes a moral imperative to take uncivil and disruptive action, but I am saying that the example of Jesus would suggest that such a point does exist.
November 1, 2013 at 2:58 pm
And thanks for the comment. I think that maybe there are several things working in the passages about the “cleansing of the temple courts” that give us pause whenever we read them. It’s one of those few times in his life and ministry when Jesus assumes his full authority and takes direct action to create reform, and isn’t just teaching or correcting.
And it’s that authority by which he takes action that the religious leaders question at the time. There’s not a lot of reason to imagine he was in a rage or acting out of control. And as you make mention of poverty, the context of the cleansing is a financial one… we always say “follow the money.” Jesus removes the commerce, but it the religious leadership who pushes back and questions him. Interesting. Probably because they had the most invested in the business happening in the Temple Courts.
To simply say that Jesus was uncivil by removing the merchants in the Temple may miss the point of his authority to remove them, to bring about reform and to even punish those guilty of abuses. It’s not uncivil for a judge to sentence a criminal. It’s not uncivil for a jury to pronounce guilt. Even if the sentence is painful or restrictive. Is a police officer inherently being uncivil for arresting and cuffing someone or breaking down a door to get to a suspect? They act within their authority, and so does Jesus when clearing the Temple courts. Because he was within his authority and acting with justness, I’m not sure his actions were in any way inappropriate or “uncivil.” he wasn’t lashing at people over theological disagreements or diverse political opinions as we so often do.
Civility does not mean standing by while the poor are exploited. Civility doesn’t mean that we meekly allow others to be abused and trampled on. That would be an abuse of civility, or even simply become cowardliness. I think you’re making that point. I made this point many times last year in my month of writing on civility.
But by and large, the incivility in our discourse and daily life today is far removed from that kind of acting on behalf of the abused or acting within the scope of our authority. Nor do we ourselves necessarily have the authority of Jesus to make all the same decisions and take the same actions that he would. Our incivility is far more tied to defamation, anger and inattention to other people. Those are themes that will be clearly spoken to in the coming days of scripture.
And will there be a day that simply saying civil words is not enough? I don’t think I’ve ever said that there wasn’t such a time. If someone moves to assault my wife or one of my children, I won’t have many words for them, but I will have some choice actions. If see someone being assaulted on the street, I will intervene in any way I can to stop it even if a civil request to desist doesn’t work. I will say however without a doubt that we often jettison civility way too quickly and sell it way too short. And so we end up in endless arguments and pointless debates which only solidify our presuppositions instead of creatively bringing us together to make new solutions to our problems.
A main point of the post today was “What’s inside me?” What am I cultivating within me? Do I cultivate civility? Or do I wait with anticipation to attack and defame? Do I plant within me what is going to be required of me to maintain civility? Or do I wait to attack, relish the attack and thrive on the anger and defamation? That’s where my meditations are headed.
Have a great weekend!
Be Blessed, Todd