Proverbs 3:29-31, “Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you. Do not accuse anyone for no reason– when they have done you no harm. Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways.”
These few verses do a wonderful job of challenging an entrenched individualism and distorted sense of self-preservation that is an undercurrent to a lot of American dialogue… in my humble opinion. The scriptural witness often points us outward to a concern and care for others that at times will seem to defy common sense and definitely push us out of our comfort zones. The verses today are somewhat passive in their nature of “don’t do.” They are also somewhat aggressive in their nature of re-orienting me from one wisdom to another.
What do I not do as a civil person of faith? I don’t plot ill for someone else, especially the “trusting” neighbor. We’ve already mentioned the place of empathy in civility, and now we add a new level of trustworthiness and “neighbor-care.” My neighbor should be able to trust that I’m not plotting against her or him. I hold a responsibility to commit myself to my neighbor’s good.
In the same vein, I will not falsely accuse that neighbor. False accusation is not in their best interest, and therefore is it not an option for me. We sometimes speak of the public trust and what responsibilities the various levels of government owe us as citizens, but do we speak enough of the trust we hold to one another as neighbors? I must not plot and accuse the trusting, innocent neighbor. Civility means I am worthy of their trust.
What about the neighbor who is not so innocent? I mean, if my neighbor steps out of line, well… we have a saying for that, right? We say, “Fight fire with fire!” I would bet the first time I ever heard that saying was in a cartoon, right around the time Bugs Bunny was declaring, “Of course you know, this means war!” But wherever I first heard it, there’s no question it’s an entrenched axiom (a perceived self-evident truth) that we have embraced. Our proverb challenges that with a simple injunction: Don’t envy the violent or adopt their ways.
Wow. My faith is calling me to something greater than fighting fire with fire? I immediately think of St. Paul’s poetic words in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That’s such an awesome chapter, right?
Civility in my life will grow from a faithful development of trustworthiness in myself and a refusal to perpetuate the cycles created by a self-centered need to retaliate in kind against offenses to me. I look to my neighbor’s best interests. My neighbor, innocent or not, trusting or not, violent or not, has reason to expect a consistent lack of malice from me. No matter the gain that seems attainable by the ways of the violent, my path is already chosen and set. I pray that my neighbor is always safe with me.