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.
If you’ve been around me much, then you know that civility is an issue that interests me. I surely haven’t perfected the skill of civility, but I do try to use it and I appreciate so much when others do the same. Incivility makes me crazy. I’ve preached about civility and I’ve written about civility.
One of the funner things I’ve done was last year when I blogged and twittered statements about civility each day of October. All that is sitting in another blog of mine that’s been mostly inactive since, The Civil Pen. Those statements tended to be original ideas I wanted to convey, along with famous quotes and statements.
I really enjoyed that month of writing. I enjoyed it so much that I’m back for November of 2013. But this time I want to contribute something to the “theology of civility.” Each day of November, for each and every one of the 30 days, I’m going to blog, Twitter and Facebook a passage of Christian scripture, something from the Old or New Testament, that opens up the wonder and grace of civility. We’ll hear from Jesus, we’ll share ancient Proverbial wisdom, and we’ll dig in with other writers from the New Testament who are actively forming and being formed by the earliest Christian traditions.
I look forward to any and all participation from my circles of friends and family. I will try my best to be first and foremost faithful to God, then respectful of the scriptures and loving of my neighbor. I think it will be fun. I will also be preaching a series on Sunday mornings in November tied to some great scriptural themes on civility that we’ll see emerging from the scriptures, things like “control your anger” and “shut your mouth.” One of my favorite themes is that Jesus doesn’t send us out into the world to “win,” but instead to “make peace.”
Ultimately, I do this because I need it. I need to wrestle with these passages. I need civility planted deep in my heart and mind, and having taken root there, to grow into fruit in my life by which my God is both pleased and honored. If I end up boring you, then I apologize in advance. If this resonates and moves with you, if we make some connections that vibrate in your soul and cause us to dialogue and pray, then I will be satisfied. Either way, I commit the journey to God.
The stuff I’m writing and throwing out there will be available through my Twitter account (@Swirlyfoot) and my Facebook (also Swirlyfoot), and my own blog here (A Faithful Path) as well as our Church in Bethesda Blog. You’re invited to follow along as best suits your tastes.
I wrote the bulk of this blog a couple of weeks ago and promptly forgot to finish and post it. I wrote it just after the Mother’s Day parade gunfire in New Orleans, as we reeled as a nation from the Boston Marathon attack and the women rescued in Cleveland after a decade of imprisonment. But honestly, I started forming this post in my heart a little earlier than that after reading of the young woman in Canada, Rhetaeh Parsons, who ended her life after being raped and bullied by her classmates. You’ll have to excuse me if it offends anyone that I don’t refer to it as an “alleged” rape. It offends me that when a young woman is oppressed to the point of ending her life that someone might still doubt the veracity of the crime done to her.
I am inured at heart by the violence we do against one another as human beings, the violence that our children have been taught to do against one another. I’m also at a place where I’m exploring what the truths of my faith are at their root, separated from the “branding” of Christianity, so that I can find even more ways to engage the problem of violence in our society without having to first deal with the “faith divide” presented by a pluralistic society such as ours.
I was reminded of this blog and encouraged to finish and post it today when I read about the homily given by Pope Francis in his morning mass. He vocalizes such a beautiful expression of meeting our neighbors, in our diversity, at the intersection of our common need of and duty to do “good.” I encourage you explore his statements, and I’ll only give this one amazing quote from the link embedded here: “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
“We will meet one another there.” Wow. It’s time for Christians to un-brand some of our truths from being “Christian Truths” so we can share them fully with all our neighbors, many of whom already own and exemplify them better than we often manage to do ourselves.
Here Are Some Questions I’m Laying Out There
What is the “gospel” or the “good news” that people of faith have for a country that seems to be in a cultural tailspin of violence and the love of violence? What is my message? If I’m honest, then I believe I need to be real about having a message that is more than, “Hey, be like me!” In other words, converting my neighbors to Christianity is not the only answer I have to participating right now with my neighbors to make a more peaceful nation and world. Maybe sounds obvious, but it’s not the way many of us were raised to operate.
I need to make sense. I need to speak in ways that all people can understand and that communicate the core realities that exist within my faith, in actionable ways for all people. I’m switching now from single to plural pronouns because this is a shared need we have to make sense in our time and place. One of the biggest realities of our daily experience should be that we aren’t all going to suddenly adhere to the same religion: We won’t wake up tomorrow to find that we have all miraculously become Christians.
Our nation will wake up tomorrow with the amazing diversity in which we live today: Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist, Bahai, and all the faiths and philosophies I don’t have room to name or even know. Of course, that is all happening right alongside our incredible diversity of political ideologies, regional concerns, linguistic roots, ethnic richness, gender identities, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds and economic struggles. To name a few. We are a beautifully mixed bag of amazing variety.
This isn’t a repudiation of Christian on my part. I’m a disciple of Christ and have no intention to ever walk another path, but I am doing so in a diverse world, a diverse nation with a pluralistic society. This diversity isn’t bad, but it does make it much more difficult for people of our faith, or any faith, or lack of faith, to speak into the broader nation, culture and community in which we live. We won’t all have the same vocabulary. The shame is that often we won’t have the “tools” in language or common experience that are necessary to recognize shared values and hopes.
If everyone to whom we speak is not willing to become like us, to become a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or an Atheist), or more to point, our chosen brand of Christian (or brand of whichever tradition we have chosen), how then do we speak, share and participate in discourse? What do we do in a pluralistic time and space when we need to communicate with our neighbors in the absence of simply making them like us? The episodes of violence breaking into our daily national conscious demand that something be said! Something must be done!
But we people of faith, and not just Christians, have a huge disconnect when it comes to speaking to one another in a pluralist, diverse culture. This issue is most evident in my life when I hear my fellow Christians naming the problems we face as a nation and a culture being that we have “turned our back on God/Christ,” or “Satan’s power is the root of our troubles.” The same goes for when the answer to the most disturbing trends in our nation’s violence are simply stated as a need “to return to being a Christian nation” or that all would be well “if we would all simply embrace Christ.”
Having grown up in a place and time of the country where and when almost everyone was a Christian, I find it too laughable that a Christian would say the answer for our nation’s violent crimes is as simple as converting everyone to our faith. I’ve watched too many times as Christians turned on one another in the absence of any other common enemy. Maybe it would be more plausible if the statement were more along the lines of, “If only we could all follow the teaching of Christ” as in the parts about treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves and loving everyone even to the ridiculous extent of loving our enemy.
And I’m not repudiating a worldview that includes Satan. I believe that there is evil in the world. My own framework as a Christian names a particular force of evil in this world as Satan, though I prefer a more ancient tag “The Accuser.” The Accuser is an agent of evil and a personification of evil’s work in humanity and creation. But here’s my question about evil: Does my neighbor have to conform their frameworks and beliefs about evil to match my own before I can begin to speak and move together with my neighbor to stand against evil? I can only hope not.
One of our deepest yearnings as Christians may very well be that everyone on this good earth would proclaim and own our Christ as Lord, knowing and experiencing the goodness of knowing God in Christ. But there never seems to be any expectation in the teachings of Christ, or even the later apostolic witness, that we will find ourselves suddenly on such a planet.
Paul relates for us the vision that seems to be from an early Christian hymn of the moment when every knee bows and tongue confesses, and it is a vision of worship and unity that warms my soul. Really. But it’s hardly a reasonable expectation that such unity of faith is the foundation for how I will participate with my many diverse neighbors on these important societal issues in our shared life as a nation, right now. I can’t simply remain quiet or continue speaking in ways that don’t make sense to my neighbors “in the meanwhile” as I wait for all the bowing and confessing to start.
Here’s the Short Version of My Question
In the wake of our country’s past episodes of home grown violence and the more recent national tragedies at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombing, this past Mother’s Day parade shooting in New Orleans, the women and children held hostage in a Cleveland home for a decade, and the bullying and suicides happening across our continent every day: Do Christians have anything to say other than quoting John 3:16?
John 3:16 is good stuff, but in fact we do a lot to say to our home culture, and our neighbors! We have a lot of things to say that flow directly from our faith, but aren’t predicated on all our friends and neighbors accepting our faith before being blessed by our message or welcomed to participate with us in living and realizing this “Good News!”
In other words, I believe we have amazing truths through which we can participate in with our neighbors to bring about more of what our Lord taught us to pray for: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Here are three messages that I believe are core to our faith as followers of Christ that can be transformative in our nation when we live, proclaim and defend them, even when un-branded and allowed to simply be truths, instead of “Christian Truths”:
1. Love is preeminent.
2. We are intrinsically interdependent.
3. Tomorrow is ours to lose.
Three Heavy Truths
These three messages are truth. I believe they flow from the heart of God, have been illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ, and are commissioned to the followers of Christ by Jesus himself and the apostolic witness of the church. That last sentence sounded pretty heavy, yeah? I think these are heavy truths.
1. Love is preeminent. That word preeminent might look a little tricky at first, but it’s not as theological a word as you might think. It’s a good word. Mirriam Webster’s online dictionary defines preeminent as “having paramount rank, dignity, or importance.” That is how we need to be speaking about and living our love for all people. Preeminent love is pure gospel! Jesus famously summed up all the law and commands of his own Jewish religion in the two-fold flow of love 1) love God, and 2) love neighbor. He also taught stories to illustrate a love of neighbor that crosses lines of ethnic, geographic, national and religious diversity. When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” his answer broke down barriers that prevent us from loving people, even the people least like us or likable to us.
What is preeminent love in the context of our society? It is the answer to the hatred that is kindled and fanned to life by the things we have wrongly raised above love. We are talking about being real, so let’s be real. Our culture has lots of things happening emotionally and spiritually, economically and politically, besides love. Namely we have hate and anger, and they flow from a myriad of very real streams of lives: jealously, competing ideologies, inflation rates, diseases, immigration arguments, fear, pain, nationalism, racism, prejudices, bad drivers, dishonesty, workplace tensions, loneliness, food scarcity, environmental concerns and arguments, and much more. And if I’m really real, I can name and easily find preachers who have used all those streams to incite and divide us in recent years, all in the name of “truth.”
But as a people, Christians have a spiritual mandate to speak love above those things. How else is mercy possible? How else does forgiveness happen? We have a spiritual mandate to live out of love above and beyond the hatred, anger and fear. Fears are often well founded, and sometimes anger is justifiable, but neither should be placed above love in our words and actions. Love is neither restrained to only romantic arenas or to theological discussions. Love should be a daily reality. You don’t have to be a Christian to embrace this truth, and many in the world who strive to live this truth aren’t Christians. But every Christian should have learned along the way that if we are going to accept a scriptural definition of God being “God is love” and the basic drive of the heart of God being a robust and active love for this world (yes, John 3:16!), then we have the same basis, foundation and core for our heart and drive.
2. We are intrinsically interdependent. We need preeminent love for the simple reason that you and I are indelibly connected and interdependent. We exist together. Our freedoms and our rights are shared freedoms and rights. Our lives are connected and intertwined. As Christians we have this truth illustrated in matters of love, life and spirituality in many ways: 1) we cannot love God but refuse to love each other, 2) we cannot see the suffering of fellow humans around us and not act, and 3) we have been taught not to ever say to those not like us, “I don’t need you!” on the basis of our differences. Just to name a few.
We need one another. Our value and dignity are shared. Too often we end up bunkering into our various cells of culture, by religion or race or gender or any of the many ways we self segregate, and in doing so we disconnect from others, lessening their presence and contribution to us and ours to them. Once we have broken that connection we have broken our ability to love and hold love as preeminent. Once we break that vital connection we become more easily swayed by the rhetoric of division that places us in “us vs. them” systems and ultimately de-humanizes the other.
If this were not true, then why aren’t more Christians speaking out against hate crimes and prejudices against Muslims? Why aren’t more Muslims fighting to end discrimination against their gay neighbors on the basis of their sexual orientation? Why aren’t more Republicans fighting for the voting rights of Democrats? Because when we bunker down into our own self interests we have broken the vital connection which allows us to love and raise love above the fears, jealousies and frustrations that inhabit a pluralistic society. By the way, one of my favorite newest friends is a Jewish man who has devoted his life to stopping anti-Muslim prejudice. Ira is an amazing human and he encourages me with his grasp of these truths!
Our vital connection to one another is gospel and it’s not predicated on everyone being of the same faith. We can live and speak and engage with our neighbors within this vital connection to increase understanding, cooperation and peace in our nation and upon our beautiful little globe. In fact, we must. I must not allow anything to devalue my fellow human being in my heart or mind. Such a devaluing of another person is a disease and a cancer in my own soul and self. For me to break our human connection and lessen you is to suffer the same for myself.
3. Tomorrow is ours to lose. All my life I have loved the 131st Psalm, a song of humility and peaceful contentment against the restful greatness of God. Humility is core to the Christian faith and is central to living in the connectedness that we have been speaking about, but it is not an excuse to be idle or stupid about our power to make change in the world. It is not a denial of our humility to recognize that we are powerful and responsible in this world. We are gifted with everything we need to live and breathe and create greater peace, love and joy in this world. We have been crafted as agents of good, and we cannot live in denial of this amazing purpose in our daily lives.
One scriptural writer famously says that we are not given a spirit “of timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-10) And as I love the song of humility in the presence of God’s great sovereignty from Psalm 131, I also recognize the reality of the psalmist’s statement that God “has made [us] just a little lower than God.” (Some will translate this “yourself” or “angels.”) Whoa, we need humility because we are so powerful. We only have tomorrow to lose. God has already given it to us. God has equipped us, as little less than the gods, to be movers and makers of change on this earth! There is no adequate rationale for a person to faith to sit still and wait for God to do for us what we have been made to live and be ourselves.
It’s easy to forget, but neither of those psalms were originally written by, about or to Christians, regardless of how or by what reasoning I might lay claim to them today for my life. The ideas and truthes they carry cannot be branded as “Christian.” And even as we believe that Christ gives great and precious gifts to those in his church, we cannot deny the amazing gifts and abilities that God has wired into all our of species. We see those gifts every day. We cannot wait for all our neighbors to share our faith before we move humbly among and with them to not lose tomorrow’s promise and goodness.
I think these truths are for all people in all times and all places. The hard part for us swallow is that the three simple statements are unbranded truth. We have been taught to brand everything or own nothing. So we speak of Christian Love, Godly Justice, Christian Truth and God’s Mercy. And we have been taught to devalue all truths not so labeled. Have you ever noticed how rarely scripture addresses things that way? Paul simply says that God’s Spirit makes in us love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control. It’s the work of the Spirit in us, but the fruits are simply fruits. And so we lose the ability to see and value the many truths of God’s work and Spirit in the various people all around us every single day.
I grew up hearing preachers often say, “It’s not enough to be a good person, you have to be a Christian.” I suppose I know what they were saying about identifying with Christ and the church in a theological sense, but I always came away thinking more about what sounded like an inherent contrast they were making between good and Christian. Those two didn’t seem to be the same, but different. And even if I am able to step past inferring a contrast like that, the statement still devalued the good in a person if they weren’t enough like me. I’ve not had a very long life, but I have definitely learned that finding a good person can seem a rare enough event not to ever devalue or dismiss.
I am asking us, asking myself, to do better at engaging the world with these unbranded truths so that we move the truths forward without having to have the argument about what is dissimilar between us. I could easily stick to branding and say something like: 1) God wants Christians to live in preeminent love, 2) Christian altruism and Godly benevolence is a duty, and 3) with humble prayer we can defeat Satan and can claim tomorrow as the Lord’s Day returning our nation to global moral dominance and greatness! But I won’t.
But I believe it is no less true and vastly more engaging for many of my neighbors if I proclaim and live: 1) love is preeminent, 2) we are intrinsically interdependent, and 3) tomorrow is ours to lose. Though I do understand a little bit about the power and importance of branding in the commercial sense of moving products and services, I think that God’s truths should be handled a bit more on the open source model, freely shared and abundantly distributed.
I am going to just to say it out loud: Comparing any U.S. President to Adolf Hitler is about the most overused, ridiculous and vapid attempt at humor or political astuteness that can be imagined. It simply serves to embarrass the person doing so, and it serves to move everyone exposed to it a bit further from any meaningful dialogue or engagement with current policy issues. Every President deserves better than this. You and I deserve better than this. It is simply demeaning for us all.
It isn’t funny. It isn’t clever. It isn’t civil. And however well intentioned or sincere a person might be, it doesn’t advance any valid political ideas or highlight any useful policy insight. In the most blunt terms it is a waste of time and extremely disrespectful to our nation’s highest office and any person who might be holding that office.
I would remind my fellow Christians that disrespect for others is not a spiritual gift nor is it something to which we are called to aspire. We are not called to be disrespectful, but to submit ourselves in genuine honor and concern for others, even to the point of loving one we would consider an “enemy.” (Matthew 5:43-48 “Love your enemy.” 1 Peter 2:11-17 “Honor everyone.” Ephesians 4:25-5:2 “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath.”)
This is also not a problem of the political right alone, or solely of the political left. This has recently been done with both past President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama. Both have been vilified by an attempt to connect their actions and intentions to a dictator with whom neither have any political, national or religious common ground. This is a problem of American discourse, not just of one political party or political persuasion. And when followers of Christ engage in it, it becomes a spiritual problem, a spiritual short-sightedness.
Of all of my friends and neighbors who believe that implicating connections and commonalities between their political adversaries and an historical evil such as Adolf Hitler, I ask only this: Find something constructive to do with your time. It might look like this…
- Find someone to encourage.
- Find someone to help.
- Pray for the political leader you feel the urge to slander and defame.
- Pray for people around the world suffering under political and tyrannical regimes that are actually reminiscent of Adolph Hitler’s abuses and murderous evil.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.