The early onset of the presidential campaign has brought with it a renewed call for a “return to civility.” There seems, however, little prospect for any immediate restoration of such civility, assuming that it ever existed. I think there are two reasons for this. First of all, we're not sure any longer what such civility would look like and secondly, there is a great deal at stake.
I call to your attention Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men (2005). The protagonist, Sheriff Bell, is speculating on the causes of the violence he sees enveloping his Texas county: “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin' ‘Sir' and ‘Ma'am' the end is pretty much in sight.” This apparently cornpone observation was the occasion of some amusement for reviewers, but I think McCarthy is being quite serious. He knows – and we ought always to remember – that manners are always a code for something deeper
Take the “Sir” and “Ma'am.” Growing up in North Carolina in the '60s and '70s, this was a given – the respect, so to speak, that youth owes to age. Such respect was not earned, except, I suppose, by longevity. It was a given. It extended across social, economic and racial lines.
Now, of course, it was also true that this civility hid a lot, as well. Our public schools integrated when I was in sixth grade and some of the “manners” I had learned did not seem to work. On one occasion, I took it upon myself to tell – politely, of course – one of the black students that she had stepped over the line in a game of dodge ball. To put it succinctly, my comments were not welcome. Of course, none of us at the time could have possibly imagined the very different kinds of worlds we had emerged from. In her world, no doubt, she was taught to stand up for herself in the face of any perceived injustice or threat. In my world, while I too was trained to stand up for myself, the world seemed basically fair.
As odd as it might sound, “manners” as lack of offense has led to a distortion of Christian discipleship. The pressure to be nice, maintain civility, get along, be agreeable has crippled our ability to speak truthfully. Too often, these kind of “manners” picture God as a therapeutic nice guy who simply wants us to be nice too.
As we know, Jesus' words offended his listeners time and again.
Recently in my theology class, we have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. When Bonhoeffer wrote this classic, national socialism was on a steep rise in Germany. In the face of a politics based on lies, Bonhoeffer sought to discern how Christians might learn to live more truthfully so that they would be capable of speaking the truth.
This simple classic is about life together in Christian community, yet its simplicity belies the profound grasp that Bonhoeffer had on costly discipleship. He rightly perceived that only when Christians practice speaking the truth to one another, through confession, encouragement, admonishment and other such practices, would they be able to live and speak truthfully before the world. His concern was not whether truthfulness “offends” or violates a code of agreeableness. In his context, too much was at stake to worry about merely trying to get along for its own sake.
And what about our context? We might be tempted to think, “Well, Bonhoeffer lived in more urgent times, as Hitler and his cohorts were carrying out their monstrous plan.”
But this tempting thought is deceptive. In every time and place, Christians are called to speak truthfully to and about those powers and allegiances that easily compromise their lives and thus make Christ's body less visible.
The question is, “Are practices of truthful speech in place in our faith communities?” Are we willing to have others admonish and encourage us in our times of need? Are we able to see ourselves as members one of another, such that we recognize God has given us our brothers and sisters in Christ, in all their strengths and weaknesses?
Christian manners are not about civility or agreeableness, nor are they ways of manipulating so as to get our way. They are rather faithful habits that enable us to live truthfully before a world that easily gets lost in deception.
We Christians live in a world that is increasingly fragmented, and there is no more important task than the forging of a vision of the common good based on the truth of who and whose we are.
Beth Newman is professor of theology and ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Her column is distributed by Associated Baptist Press.