Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Call to Civility

James Woody
One Sunday afternoon this summer, my wife, Valerie, and I took a leisurely stroll through downtown DC. Because we are both energized by the rhythm of the city, we’ve taken countless such walks over the years. The weather was perfect and it seemed like a great way to end the weekend. 

As we discussed where we’d like to end up for dinner, we barely noticed a harmless looking group of pedestrians walking towards us. I instinctively staked my claim on a narrow swath of sidewalk and held my line believing that the tall, burly young man who was headed my way would surely angle his body enough to assure our mutual safe passage. After all, I was nearly old enough to be his grandfather and displayed the gray hair to prove it. 

I was wrong. The young man didn’t yield and our shoulders firmly collided as we passed. What happened next stunned me. A middle-aged man, who had been walking directly behind the teenager, and who I later learned was his father, proceeded to jab his elbow firmly into my rib cage in full view of his wife and two children. While I was in utter disbelief, I managed to remain calm enough to ask what felt like two reasonable questions, “Why did you do that? Did I do something to you?” Without hesitation he angrily responded, “You bumped into my son!” It was obvious that we had diametrically opposed perceptions of what had just happened. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” I said. “I was under the impression that your son had bumped into me.” 

While I wasn’t physically injured, my spirit was wounded by this powerful reminder that civility of the kind that is rooted in the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself,” is clearly under assault in our society. 

Civility in the Bible is fundamentally about respect - respecting people whose opinions differ from our own, or who look differently than we do, or who are older or younger than we are. For people of faith, civility starts with a fundamental belief that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore must be honored, even to the point of putting the needs and interests of others ahead of our own. 

While modern technology has amplified the din of our societal incivility, the reality is that the death of civility has been lamented for millennia. Perhaps our willingness to act in civil ways hasn’t changed as dramatically as it appears. Perhaps the norms of civility have just gotten so fuzzy that we’re confused about how to adhere to them. If we need a rule of thumb to guide our civil interaction, I have a golden suggestion. The New Living Translation puts it this way: "Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.”

James Woody is Executive Director of Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys.