Dear New Hope,
When our kids were younger, we had a large picture book called Where’s Waldo? Every page displayed an assortment of pictures that overstimulated the eyes with colored objects and chaotic disorder. But hidden somewhere on the page was that crazy man named Waldo, wearing his rimmed glasses and a red and white beanie hat. The game, of course, was for the kids to find Waldo in the midst of the chaos.
As we start another calendar year, I look at our culture and I am overstimulated by all of the chaotic nonsense. In the midst of all the blogs, tweets, Instagrams, social media blasts, and political rancor I am left wondering, “Where’s civility?” Civility, like Waldo, seems to be hiding in the midst of the cultural milieu that is filled with what one NY Times editor defined as, “Outrage Porn.” We live in a culture that seems to value outrage, intolerance, and disrespect. The louder and bolder one shouts their message, the more “Likes” they get on social media.
So, where is civility? Even the word seems to be outdated and antiquated. Think of it: when was the last time you used the word “civility” in a sentence? Its synonyms include words like politeness, courtesy, respect, graciousness, and good manners. Where are these things hiding in culture? Where are the good manners from one human being to another? Where is the graciousness of speech that treats others with respect even if there is disagreement? Where is the courtesy where people of opposing sides at least have a posture of politeness to their common man? Sometimes my kids would look at the same picture for 10 minutes and not be able to find Waldo. I wonder how long we would have to look at culture before we begin to see civility emerge.
A recent Wall Street Journal article was written about civility in American history. The article examined where good manners have gone in America, citing a work from 1899 by Isaac Peebles called Politeness on Railroads. In that work, Peebles was aiming to “help Americans navigate a new mode of transport that had suddenly thrust people into close proximity – and to correct the evil of too great laxity of true politeness.” In other words, with Americans now rubbing shoulders with strangers on a regular basis, what rules should govern their interactions? What standards of conduct should people display toward other humans?
For Peebles, the starting point in 1899 was to “give special attention to the ladies, aged, feeble and the cripple.” The primary posture of cultural interaction for Peebles was this: “Let all look after the interest of one another, assisting one another when necessary.” In other words, Peebles called Americans to a standard of civility that would govern our social conduct. (See Wall Street Journal, “I’m Taking the Surly Train.”)
So, once again, I go back to my question, “Where’s Waldo? Where’s Civility?” Last year the political discourse in our country continued to push new extremes of disrespect, intolerance, and outrage. There is so little evidence of politeness and courtesy, it makes one wonder if it even exists anymore.
So, New Hope, we may not be able to influence all of American culture, but we can influence our workplaces, homes, and neighborhoods with a spirit of civility towards one another. The Scripture calls us to such a posture:
Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Titus 2:7-8 “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.”
Philippians 4:5 “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.”
That is what civility looks like in a culture of outrage. It looks like our speech being “gracious.” It looks like a life that models “good works.” It looks like people who are “reasonable” in social interactions and on social media.
America needs a course correction for 2019. This is one course correction that we can implement in everyday life. It is time to sort through the cultural outrage and reclaim civility, politeness, courtesy, respect, graciousness and good manners. For Peebles in 1899, politeness “meant more than graceful manners, courtly conversation, and rules of fashion. It was an inner disposition, a heartfelt sentiment that grows out of…a constant consideration for the happiness of others.” (WSJ article). This is what we need to reclaim: a constant consideration for the happiness of others. And, as Christians, we do this not as an end in itself, but to display the glorious riches of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We seek to show civility because we are the people who represent the most gracious man who ever lived. We aim to be polite and reasonable because in doing so we stand in sharp contrast with a world of chaos and disorder.
Where’s civility in America? If it is anywhere, may it be found in the people of New Hope.
You are loved,