In writing about civility, Gil Rendle (Behavioral Covenants in Congregations-A Handbook for Carter cites popular guides from the past that counseled people on how to behave well on trains. Having traveled mostly by train and bus for 10 years while living in Europe, this resonated with me. You find yourself bumping up against all types of people. Sometimes you spend the night in a sleeper car with complete strangers.
Most of us travel alone or with a family member in our cars; we are less prone to develop discipline of accommodation. We see commercials advertising luxury cars where a driver glides through a city isolated from noise, disorder, odors and, of course, other people. This seems to be our aspiration, to move through the world untouched by others. This is the radical individualism so prevalent in America.
When we travel together we must make sacrifices for the sake of a pleasant journey. Carter defines civility as “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”
There is a place between law and freedom.
Rendle goes on to draw upon the work of Lord John Fletcher Moulton. Moulton wrote about three domains of life. First is the domain of law; this encompasses those things we must do. In this domain we obey.
The other end of the continuum is the domain of free choice. This is the category that includes all those things over which we claim complete freedom to do or not to do. We recognize this as personal autonomy.
Moulton posited between the domains of law and freedom the domain of obedience to the unenforceable. In this domain we comply with obligations and duties to which we cannot be compelled. Moulton calls them “manners.” Another word for manners could be civility. This is the arena in which we sacrifice what we cannot be compelled to give up for the sake of others and the wellbeing of the larger community. Thus, it is more than simply being polite or pleasant. This domain has a moral dimension; it trades in the currency of right and wrong, humanity and inhumanity. This dimension is undercut by our radicalized sense of personal autonomy.
Civility is no stranger to Christian conduct.
The discipline of obeying the unenforceable is at the center of the Christian life. The believers in Corinth were having trouble balancing their freedom with their obligation to the wellbeing of others. Paul wrote: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others [1 Cor. 10:23-24].” Paul is calling his readers to do what no one can compel them to do—in this case not eating meat that has been offered to idols. This is not a problem we face in our churches, but Paul does hold up sacrificing for others as a higher priority than exercising freedom. He is asking them to make a sacrifice for the higher purpose of living well together.
Paul admonishes his readers in Colosse to forebear one another (Col. 3:13). In other words he advises that they put up with each other. A piece of civility is putting up with others because we know they are putting up with us. Civility is about giving one another room to breathe and grow. It is also about creating safe spaces for people to be authentic without fear of rejection, or retribution.
We live in an uncivil time bred of an overwrought sense of freedom and autonomy, and this taints the lives of our congregations. As believers we can guard ourselves against being conformed to the spirit of our age by deliberately practicing civility in our churches, our families, and our relationships. We can find that place between law and freedom where we voluntarily sacrifice for the wellbeing of others, where we do good things that no one can compel of us.
This is a part of loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew reports the following exchange between a Pharisee and Jesus:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the
Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the
greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (22:36-40).
Jesus takes that middle domain, the domain of obedience to the unenforceable, and makes it a type of law for believers. He elevates radical civility as an inherent dimension of love of God. Faith is lived in that middle domain, where we sacrifice for us others, freely doing what no one can compel us to do.
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State