What became of the virtue of civility?

Thursday, May 17, 2018 11:34 PM
Leigh Waggoner

Civil discourse these days is less and less civil. This is not news. For those of us who are “of an age,” we have something with which to compare how our society is currently functioning. We remember when persons could discuss topics on which they had differing views. “Back in the day” folks could even argue without demeaning one another or resorting to vulgarity.

There was a certain agreed-upon decorum that was common, even expected among members of our society. Oh, I’m not naive enough to think that it was every single person who behaved this way. For the most part, though, we were a people with manners who listened to one another with respect, no matter how we felt about the ideas we were hearing. Civility was a cultural virtue.

What happened to that?

I recently Googled “civil discourse.” I found that conservatives and liberals, on both the political and the religious spectra had chimed in on this topic. They all bemoaned the state of current conversation, or lack thereof. Fingers were pointed in every direction. It made me wonder all sorts of things. Am I a part of this disturbing trend and don’t recognize it? How will it ever end? Until we arrive at some different norm, what damage will be done to our society and maybe even to the world, not to mention to our individual souls? These may sound like unanswerable questions, but it seems they are questions with which we ought to grapple since they can have long-ranging, if not eternal, consequences.

Given that this is a religion column, it is only right that I stick to that with which I am familiar. That would be Christianity and how it is lived out in this country, at this time. When I do that, I have to hang my head.

You’ve seen them ... the headlines about supposed Christians who spew all kinds of hate; nominal Christians demonizing those whom they say God calls to repentance (usually for what they deem is some sexual impropriety); duplicity, hypocrisy, and arrogance underpinning religious certitude that is anything but charitable and all in the name of God.

Somewhere we Christians have lost our grounding. Our own scriptures tell us that God is love. And the love that is God is not some warm, fuzzy feeling. The love that is God is a way of being in relationship. It is a way of mutual self-emptying. It is a dance of eternal self-giving for the other.

For those of us who say we follow in the way of Jesus, it seems civility should be the least of the descriptors by which we are identified. Even our little children used to learn a song based on John 13:35, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love/ Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But fewer and fewer of us are participating in that school of mutuality that is Sunday morning worship. Fewer and fewer of us are being rooted in a message of unity that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” (Galatians 3:28) Fewer and fewer of us are being formed to believe that “blessed are the meek.” (Matthew 5:5) Separated from the beloved community, we are taking more and more of our cues from the larger world.

It is easy to lose our footing. To live this life takes not only the conviction of our faith, but also the courage and fortitude to stand in the place of love. To do that is to make oneself vulnerable. The way of Jesus is anathema in a culture of winners and losers.

In a culture of individual striving where stepping on your neighbor to make your way to the top is just the way it has to be, the way of Jesus is foolhardy. In a culture of rabid individualism where the common good is forgotten, the way of Jesus has simply lost its credibility.

I am not naive enough to think that if we all were just to start going to church on Sundays everything would be better.

Really paying attention to the message that we all are one, a message that is at the heart of Christianity, is not a magic bullet that will return civility to our common discourse. I do wonder, though, if it might not help.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or