Our National Loss of Civility

By Rich Nathan 9-24-2009

"You lie!" yelled Representative Joe Wilson during President Obama's recent address before a joint session of Congress. Millions of Americans were horrified, but Rush Limbaugh said that he for one was ecstatic when he heard Wilson's outburst.

The loss of civility has suddenly become a hot topic in America, displayed center court by the normally gracious tennis player Serena Williams, and at the MTV Music Awards by rapper Kanye West.

Bishop Timothy Clarke, the senior pastor of First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, said:

In the 1960s, the Senate was home to men like Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, William Fulbright and Jacob Javits, but it was also home to John Stennis, Strom Thurmond, and James Eastland. What is amazing is that while these men had opposing views and held to them with tenacity there seemed to be an ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable, something that is completely missing today. It seems as if our times are now marked not just by dissent and disagreement, but also by a willingness to engage in ugly and vitriolic language that seems designed to malign and disparage anyone who does not hold our opinions.

Richard Mouw, the brilliant and gentlemanly president of Fuller Theological Seminary, has worked for decades to promote gender equality, racial justice, peacemaking, and care for the environment. But when he came out in favor of a ban on same-sex marriages on a radio talk show, he was accused of being a fascist and a fundamentalist who would support burning witches at the stake. It was inconceivable to callers that one could support a traditional view of marriage without being a fascist.

A couple of years ago I accepted an invitation to speak at a prayer breakfast hosted by Governor Ted Strickland. Here is an excerpt from an email I received:

I heard that you were going to speak at a prayer breakfast for the Devil [Strickland]. If you are a MAN OF GOD and not just some limp-wristed preacher, who gets a thrill out of being around the world's power players, you will rip into this evil monster.

It was signed, "A Concerned Christian."

From boorish passengers who scream at customer service representatives in airport waiting areas, to sales clerks who will not hang up their cell phones while "serving" us in checkout lines, there seems to be an epidemic of incivility in America.

Why is the loss of civility so troubling? The word "civility" comes from the Latin word civitas, which, like the Greek word polis, pertains to the city. We cannot function together as citizens of the same city or the same country unless we are mindful of how we treat other people in public spaces -- in airports and shopping malls, on internet blogs and in movie theaters, on tennis courts and in Congress. Civility has to do with the pursuit of the common good, rooted in the idea that we share a common life together. The loss of civility leads to a complete breakdown of community. This is not hyperbole. For at the heart of incivility is disrespect of other people.

Our refusal to exercise self-restraint in our behavior and our words is not merely a violation of Emily Post's rules of etiquette so much as it is cutting the tie that binds us together. The problem with Wilson's outburst was not just the dishonor he brought to the Congress or to the office of the President; it was more serious than that -- at least for the faith community. His outburst (like that of Serena Williams and Kanye West and the finger we give to someone on the highway) is an attack on a fellow human being, who the faith community believes is made in the image of God. Civility says, "I will show you respect not because I agree with your viewpoints. (I may even adamantly disagree.) And it is not just because of your office or position. I will show you respect because you are made in the very image of God and we are bound together in a common life as fellow citizens of this city, this nation, and this planet."

Civility and humility go together just as incivility and arrogance go together. The civil person is fundamentally a humble person who recognizes that God is not pinning his hopes on us for the redemption of this world. Rather, the civil person is modest in his or her self-assessment, as is fitting for finite, fallible people.

Civility is ultimately a matter of restraint towards oneself and respect for others. We don't have to say everything we think and we don't have to get everything we want, when we want it. Other people deserve honor and respect. Civility is a lesson for all of us to learn, not just Congressman Wilson.

Rich Nathan is senior pastor of Vineyard Columbus.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Our National Loss of Civility"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads