Why Should Civility Matter?

When I was in grade school in Saskatchewan back in the late thirties of the last century we studied nine subjects simultaneously and each subject ran for the whole school year.

We had exams on all subjects (except one) three times during the year–in the fall, winter, and late spring. Toward the end of June we were then tested over the whole year’s work.

Marks were recorded numerically for each course, and our overall grade was determined by averaging the nine. The results were then posted on the chalkboard.

Achievement mattered during the year because if our aggregate average for all tests throughout the year was above 67 we didn’t have to write the final set of exams.

But, what about that one subject that wasn’t included in this periodic testing process? On our report cards it was simply called, “Conduct.” Our behavior was graded by the teacher and the grade recorded. This grade could affect our overall score for better or for worse.

Memories of those days came back recently when Kathleen and I watched the vice-presidential debate for the American elections, and then next day listened to what the pundits had to say about it.

It was that grading for conduct that I thought of when I watched Congressman Paul Ryan go up against feisty Vice President Joe Biden in what was supposed to be a debate.

To my surprise, on the day after the debate the political pundits were seriously divided in their judgment. Some called the vice-president’s disruptive conduct “rude,” “scornful,” even “arrogant.” According to them, he lost the debate. Other pundits graded his strategy as “hearty” or “aggressive” — a winning strategy in a “good, rousing” debate. According to them, his antics won.

My seventh grade teacher would have had a migraine over such widely varied opinions of the same observable conduct. I’m sure she would have been asking: whatever became of civility?

This recent debate is a good platform from which to launch the whole question of civility from a Christian point of view. In a media world where incivility is demonstrated all too quickly, is civility in day-to-day relationships still to be expected from people of faith?

We are saved by God’s grace — his unmerited generosity! Agreed. We are then sustained by that grace. Agreed also. Then should we expect that this “grace” would enable us to be “gracious” in our human dealings?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus: “Do not let any wholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).

It’s a very high standard indeed.

Our Lord taught his disciples: “You are the light of the world.” Think of the power of that word — light — spoken into a world dimly lit by candles and oil-fed lanterns (Matt.5:14). What a picture!

We may not be able to reintroduce into today’s educational systems the rigor of former days. And the vice presidential debate that suffered from a large element of incivility will soon fade from our memories.

But the issue of love-prompted civility must surely stay with us because we face our own final exam — the very day believers appear before Christ’s judgment seat where “each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).

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