November 12, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
CAN WE BE CIVIL?
I Peter 3:8-17
Civility is defined in my dictionary as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.” That means incivility would be “impolite, unreasonable, and disrespectful behavior.” Perhaps you’ve noticed, civility seems to be on the downswing and incivility seems to be on the upswing these days.
I’m sure we could all give examples. Road rage is a growing problem. Also parking lot squabbles. Even riots seem to be coming back in style. Those who deal with the public deal more and more with incredible rudeness. Social media allow people to say horrible things without having to suffer any consequences. Growing anti-social behavior is causing teachers, police officers, and, yes, even pastors to resign or retire early. The new way to respond to public speakers expressing opinions you disagree with seems to be either to shout the speaker down or to walk out en masse. (I’m glad you are nicer than that!)
There is a social networking service for neighborhoods called “Nextdoor”. It’s a nice way for neighbors to stay in touch and keep up with what’s happening. I get the e-mails they send out. Last August, one of our neighbors was apparently having a bad day and made this post:
I’m sick of people going 30-35 mph in a 45! I watch them go by at least 3 signs that say 45 mph (Middleton especially) and they continue to go 15 mph under the posted speed. Take Midland if you want to go 35 (or less). Please and thanks.
Even though he closed with the two magic words, people didn’t think his post was very polite. He touched a nerve. The responses, pro and con, and increasingly hostile, just kept coming. There were 119 of them when I last checked. Hardly any were very nice. People just seem to be agitated and irritated these days, and they don’t mind letting you know.
Those of us who lived through the turbulent sixties and early seventies are seeing some similarities today. I was talking to my brother about this. We had both seen the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War. He said that it’s like we’re living those days all over again . . . except back then the music was better.
A year ago the 2016 presidential election was finally over. Whether we were thrilled or horrified with the result, I think we were all relieved to have it over. But we should have known, it was not the end of the incivility. I hear the Hallmark Channel now has record ratings as people are sick and tired of the never-ending partisan rancor on the other channels. Kathleen Parker says we are living in “a political era of uninhibited belligerence.”
She said “uninhibited”, not “unprecedented” because she knows history. The 1800 election, for example. That’s when Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” And John Adams didn’t exactly take the high road either. He said that under a Jefferson administration, “murder, rape, adultery, and incest would be openly taught and practiced.” The only difference I can see is that they didn’t say it on Twitter.
Martin Marty, soon to be 90, has an interesting comment. He says, “People who have strong convictions are often not very civil, and people who are civil often do not have very strong convictions.” That’s a fair observation on the way things are, but I read that passage in I Peter and I know that is not the way things have to be. We can hold firmly and confidently to what we believe and we can still be “polite, reasonable, and respectful.” It’s possible. How do we know it’s possible? The Bible tells us so.
We read the verse Christians evangelists love. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” In other words, know why you believe what you believe. Know it well enough that you will be ready to engage with the skeptics and win them over.
That’s good but that’s not the whole verse. That’s where those who quote this verse usually stop reading, but there is more. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). We tend to forget the gentleness and respect part. Gentleness and respect are more important than winning the argument. And gentleness and respect are actually much more persuasive in the long run than rudeness and disrespect.
Can we be civil? That’s the question. The Bible says we can. The Bible says the key words are gentleness and respect. We’re going to take those two words and we are going to apply them to God, to other people, and to ourselves.
1) So first, let’s look at the gentleness and respect God shows us. We see incredible civility in God’s very nature. Because if God treated us as we deserve to be treated, we would all be in very serious trouble. But God treats us with gentleness and with respect, far greater than we deserve.
Tim Keller is pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. One Sunday as he was greeting people after worship, he noticed a woman standing off to the side who was waiting to talk to him. When he was through with the people in line, she approached him.
She said, “I want you to know that I am not a Christian, but I have been coming here for several weeks now and I plan to keep coming.”
He said, “That’s great! I’m glad. But I’m curious why. Would you mind telling me your story?”
She told him about her high level position working on Wall Street. She said, “About two months ago I screwed something up real badly. I should have lost my job. The CEO called me in and also the vice president to whom I report. The CEO was very upset with me, and he should have been. He was right in the middle of chewing me out, when the vice president interrupted him.”
He said, “You really need to direct that at me because it’s really not her fault. I am responsible for that decision.”
The CEO wasn’t about to fire his vice president, so the rest of the conversation went better. Afterwards, she asked him why he did that for her. She said, “I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time and I’ve taken the blame for what a lot of other people have done, but I’ve never had someone take the blame for something I’ve done. That was really nice of you. But why?”
He said, “I’m a Christian and I have a Savior who took the blame for me.”
She said, “When he said that, I had to ask him where he went to church. He said here. So I had to come and find out what this is all about. I’m still learning.”
We have a Savior who, while we were yet sinners, died for us. So civility begins with this realization of and gratitude for God’s gentleness and respect and grace.
2) First, we think about God and second, we think about other people. The people with whom we disagree. The people who are wrong, because we know we are right. And in today’s world, all too often we don’t just say people who disagree with us are wrong. It’s worse than that. They are also stupid and maybe even a little bit evil. But the Bible tells us something hard to believe about these very people. It says they are created in the image of God. So God doesn’t just treat us with gentleness and respect. God treats them that way, too. And so must we.
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers [and sisters], be compassionate and humble. (I Peter 3:8)
That last word is the big one. Humble. Humility. “In humility, consider others better than yourself” (Philippians 3:2). C.S. Lewis said humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
I heard a story about a dad. You’re going to think I’m the dad in this story, and I very well could be. This sounds like something I could have said. But this is actually another dad who was having trouble communicating with his son. So he said this to his best friend: “I can’t understand my son. He just won’t listen to me.”
That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, and probably to the rest of you with children that age. But look at what this dad just said. He wants to understand his son, but he can’t. And the reason he can’t is because his son won’t listen to him.
Just a thought, but maybe this dad would understand his son a whole lot better if he would stop trying to get his son to listen to him and start trying something new and radical. Like listening to his son.
We all want to be understood. It’s a lonely feeling when no one understands you. But we will never be understood by others if we are not willing to first do our best to understand them. That takes listening. And humility. And gentleness. And respect.
3) So we begin with God. Then others. And finally ourselves. What is it about ourselves that makes it so hard to be civil? Could it be that we are not treating ourselves with gentleness and respect?
I think we all would agree that we have moments when we are nicer human beings than we are at other times. We all have triggers. I’ve had it happen many times. I’ll go into a situation and I’ll have it all worked out in my mind what I’m going to say and how I am going to respond. I’m going to be calm, cool, and collected, no matter what. And then something happens to push one of my buttons, and nice person though I am, I am no longer such a nice person.
Richard Mouw is a real nice guy. He’s the retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He gives sermons on civility. Those of us who do that have a special responsibility to practice what we preach. And he almost always does. Except this one day someone pushed one of his buttons.
He had rented a car. The car had to be returned by a certain time or he would have to pay for another day. He allowed himself plenty of time, but traffic was way worse than expected. It was going to be close. But he made it. He had the car back in time. Five minutes to spare.
Except there was a young woman returning her rental car ahead of him. And the young man who was helping her was also flirting with her. It went on and on. What should have taken two minutes took ten minutes. So by the time Richard Mouw got up to this young man to return the car, he was five minutes late.
He was charged for the extra day. And he was furious. He said, “I had the car back in time! You were flirting with that girl! You are the reason I am late! I should not have to pay one dime extra!”
The young man said, “I’m sorry sir, but I have to go by the time stamped on the ticket when I check you in. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Well, I’m not paying!”
“Sir, actually you are. We have your credit card number.”
Richard Mouw was all red in the face by then. His heart was pounding in his chest. It was all this peace-loving pastor could do to restrain himself from physical violence.
That’s when a middle-aged African-American woman walked over and asked if there was a problem. “Yes, there’s a problem!” he said. “It’s not my fault this car is late! It’s his fault!” The attendant was starting to give his side, when the supervisor stopped him and told him he could leave. She looked down at the check-in ticket, she looked up at Richard Mouw, and she said, “You don’t have to pay. It’s OK.”
He said, “Of course I don’t have to pay!!! Why should I have to pay extra when it wasn’t even my fault???”
She said, “Honey, you need a hug.”
Sometimes we do. Sometimes we take ourselves way too seriously. Sometimes we get ourselves way too worked up. Sometimes the reason we go to war with others because there’s a war raging inside. It’s hard be at peace with others when we’ve let God’s peace depart from our hearts.
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good. He must seek peace and pursue it. (I Peter 3:9-11).
I brought a few civility rules this morning. I got these from Bill Hybels, the soon-to-be retired founding pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. His church puts on a Global Leadership Summit each year and the talk he gave this year was on civility. Here are his ten rules:
1) Set the example of how to differ with others without demonizing them.
2) Model how to have spirited conversations without drawing blood.
3) Never interrupt others who are talking and do not dominate the conversation.
4) Limit your volume level and refuse to use incendiary or belittling words that are guaranteed to derail a discussion.
5) Set the example of being courteous in word and deed.
6) Never stereotype.
7) Apologize immediately when wrong instead of denying or doubling down.
8) Form opinions carefully and stay open-minded if better information comes along.
9) Show up when you say you’re going to show up and do what you say you’ll do.
10) Set rules of respect for everyone in the organization and enforce them relentlessly.
Can we be civil? I think we can. Incivility breeds incivility. We’re seeing that a lot. It’s like the old “he hit me first” excuse we used as children. When people are impolite, unreasonable, and disrespectful to us, it’s hard not to respond in kind.
It’s also true that civility breeds civility. My daughter came upon an example of that in her work as a news reporter. A police officer in Bethany, Oregon saw a note under the windshield wiper on his patrol car. He braced himself for yet another rude, crude, insulting remark as he opened the note and began to read. Here is what it said:
Thank you for all you do. It does not go
unnoticed. Please stay safe. You are
needed here. Blessings. Prayers.
I can’t say for sure, but I have a pretty good idea the police officer who read that note had a much better day the rest of that day, didn’t get his buttons pushed nearly as often as otherwise might happen, and displayed to all he met an extra measure of gentleness and respect.
Dear God, you who treat us so much better than we deserve, help us this morning to see this serious problem of incivility as not just something we see in others, but something we see also in ourselves. Or need to see in ourselves, because until we see it and acknowledge it, we are going to continue to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. We pray for that peace, that deep inner peace, that comes only from you. May we seek it and pursue it. And find it and share it with those we meet. Even those who push all our buttons. In the name of Jesus, who took the blame for us. Amen.