What changes can you make in 2014 that will appreciably impact the quality of your life? We could all do with a few:
- Watch less TV & have more conversations
- Play fewer video games & more board games
- Sit less, walk more
- Live more simply
But I’d like to highlight a change that Jesus suggested at the outset of his ministry: Decide to treat people differently. Give them the grace they don’t deserve. If they are uncivil, decide to treat them with respect.
Where Did Civility Go?
Of all the things that are broken or breaking in our society, there is one that touches almost all our relationships. It’s the gradual erosion of civil behavior – we are slowly losing our appreciation of one another as human beings.
You see it in the way we greet one another. Here in the South, it used to be customary to acknowledge your elders by addressing them as “sir” or “ma’am.” These days a respected older man may be welcomed with “Hey, bro’.”
It used to be that senators in congress would publicly address one another as “my esteemed colleague.” These days congressmen cuss one another out on Meet the Press.
It used to be that families were a safe place where civil behavior was taught. But where is the safe place when single-parent families have tripled in America since 1960?
Now our friends are virtual. Which is to say that they are not real. They’ll wish us “happy birthday” on Facebook, but have no clue about the things that give us angst.
And so, we slice and dice society into interest groups that look out for themselves, because no one else will. The old versus the young, every ethnic and religious group for itself, the rich versus the poor, and so on.
John Locke’s social contract is tattered and frayed. The center is not holding very well. All it takes is one Black Swan event and the deep fissures that divide us will be exposed.
We would do well to rediscover the Hebraic concept of shalom. It has been a part of the Hebrew culture since before Jesus. You say the word “shalom” and it becomes a greeting, a token of your commitment to peace and civility in your relationship.
The word means that you embrace your part in the greater community and corporate agenda. You see that this is bigger than your own personal agenda. We seek that same commitment to peace on earth, good will toward men.
Jesus encountered a similar fraying of the shalom in his day. He lived in a society where the corporate peace was under attack. The religious looked down on the nonreligious. Their association with God was their platform for superiority. Jews despised Samaritans and Romans look down on them all.
Jesus’ response to the incivility he encountered? Vulnerability.
What a revolutionary response to a world looking to run you over! If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn and show them the other cheek. If they steal your coat, give them the shirt off your back. Don’t respond in kind, respond in the opposite spirit. The aggression of others should elicit our vulnerability. Their dependence on manipulation should elicit our dependence on God.
Jesus took the idea of civility and extended it way beyond what seems practical. His prescription was so outrageous that if we were to practice it, we would look like revolutionaries.
Maybe it’s too much to ask. But humor me and think for a moment about the complicated relationships in your life. We all have them. People mistreat us and we write them off, further constricting our circle of trust and those in it.
If I look at a list of people who have hurt me and I have hurt, that’s where I’m most tempted to rudeness. And so, perhaps that’s the best place to start to take incremental steps. Maybe offering some basic civility would surprise them.
While trying to change what’s broken in our society may seem impossible, we can make a change – we can touch those who we’ve been in relationship with, giving them the grace they don’t deserve.
What do you think? Why not join me and make a list of your complicated relationships and how you’re going to treat the difficult people in your life differently in 2014?
As you and I do so, I believe Jesus will meet us there, giving us the very grace we pass on to others.