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A New Year’s Resolution: More Civil Behavior

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 Jesu…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

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.

Rediscovering Shalom

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.

Comments (11)

  • Right on, Seth! This time last year on the Race I was going through one of the most difficult challenges with a teammate I have ever faced in any friendship, ever.

    God used His word & His people to encourage me to persevere and be civil — and insist on some level of civility between us.

    A Romanian friend give me the word that, ‘God has started a good work in this (difficult) person, and he promises to complete that good work. He is using you to complete that work – you are a tool He is using in their life. Sometimes tools get damaged in the process, and that’s just part of being a tool that gets used by Him!’

    We never know what God is using us for in the lives of those around us. I think civility will allow Him to use us with more ease — and perhaps less damage! 😉

    • Thanks, Christina. I like that perspective – tools were made to get banged up and used. It makes the friction we experience more easy to take.

  • Good morning Seth,

    Great insight. We were just talking about some of these same things at a family gathering. It’s crazy how we will position ourselves so “correctly” so we don’t have to be vulnerable or work at these “hard thing” like relationships.

    Dwight and I are headed to Atlanta this Friday- Tuesday- for Searchlight and the Launch.
    Hope to see you and Karen!
    Have a blessed Sunday…

    • Peggy – I’m excited to see you and Dwight. Let’s find some time to catch up when you’re here. You guys inspire me to live a life like your daughter lived.

  • Thanks Seth. Well said.
    It seems the pendulum has swung to the far side since the Victorian age.

    I don’t want to go back to the rigidity of the past. But, I do honor some of what we have lost.

    Civility, shalom, and vulnerability will build a culture of honor AND authentic community. Both are needed, I think, in order to bring about a culture shift from entitlement toward something much more fulfilling and powerful.

    I’m excited for what is to come. The change is needed and timely.

    Now, I need to figure out how to model it for my daughter.

    Sorry I won’t be at PSL. Blessings to you and your family!

  • There is a core strength and intentionality in your words that buttresses my flagging spirit, thank you, Seth. Looking out over the landscape of growing incivility can discourage, but thinking on Him and hearing you, brings my focus back to where it belongs.

  • Seth, thank you again for great insight and wisdom. O that I might model this…that someone would see or hear a difference in me that can only be attributed to Him. I do not want to regret a missed opportunity to extend grace and civility.

  • Thanks Dad for the timely message and apt questions that could help lead some of us out of badly broken relationships… if we are truly committed to maturity. Any way I look at it, it’s HARD!!

  • Somewhere in my past someone (my father perhaps) taught me, of the difficult people, to ‘kill ’em with kindness’ and the way I internalized that is to try hard not to hate, try hard to see their side and especially to treat them with plenty of respect (not the faked kind).

    Two things happen, first your attitude changes and second their attitude often changes (not always) and they become less difficult for you (that’s the killing them part, the part you hate dies away).

    We are all sinners, but we are also His beloved creations. It is hard work, but it makes a difference. Thanks for the reminders!

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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