Miller Williams wrote a short poem-like piece about civility – you might consider committing it to memory, if you haven’t already done so:
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
When Thomas Jefferson was vice president and wielding of the Senate gavel he laid down the law, or rules of civility, one of which is that “No one is to disturb another person who is speaking by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another.”
Ah, yes, civility..which is what I want to talk about this morning. Oh, I should also mention that I want to talk about the virtue of incivility – but first some comments ‘on being civil.’
When my mentor in ministry, Bill Rice, died suddenly in 1970, his pre-retirement year, when he was 65, I was in my first year in seminary, and I was devastated. I don’t recall much of what was said at his memorial service, but I remember one sentence very clearly. It was spoken by an old friend and colleague in ministry, Ed Cahill, who said, “Bill Rice was a civilized man.”
Ed’s observation of Bill has stayed with me all these years.
On the face of it, this was an almost overly simplistic remark – just almost…because it wasn’t simplistic. It was a profound truth, not only about Bill, but about Ed for naming it as a key, over-riding virtue.
Bill Rice encouraged me to leave my teaching position, go to seminary for three years, in spite of the fact that I was raising two young children, and in spite of my lack of theological motivation – my lack of theology, really…and become a minister. In addition to being ‘a civilized man,’ Bill was an audacious man, sometimes contemptuous of decorum!
The course of our lives is often changed by someone who is audacious enough to provide encouragement at ‘just the right time.’ Hope itself can sometimes be audacious.
There is a word in Greek about such timeliness – the word is Kairos. It’s about that brief window of opportunity, striking when the iron is hot, when you realize that you need to do it now, knowing you shall not pass this way again.
Another Greek word, chronos, literally means “time.” But kairos is “qualitative” time, as in “the right time.” I thought that this first Sunday after the election might be just the right time to talk about civility, and as I dug into it I came to realize that a statement about civility must necessarily acknowledge that there’s a time for incivility, or non-violent civil disobedience.
Ed Cahill’s comment that ‘Bill Rice was a civilized man’ is an appropriate starting point.
In a kairos moment Bill Rice said to me, “You should be a minister.” It was audacious!
He provided encouragement and direction – just at the right time. I had thought about the possibility of ministry since age 12, when another minister, the Reverend Dr. Gray, minister of the Congregational Church in Woburn – my church — invited me to ‘think about it,’ simply by asking, “Frank, have you ever thought about becoming a minister?” That was another kairos moment.
Bill Rice had been the chairman of the Merger Commission, whose task was to help arrange a marriage between the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, which he and his committee succeeded in doing in 1961, just a few years before he and I met.
So, what does it mean to be a civilized man, or woman? What are the characteristics of a civilized person living in our corner of the world today? What is the nature of civil discourse? How are we, as a nation, doing with regard to civility? Was this election season civil?
Like lots of such questions, it’s easier to say what is not civil discourse.
During the recent political season we certainly witnessed a lot of incivility, starting with the presidential race, and for Connecticut voters, the race for a Senate seat. Those contests were marked by attack ads and smear campaigns; blatant incivility harmful to the balance of political stability.
Then there were ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington about the question of the right of Gays and Lesbians to marry and to have the benefits to which married couples are entitled, some very tangible benefits like taxes and inheritance, and some intangible like social acceptance and respect.
All four of those ballot initiatives were successful, clearing the path toward a more just society – a more civil society.
The ballot questions in Massachusetts included one about physician-assisted suicide, allowing doctors to help a terminally ill patient to hasten the end of life to alleviate suffering. It was defeated – but the question itself will not go away – it’s about civility.
The recent storm was named Sandy – the name that felt appropriate to me for days after the storm as I walked along Compo Beach, on Soundview Road, watching home owners and people they hired shoveling sand the way we have to shovel snow after a big snow storm…sand that invaded many of those homes…sand that filled walkways and driveways and lawns…
Maybe we should name the political storms that rage for months before an election. What name would you give to the pre-election season we’ve endured recently?
Would either of our presidential candidates have had a chance of winning if he was civil…if he didn’t disparage his opponent, and if he didn’t bend the truth?
Emily Dickinson said it in a poem: ‘tell all the truth, but tell it slant.’ Opposing candidates hire consultants to put the right slant on economic truths.
Harry Truman liked to quote Mark Twain who said, “There are three kinds of lies — there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” (One version quotes him as having said, “There are lies, damn lies and church statistics!”)
Incivility comes in 21 flavors, but they all taste the same, and they all leave a bad taste in the mouth. Candidates and parties in the recent campaign season spent nearly 6 Billion dollars; or, to put a positive slant on it, they stimulated the economy by pumping it up with nearly 6 billion dollars!
Last week we referred to the Wizard of Oz as a kind of mythology that’s deep in the American psych and serves as a symbol of coming of age…moving from the innocence of childhood toward the long and winding yellow brick road that leads to the maturity we need to function in the world.
You’ll recall that scene in the movie version when Dorothy’s dog Todo pulled the curtain aside and revealed the so-called Wizard for the fraud he was, and she said, “Oh, you’re a bad man,” to which he responded, “No, I’m a good man; I’m just a bad wizard.”
President Barak Obama’s opponents said, “He’s a bad man,” to which he responded, in essence, “No, I’m a good man; I’m just a bad wizard.”
There’s no magic bullet that will bring us a robust economy, that will end unemployment and under-employment; that will provide adequate and more equitable salaries so that hard working Americans can provide for their families adequately.
There’s no wizard in the wings.
But there are good men and women who are committed to finding the best solutions to some big, seemingly unsolvable problems…women and men who are determined to do whatever they do…in a civil manner. Civility survives, even if it is obvious by its absence!
Civility is more than mere politeness. A civil society has to be able to deal with difficult questions, some of which are not very pleasant to talk about – like assisted suicide, or abortion, or the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.
Democracy is not always the best way to decide on these questions – it sometimes turns into the tyranny of the majority
Frederick Douglas, who was born into slavery, said it well:
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Civility is not another word for politeness.
In his essay On Civil Disobedience, Thoreau argued that we should not permit our government to trump our conscience – that is to say, when we see a wrong, an injustice, we have to be able to speak out and to counter-act that injustice. Thoreau’s essay greatly influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, who worked to end injustices with the use of civil disobedience.
Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience was prompted by his disgust of the government sanctioned institution of slavery, and the imperialism of the Mexican-American War.
Shortly after the Civil War, Mark Twain wrote his famous masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. It’s a penetrating portrayal of civil disobedience.
Do you remember when Huck was struggling with himself, wrestling with his conscience about harboring a fugitive slave, his friend Jim?
Huck had been brought up to believe it was a sin to harbor a runaway slave.
There’s a wonderful, theological passage where Huck says:
“Sometimes Jim and me we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark — which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two — on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.”
Then comes that scene about civil disobedience that sears right into the soul, reaching down to where ‘the spirit meets the bone.’
Huck’s conscience gets the better of him so he writes a note to turn in Jim. Huck says:
“So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
“Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelp s has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” — and tore it up.
That’s an act of civil disobedience, pure and sweet and simple!
Huck knows in his heart what is right, and it goes against the teaching of his elders and family, the teachings of his church and against the whole of society. He believes he will indeed go to the everlasting torment of the fires of hell…but he can’t go against what he knows in his heart to be ‘right.’
To be civil is to be polite, to be nice, to be acceptable…on the one hand. On the other hand, sometimes civility means perpetrating an injustice as an agent of one’s government or to one’s religious teachings.
The famous Harvard psychologist Henry James said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind and the third is to be kind.”
The best in all the religion of the world is that basic teaching – to be kind; to be civil, beginning with those closest to you and extending outward to ‘the stranger.’
Simple acts of kindness may be as much theology as we need.
Kindness is the work of God made visible in the here and now; Rabbi Hillel said it: “If I’m not for myself, who will be, if I’m only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?”
Jesus said it: ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren you’ve done it to me.’
Buddha and Confucius and Lao Tze said it – my mother said it and probably your mother said it, and your father said it.
Messenger, Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.