The Power of Civility

Lafayette United Methodist Church
Gloria C. Duffy
Sunday, June 24, 2018

I am so pleased to speak with you today. I’ve stood here just once before, when I was 20 years old, to give the eulogy for my grandmother. I was a junior in college, deep in studies of Russian history. I recently found my notes from that eulogy, and whether it was relevant or not, I seem to have quoted Tolstoy quite a bit.

Standing here completes a circle. This church is where my faith, values and ethics began, attending Sunday school and being part of this church family. Six decades later, I am happy to share some thoughts on how the beliefs I first learned here inform and guide me through life’s challenges.

I’ve known some of you since I was a small child, knew some of your children in school, and have gotten to know some of you more recently. This is a good church, with a benevolent ministry; Pastor Marylee is the most recent minister in this tradition. Positive and uplifting thoughts have always come from this pulpit.

And you, the congregation, are such good people. You are caring and friendly, and treat others well.  You step up to your responsibilities and bear them capably. You believe in justice, humanity, thoughtfulness, kindness, honesty and wisdom. As a church community, you provide a place to sleep for homeless people, you support food banks and shelters, knit hats for children in Afghanistan, build houses for the needy, comfort the sick, reach out to the community, support social justice and celebrate joyful milestones. You practice kindness and civility every day.

So my message today gives new meaning to the phrase, preaching to the converted. You already know and live the values of this church. My thoughts are more about how we, as members of this faith community, can practice, protect and strengthen our faith and values, in the world around us.

Today I’d like to share some thoughts on a contemporary question, that is, how people in our society behave towards one another. I’d like to talk about the principle of civility. Civility means courtesy and respect. It comes from the Latin word civilis, connoting civilized behavior, mutual respect, and good citizenship. Civility enables us to have a just, democratic and constructive society.

Civility is not only a secular term, but is rooted in religious teaching. Christianity teaches the golden rule that we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. We have commandments for respecting and loving our parents and neighbors, for not bearing false witness against others, and advice like that from St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

Do not let any unwholesome 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.

Today, incivility threatens to become normal in our society. The way some people talk about and to one another is planting seeds of prejudice and hate in our society. This trend is the very antithesis of the values of tolerance and civility our faith recommends and that we uphold in this good church.

I personally see disturbing examples of incivility almost every day.  For example:

  1.  In April, I had a public conversation with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in Palo Alto.  Channel 5, KPIX TV, filmed the conversation, and quickly posted a clip from it on YouTube. I looked at the video clip, and the comments posted about it. The very first comment, from a user whose personal icon included a swastika, was, “Why would anyone wanna listen to this senile (and then a racial expletive used against people of Jewish descent)?
  2. This May, I attended a college commencement ceremony where two dozen students stood up with their backs to an 82-year-old woman pioneer in the technology industry, when she was receiving an honorary degree and giving a commencement speech. The students mistakenly thought that, as a board member of the college, she hadn’t been supportive of efforts to combat sexual misconduct on campus, which in reality she had supported.

On a national level, we hear racial stereotyping and insults to a dying war hero.

Christianity tells us in many ways that incivility and its accompanying behavior are not acceptable ways to treat one another. A kind and charitable attitude towards others is in fact the cornerstone of Christianity.

Incivility is rude and hurtful, but it can also be practically harmful. A week after the November 2016 election I had lunch with the chairman of a major medical system, which owns a large network of hospitals. He told me that his company had just had a special staff meeting discussing the challenge of providing good medical care in the face of the rise in white patients making abusive or disparaging comments to many medical personnel of color in their system, on whom they depend.

Incivility can not only negatively affect how our society is able to accomplish goals like good healthcare, but it also interferes with cooperation that would help to solve some of our social problems. And it can have a very pernicious effect. Once unleashed, demeaning and disrespectful talk can increase abusive behavior towards others. This has happened historically and it is occurring in our society today.

So, what are we to do, as Christians, when we see this kind of incivility and disrespect around us?

First, we continue to be grounded in our faith. The Bible, through the Ten Commandments, through the advice of the prophets and example of Christ and his disciples, teach us what is right and wrong. Respect for others is right. Tolerance is right. Hate speech is wrong, verbal abuse is wrong. Bullying is wrong.

In the Methodist and Episcopal liturgies, two of the most well-known biblical stories bracket this time of the year. The first is the New Testament miracle of Jesus calming the waters, in the sea of Galilee when he and his disciples were in a small boat being tossed about by the waves. The second is the Old Testament story of how the future King David defeated the warrior Goliath, when King Saul faced off against the Philistines.

In some ways these seem opposite like approaches to life — on the one hand the soothing peacemaker, on the other hand a diehard warrior. In fact, we need all of these tools for pursuing our values in the world today, including opposing incivility and intolerance where they rear their heads.

So, like Jesus, we calm the storm when we can, and teach with information and by example. We have great patience with others. We never respond to abuse in kind. We elevate the discussion.

But what about when we see wrong and harm being done, and our example and patience and teaching are not enough?

Now we come to David and Goliath, and the role of the warrior.

If women are being demeaned in our workplace, we need to stand up for them. If people of color, or LGBTQ people or those who are disabled or elderly are being disrespected or discriminated against, we need to stand with them and try to rectify the wrong.

In doing so, we take the long view. Not all problems are solved immediately. We are ready to be persistent over long periods of time.

Civility and mutual respect make cooperation possible between men and women, the young and the old, different religions, liberals and conservatives, people who are gay and those who are straight, and people of different races. Think of all the progress on civil and human rights, economic development and social progress that has come when such cooperation has been possible.

When Christians and Jews and Buddhists and communists and democrats collaborated, we were able to defeat Nazism. In my own experience, when Democratic Senator Nunn and Republican Senator Lugar (both Methodists, by the way) cooperated, we were able to eliminate 7,000 nuclear weapons in the former countries, after the Soviet Union crumbled. With tolerance and mutual respect, we can accomplish great things.

We also have so many opportunities to practice civility and humanity in everyday life. Let’s close by singing a song about all we can do in our daily lives, "The Only Child," by the contemporary California singer and songwriter, Jackson Browne:

The Only Child
Jackson Browne

Boy of mine
As your fortune comes to carry you down the line
And you watch as the changes unfold
And you sort among the stories you'll be told
If some pieces of the picture are hard to find
And the answers to your questions are hard to hold

Take good care of your mother
When you're making up your mind
Should one thing or another take you from behind
Though the world may make you hard and wild
And determine how your life is styled
When you've come to feel that you're the only child
Take good care of your brother

Let the disappointments pass
Let the laughter fill your glass
Let your illusions last until they shatter
Whatever you might hope to find
Among the thoughts that crowd your mind
There won't be many that ever really matter

But take good care of your mother
And remember to be kind
When the pain of another will serve you to remind
That there are those who feel themselves exiled
On whom the fortune never smiled
And upon whose life the heartache has been piled
They're just looking for another
Lonely child

And when you've found another soul
Who sees into your own
Take good care of each other
Take good care of each other
When you’re thinking you’re alone
Be aware of each other
When you’re looking for something of your own
Take good care of each other
Take good care of each other

Lord, thank you for guiding the good people of this Congregation as they work to take care of others.  Give us strength and bless us as we continue to serve you.