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What is a model for civility?

Guest post continued by the Rev. Dr. Charles Kniker

Have we taken the time to learn what our “opponents” really want? Have we taken the time to analyze our own best weapons? Have we figured out ways that we could move forward constructively without destroying others?

Recall the approach of the writer of I Peter; what we might call kindness is the key. Don’t try to overpower or bowl people over. The writer says when you meet others, be prepared to speak and act with “gentleness and reverence”. A similar sentiment is echoed in the words of Norman Cousins, “The highest expression of civilization is not its art but the supreme tenderness that people are strong enough to feel and show toward one another.”

The keys to civility today

It means more than just being more courteous. Civility is a strong virtue and not wimpy, as Richard John Neuhaus declared. Nor is it “constant deferring” to others.

What then is civility? I believe it consists of three primary behaviors.

The first is a commitment to search for the truth
. As one scholar put it, we should be engaged in a playfulness with and a piety for ideas. Do you recall that famous line from the Bible found on libraries and courthouses -- The truth shall set you free? A high school student in a Bible as Literature class was given a pre-test on famous verses from scripture; in the test, he filled out the blank “the truth shall make you _____” with the word “Shudder”! Indeed, it might. How arrogant it is to believe we have captured every truth. For readers of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, it is foolish to believe no new truths are forthcoming.

The second behavior promoting civility is to act in ways that provide others with as much freedom of conscience as we want for ourselves. Our quest for knowledge, our wish to have freedom, will mean others will not make the same choices we make. We cannot begrudge them that opportunity. One of my concerns has been that some parents want the schools and the church to transmit only what they (the parents) have determined is right. What room is left to explore new ideas? The vision for public education in the United States was that it would provide a place where common ground could be established.

The final leg of this stool of civility is the willingness to respect others.
In our actions with those above us, our equals, those below us, those different from us, we need to exercise respect. A Catholic theologian‘s book on reconciliation noted a number of strategies that separate humans. Using stereotypes and other techniques, we can ultimately “vaporize” individuals, that is, make them disappear because they are so different from us. What I believe he says is that at the heart of civility is a fundamental respect for others… to see them, to hear them, to reach out to them.

If this sounds too pie in the sky, read the 1991 best seller, “Getting to Yes.” Case studies of conflicted marriages, business mergers, international disagreements are settled when parties move from absolutist positions to finding ways in which the interests of both are recognized and addressed. Yes, we can and must be civil if this currently uncivil world is to survive.

This civility post is excerpted from a sermon Charles Kniker delivered in spring 1997 at Faith United Church of Christ in Bryan, Texas, with some revisions he made in Nov. 2007. The Rev. Dr. Charles Kniker has served as pastor of local churches, taught at Iowa State University for 24 years, served as president of Eden Seminary and retired in 2002 as Associate Director of Academic Affairs for the Board of Regents, State of Iowa.