Lately, there's been a swelling chorus of voices among columnists and social commentators over the growing level of intolerance in society. Several incidents over the past few months suggest that people's patience is wearing thin. They want a more civil environment.
When syndicated talk-show host Don Imus insulted a mostly African-American women's basketball team with a racial, sexist slur that reverberated around the world, he was fired from his job. When comedian Michael Richards of "Seinfeld" fame lashed out at hecklers at a performance, many members of the audience left in disgust. When the behavior of some of the National Football League's highly paid athletes got out of hand and antisocial, the League imposed heavy suspensions without pay.
Such incidents have led to calls in the media for a return to an essential virtue, civility – which includes courtesy, respect, politeness, and deference. "Free speech is enhanced by civility," suggested publisher Tim O'Reilly in a New York Times article (April 9), implying that many people today seem to know more about free speech than they do about civility.
Doesn't it all depend on how we view and treat others during everyday encounters? Everywhere you go, you'll find people of faith, even if they don't call themselves "religious." God is real to them. Prayer is real to them. They respect the values of caring and concern and sacrifice for others. Everyone is within reach of the divine Mind.
Mary Baker Eddy wrote, "When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896," p. 262). The more we know God, the more we know our neighbor – and know him or her not as a faceless individual for whom we feel indifference or even contempt, but as someone whose heart we can truly touch.
The call to show more love for all of God's sons and daughters goes back to the teachings of Jesus, which have never lost their import or healing power, even in an electronic age in which so many interactions are faceless and anonymous. The truth is we can't afford to stay hidden. We have so much to give one another. And the closer we are to people, the better we can grasp their real needs, which often include an inner yearning for holiness.
"All of us, if we only knew it," says author Eugene Peterson, "are on a hunt for the holy, for a life that cannot be reduced to the way we look or what we do or what others think of us.... We're after the God-originated and God-shaped life: a holy life" ("The Jesus Way").
This holiness – not a piousness, but a wholeness – isn't something to be afraid of. It can't be relegated to the "good old days" when people seemed more naturally concerned to be trustees of one another's happiness and well-being. Holiness is as much a part of our lives in the cyber age of headsets and portable electronics as it ever was in Bible times.
But for civility to be a unifying, healing – holy – force in our lives, it has to go beyond mere expectations of good manners and politeness. It has to be rooted in Jesus' instruction to "love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15:12) – in other words, prayerfully, tenderly, compassionately, and continuously.
We can practice this every day of our lives. The teachings of Jesus reveal ways of improving the climate of civility right where we are. Among them, perhaps:
• Get to know your neighbors, no matter how uncivilized their behavior appears to be, so that they don't remain faceless or anonymous.
• Love your neighbors without preconceived ideas about their history, culture, or behavior patterns.
• Show more patience, respect, humility, and generosity of spirit.
Such steps – among many others – would guarantee a return to greater civility.
Adapted from an editorial in the Christian Science Sentinel.