St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Renewed Civility, Neither Right Nor Left

We pray on Sundays in the Orthodox Church for “our God-protected country the United States of America, her government and armed forces and all the people.” Many churches use phrases like this on Sunday as well. Many of us use similar prayers personally on a daily basis. Unless such prayers are to be idle words or empty talk, we are called to work toward answers to our own prayer. That is to say, we are called to live in such a manner and speak in such a way as to uphold the values of our “God-protected country.”

But wait. Something below these values helps to establish them. It enables public debate to continue without rancor or rudeness. Call it politeness, call it civility, it’s what we need.

Once we lived in a world and at a time when civility was considered a virtue across society. Most of us had been brought up to practice civility as a norm in our relationships, whether casual or intense, whether personal or political.

In recent years civility seems to have disappeared. Occasionally you see attempts to revive it, usually under the banner of etiquette, but then it slips away, shouted down by the shrillness of TV “reality shows” or interview programs where people see who can say the worst about another person with whom they are “in relationship.” Common decency, once the bedrock of civilization, is suffering.

Here’s the point. We have to put our prayer into action.

When civility and common decency disappear, the conditions necessary for public debate are difficult to maintain and may begin to disappear. Town meetings of the past in New England and elsewhere were safe locales for homegrown politics. People listened to one another, heard both sides of a debated question, and then responded with some courtesy, albeit directness, with their opposition.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a very public Christian, wrote in the Eighties about loss of “the public square.” Time was when churches, clubs, and town halls served as forums for important issues. Neuhaus said that the public square was now naked. This is not a good sign; we need venues to discuss important issues, and we need them to overcome polarization.

There’s an inverse proportionality between rudeness and being heard. In a setting where you know and are known by other people, you are much less likely to be rude. Blunt, perhaps, but not rude; there is a difference. In a setting where people listen to you, you tone down the rhetoric and avoid foul language. Those outcries are the limited tools of the unheard. Rudeness diminishes if and when you feel heard. In fact rudeness feels out of place if other people are actively listening to you.

Being civil has nothing to do with political commitments of left, right, or center. Civility is, however, a clear sign that you will honor people’s political commitments, and that you will listen to others long enough to get their viewpoint. It’s desperately needed in our culture at this time.

Las Cruces is fortunate to have people willing to host public forums on various issues. One of these is called “The Great Conversation,” and it meets at Mountain View Market on El Paseo. Gatherings are small but significant because they foment civil discussion. Participants are honored with civility and listening. Look for announcements about these discussions and join them.

You can also start your own discussions in your home or church, but make sure that you involve people from all sides of a debate. If not, we will continue to sink into further rancor and polarization. Haven’t we had enough of that?

published 21 Jan 11