Decline of Civility
I John 3:7
Please turn in the pew Bibles to first John chapter 3 and follow along as I read v7. “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
In the south, people like to wave. All the Southern Belles seem to be practicing for a beauty pageant. They are always waving. They wave hello, they wave goodbye, and they wave just to let you know that they saw you. Of course, they are just being friendly. That is Southern Hospitality.
And southerners love to chat. Go to the grocery store to pick up a few things. People will just start talking to you. They love to talk about the weather. They say, “nice day,” or they ask “Is it going to rain?”
And they love to ask about family: “How’s your mom and dad?” “How’s the wife?” In reply, you don’t have to say much. Just smile and say "They're all fine. Thanks for asking,” and then you are supposed to ask, “How's your mom and dad?"
Then we come to “Y'all.” I was taught to say “y’all” when I am speaking to more than one person, but many southerners use “y’all” whether they are talking to one or many. That is confusing. Then there are other words, like “yonder.” Where is “over yonder”? well, it is “over yonder.”
Southerners have a reputation for being a hospitable people. They want to help other people. They like other people. They want to talk to them and make their acquaintance and be liked by them. All that is very admirable, but, unfortunately, southern hospitality is in decline. Try rush hour traffic in Charlotte tomorrow morning and see how much hospitality and kindness you find. If someone waves at you, it is likely to be an obscene gesture. Instead of saying, “Y’all come back,” they are more likely to be saying, “Y’all get your blankety blank self out of the way.”
This is not only a Southern problem. Everybody in the United States is talking about it. You can read about it online, in the newspapers, in the magazines. Everybody says we aren’t nice to each other any more. Everybody laments the decline of civility in America.
We see it everyday in events that happen on the streets or baseball fields, in the schoolroom or the boardroom, the mall or the office—intemperate language, boorish manners, impatience and even hostility toward those of a different opinion.
Everyone is aggressively demanding their rights to the point where others have no rights. In their demands, they are like so many babies. Have you heard the Seven Toddler Property Laws?
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
6. If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.
7. If it’s yours and I steal it, it’s mine.
In summary, Its mine, its mine, its mine and you are pond scum. That seems to be the prevalent attitude today.
Shouting, shoving, demanding, accusing, posturing, condemning, and that is just in Congress. But really, this sort of thing is everywhere and it is reinforced on television which wants people to act like Huns, not humans, because that is what gets ratings.
A lady who works at Bilos told me recently that the worst example of rudeness she has ever seen is people going through the checkout line talking on cell phones. They are talking on their phone unloading their groceries on the checkout table. They continue to talk while the cashier runs their groceries over the bar code reader. When they see the total, they swipe their cards, take their receipt, and go. They never acknowledge that the cashier exists at all. And this is not in New York City; this is here in York.
What can be done about this? According to Emily Hertzer, we can save civility and proper manners by hosting British style, afternoon tea parties. A good cup of tea at the right time of day, served in the appropriate way, goes a long way towards civilizing the savage beasts inside all of us. At least, that is the hope of Emily Hertzer who spends her summers on sailboats in Newport, Rhode Island.
At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, Emily Hertzer wore the word “Newportant” on her peach-colored baseball cap—not “important,” but “Newportant.” Newportant is a word coined by Newport, Rhode Island artist Dr. Love (a.k.a. G. Brian Sullivan) in 1977. Dr. Love thinks Newport is a unique, wonderful, and interesting community. It is also generally laid back and mannered and cultured. Newportant meant all that.
[Comfort, Brian. “What it is to be ‘Newportant’?” Newport, Rhode Island: East Bay Newspapers, January, 22, 2004, eastbayri.com. Also see McGrath, Ben. “Civil disobedience.” The New Yorker (“Talk of the Town”) September 9, 2004, http://www.newyorker.com/talk/content/?040913ta_talk_mcgrath.]
Emily Hertzer wants to move the word “newportant” beyond Newport to simply mean that which is civil, that which is cultured, that which is well-mannered. She wants newportant to be more than a word. She wants it to be a national movement. She aims to accomplish this by spreading the word, by personal example, by selling newportant T-shirts and ball caps, by tea parties. I wish her luck but I doubt that she will have much success.
Of course, we in the South would say that we don’t need a new word, we have two perfectly good old words to describe what we need—Southern Hospitality. The problem is that we are not doing much to make the words a reality.
Actually, we have the words we need in 1 John 3. The opening verse of this chapter is one of the most positive, uplifting verses in the Bible. “See what love the Father has given us." Think about how God loves us. God is our father, and God loves us so much that he came among us and died for us. The extraordinary love of God reaches down to us and envelops us so that we can be called the children of God. And John emphasizes that we are not only called that—we are that. We are actually brothers and sisters of Christ and heirs of the Kingdom. I feel better already. We all need to hear that frequently. The next time you are down and depressed, read I John 3:1. And rejoice that you are a child of God.
That is great, but John carries the idea a little further. Children of God act like children of God. In verse 3, John says Christ is holy; Christ is pure; therefore, we should be holy and pure. In v4, John says if we commit sin, we break God’s law. And then to emphasize, he says the same thing again, sin is breaking God’s law. The Westminster Shorter Catechism uses this verse as a definition of sin. Question 14 asks “What is sin?” The answer is: “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the Law of God.” Sin is anti-God and anti-Christ.
Now John would reason with us a bit here. He says in v5 You know that Christ came to take away our sins. Adam Clarke, commenting on this verse, says, “He came into the world to destroy the power, pardon the guilt, and cleanse from the pollution of sin.” That was the purpose of Christ. Furthermore, John adds in v5, Christ was not sinful. Christ had no sins. Therefore, v6 reads, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” John tends to tell us the same thing over and over, because he realizes that we probably don’t get it. He says that if we have a relationship with Jesus Christ, we strive to be like Christ in that we do not live in deliberate sin. This does not mean that Christian will never commit sin. We are all frail creatures, and sometimes we fall into sin. But what John is saying is that we will not live in sin. We will not have a sinful lifestyle. We will not commit the same sin over and over. John emphasizes that people who are committed to sin are not committed to Christ.
In v7, he puts the same thought positively saying, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”
Now John probably had in mind in these verses, the Gnostics, who were the great enemies of the church when this letter was written. The Gnostics said that the body is evil, the spirit is good. Whatever the body does is sinful, but if in my spirit I know Jesus, then I am saved. The body commits many sins, but when I die, I shed this body and go to heaven. So, I can pretty much do as I please on the earth. It does not matter what I do, this is only the evil body acting here, which I am eventually going to leave behind anyway.
John says this is total nonsense. He says we are what we do. There is no separation of body and soul, there is just us, and we are responsible for what we do. John emphasizes that righteous people do right. Good people do good. Our behavior shows what we are. We may say we are Christians. We may even think we are Christians. Our behavior demonstrates what we really are.
The Apostle Paul agrees with John. In Ephesians 5, Paul says: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light — for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (5:8-9).
Both Paul and John are saying to us that people who are loved behave differently than people who are not loved. We are loved. God loves us. We are called therefore to love. As a loved people, we have a different set of rules than our society and culture. Jesus told us about this new set of rules. Jesus taught us about proper manners, and proper manners have nothing to do with high tea at Newport. Jesus said, love God, and love your neighbor. That is the summation of the law (Matthew 22:37-40). That’s how we are called to live. To further explain, Jesus gave us the Golden rule, which is the basis for all civility. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). If you want people to be kind to you, be kind to them. If you don’t want to be cut off in traffic, don’t cut others off in traffic. If you want to be let into traffic, let others into traffic. If you want civil treatment at the grocery store, or at work, treat others with civility and respect.
We are the children of God; therefore, we should express God qualities. That’s what John is getting at here. There is no sin in God. There should be no sin in the children of God.
Or, put it this way: we reveal whose children we are by the way we behave. The children of the devil behave like the devil. John says, God’s children do not behave that way.
So how are you behaving? Does your personal behavior more closely resemble God or the devil? That is a question that we ask ourselves about all our thinking and talking and doing.
But you may ask, what if I am civil and well-mannered to them, and they are not civil to me? Don’t let it bother you. keep your cool, be civil anyway. Remember, God is not going to judge you by their behavior, but by your behavior.
Now I have poked a little fun at Emily Herzter and her tea parties, but her heart is in the right place. When some rude protesters outside the 2004 Republican convention in New York City confronted her, she wanted to hurl their bad language back in their faces. She did not. She held her tongue, kept her dignity, treated them, as she wanted them to treat her. Did they get the message? Probably not. But she behaved civilly even if they did not.
It’s not easy to respond to boorish behavior with good manners. But Children of God, those who understand that they are loved, should act in love and charity as befitting their station in life.
Remember who you are. You are a child of God. Act accordingly. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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